In early January the Israeli government announced that it would begin a process of closing universities in the West Bank and Gaza, alleging that they were breeding grounds for terrorists and suicide bombers. The action is among the latest taken by Israel in an escalation of conflict that is largely overshadowed by the threat of war in Iraq.
There are 12 universities, colleges and technical schools in the region, plus another 10 research centers that are either independent or affiliates with the universities. In addition to two universities in Palestinian East Jerusalem, there are universities and colleges in Bethlehem, Gaza, Hebron, Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. The two schools in Bethlehem are under Christian sponsorship, Bethlehem University, run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, and Bethlehem Bible College, an interdenominational Christian institution.
On Jan. 15, Israeli Defense Forces entered Hebron University and Hebron Polytechnic Institute, confiscated computers and closed down both universities. While an initial statement said the schools would be shut down for 14 days, an Israeli spokesman later said the closure could be extended for 14 months or "indefinitely." Both universities are located in the sector of Hebron known as H1, which according to international agreements is ostensibly under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, not Israel.
The Hebron closings, as well as continuing harassment of Bethlehem University, the only Catholic university in Palestine, prompted an outcry from leaders of the international academic community.
When the intent to close the universities was announced, David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, sent the Israeli government a letter protesting the planned action. "Closing the recognized institutions of higher education of the Palestinian Authority will only complicate the efforts to find a solution to the long-standing problems of the Middle East," he wrote.
On Jan. 25, members of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, sent a letter of concern to William Burns, President Bush's assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. The letter, signed by the presidents of eight U.S. universities sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, as well as members of Executives in Church-Related Higher Education, included a letter from Br. Vincent Malham, president of Bethlehem University. The letter from Malham, an American, chronicled the effects of Israeli closure, curfews and harassment on the university's faculty and staff (NCR, Dec. 20 and Jan. 10).
Malham wrote: "The punitive actions which the Israeli army continues to impose on innocent Palestinians, ... the devastating effects this continuing inhumane treatment is having, are taking a terrible toll.... Malnutrition among children is growing worse; a legitimate right to education of thousands of young people is being dramatically compromised. Thousands of hours of time are wasted each day--on those rare days when movement is permitted--waiting to get through checkpoints....
"We at Bethlehem University plead for the right to continue educating young Palestinians and the right of our neighbors ... to be able to live, to move, to breathe free air, to work and to educate their children. Can anyone do anything to change this systematic strangulation? End the occupation!"
In an interview with NCR, Michael James, assistant executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that member institutions have continually voiced concern for the past several years over the increasing restrictions on education in Palestine.
In March 2002, 11 leading educators and administrators who belong to Executives in Church-Related Higher Education sent a similar letter to David Ivry, Israeli ambassador to the United States, protesting the dire …