Critics often say that Palestinians should concentrate on state-building rather than fighting the occupation. But the prolonged closure of a Palestinian university is a reminder that Palestine can’t get on its feet when it’s under Israel’s boot.
It’s been 10 days since I’ve seen my students at the Palestinian university in the West Bank. A week and a half ago, I was in the middle of teaching one of my afternoon classes when a number of my male students got up to leave. “Sorry, Miss Mya,” one said. “But there’s a fight outside.”
It was the latest flare-up in a long-running family feud between two clans—one from Abu Dis, the other from a neighboring village. This round included stone-throwing and gunshots. It took place right outside the university gates.
According to the Oslo Accords, Abu Dis is in Area B, which means that it is under Israeli security and Palestinian administration. This also means that there are no police in Abu Dis. Thus, in situations like this, there is no one to restore order. This is a common problem in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, including those that are part of the Jerusalem municipality but are on the Palestinian side of the wall. While I was reporting in one such area recently, locals told me that whenever there is crime, the villagers—who pay taxes to Israel and hold Jerusalem residency—have to handle it by themselves.
Abu Dis is in a similar situation. Parts of the village are, technically, inside Jerusalem’s borders; the university is right next to the separation barrier. When the Israeli army heard about the violence, they came and fired tear gas at the crowd, thinking that the fight was about the occupation. The gas wafted into the building I teach in. When the soldiers realized that the feud was internal, they left.
For students’ and faculty safety, the university was shut down. Everyone went out the gates on the opposite side of campus, away from the fighting. For security reasons, the administration decided to keep the university closed until Saturday.
When I got word of the closure, I gave up on holding office hours on Wednesday as I had planned. I was disappointed—several of my students had made appointments because they needed help with their work. With the week prematurely over, I left Abu Dis and headed back to Jerusalem. On my way out, I saw Palestinian Authority police officers standing outside the university. They can only come into Area B when they get permission from the Israelis.
Order—if one can call it that—had been restored to Abu Dis. But for how long? And what might happen next time?
Saturday came and the quiet held. Classes, however, were still cancelled. The faculty was on strike because they hadn’t received their salaries. The past week has seen other Palestinian schools closed by strikes, as well.
This is an ongoing problem. Teachers’ wages come from the PA; part of the PA’s money comes from taxes collected by Israel. To punish the PA for the UN bid—which has produced no meaningful change on the ground, anyways—Israel has been holding Palestinian funds since November. Israel does this from time to time to keep the PA on an even shorter leash.
While Israel’s plans to release part of the funds was widely reported by both the local and international media in late January, that won’t be enough to keep the struggling PA afloat. And here it’s mid-March and, at the university in Abu Dis, wages remain unpaid. Campus remains closed.
The PA’s financial woes suggest that there are more tough times ahead for the Palestinian economy. According to the United Nations, “the real obstacle to growth is the Israeli occupation which… has almost eliminated marketing and investment opportunities and has constricted land and natural resources available for productive activities.”
As the strike grinds on, my students flood me with emails. Are we having class? When? Do I want their papers? Their anxiety and irritation fill my inbox.
A few have written just to say hi. One who had mentioned “Shaun the Sheep” in an in-class free write sent me a photo of the cartoon character. “Remember you asked what ‘Shaun the Sheep’ was? This is it,” she said. Just now another email popped up: Do we have class tomorrow? PS) I MISS YOU SO MUCH. I want this strike to end.
Last semester, my students told me that they find these strikes extremely frustrating. The strikes usually don’t accomplish much and the kids get behind in their work. And, like most people, my students seem to like stability. It is difficult to thrive—or feel comfortable, safe, and happy—in total chaos. And in the midst of the chaos of occupation, taking classes at the university provides much-needed structure.
Going to school also gives some of my students hope and a feeling of agency—feelings the occupation deprives them of. I think feeling like you have some degree of control over your own life is a human right, as is hope.