Before June 5, 1967, no universities existed in the West Bank and
the Gaza Strip. Palestinian high school graduates, however, enjoyed
easy and free access to university education in the Arab world.
West Bank students, as Jordanian citizens, had direct access to the
University of Jordan 1 and almost unrestricted admission to all
universities in the Arab world - mainly Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and
Syria. Students in the Gaza Strip, which was under Egyptian
administration, had complete access to Egyptian universities.
The Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip changed this
situation. For one thing, access to Arab universities for
Palestinian stu¬dents became increasingly difficult, due to
the stiff Israeli measures imposed on border crossing (permits, a
mandatory nine-month stay abroad, harassment on reentry). Secondly,
admission to Arab universities became gradually limited for
Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
Thirdly, the economic situation, both in the OPT and in the Arab
countries, was not favorable.
Such circumstances, coupled with a heightened Palestinian national
awareness, thrust Palestinian university education on top of the
agenda.2 Private initiative, in most cases with the tacit
coordination or approval of the PLO, started the ball
It was only natural to build on already existing structures, i.e.,
schools and colleges. Bir Zeit University, which had been the only
junior college on the West Bank, 3 took the initiative. In the fall
of 1972, it extended its two-year program into a four-year one in
arts and sciences, leading to the B.A. and B.5e. degrees. Bethlehem
University followed in 1973 by expand¬ing the Christian
Brothers school campus, which had to relocate. An-Najah National
University was founded in 1977, Gaza Islamic University in 1978 and
Hebron University in 1982.4 AI-Quds University started with four
independent colleges: the Sharia College in Beit Hanina, 1978; the
College of Nursing (later College of Medical Professions) in
El-Bireh, 1979; the College of Science and Technology in Abu Dis,
1979; and the College of Arts for Women in Jerusalem, 1982.
AI-Azhar University was installed in Gaza in 1992 on the same
campus as the Islamic University and took, from the latter, part of
the faculty and staff. 5 Al-Quds Open University was the only one
set up by the PLO Higher Council for Education, Science and
Culture. UNESCO carried out the feasibility study in 1980, but the
Open University did not become operational until 1985 in Amman.
Later in 1992, a main office was opened in Jerusalem with branches
in all major districts in the West Bank and Gaza. With the
transfer, in 1994, of the Education authority to the Palestinian
National Authority (PNA), the Open University officially moved its
headquarters from Amman to Jerusalem.
The Council for Higher Education
The Council for Higher Education was established in 1977 as the
need grew for coordination among the institutions of higher
learning, and for the provision of support and guidance in
planning. Initially, the council consisted of a general assembly of
40-50 members. These consisted of rep¬resentatives from the
universities (boards of trustees, administration and elected
faculty); representatives from West Bank and Gaza professional
associations and the elected mayors of the major cities in the OPT.
One year after its institution, the council was adopted by the PLO
Higher Education Council and accepted as the body representing
higher educa¬tion in the OPT. A new constitution was drawn up
in 1990 extending the council's responsibilities to also cover
primary and secondary education in the non-governmental sector. The
fact that the council was the channel for major running-cost
funding from the PLO or Arab governments, gave it the necessary
clout to impose its policies and guidelines on universities.
Problems Faced by the Universities
Throughout the period of development of the universities, the
Israeli mil¬itary authorities were not innocent bystanders.
From the outset, they did not welcome the establishment of these
institutions and placed hurdles at every point of their
development. First, it was the licensing. All colleges were issued
with a temporary license which needed annual renewal. In addition,
the creation of a new faculty also needed approval, which was
sometimes denied, as in the case of the Faculty of Agriculture at
An-Najah University. Bir Zeit, in this connection, chose not to ask
for approval and went ahead by establishing facts on the ground.
This, however, was not always possible, especially when it came to
building permits and zoning. After a protracted fight which had
reached the Supreme Court, Bir Zeit won a zoning permit for a
300-dunum campus. An-Najah had to cramp its buildings within a
30-dunum plot. Eventually, all universities followed Bir Zeit's
example and stopped asking for license renewals and considered the
ones they had as permanent. 6
In addition, the military authorities took certain illegal measures
as withholding tax exemption on construction, building material,
laboratory equipment and books. Universities were forced to pay
custom duties, V AT and even a luxury tax on such material as
kitchen equipment, as was West Bank, exempted educational
institutions from taxes on building material, both local or
imported. The conservative figure of six million dol¬lars
extorted from them in taxes on these items, constitutes a major
breach of international law and UNESCO directives exempting books
for educa¬tional purposes from any kind of taxation.
More sinister measures were imposed under the general heading of
"Security Reasons." These included the censorship of books and
periodi¬cals,7 and the withholding of work permits for
international faculty ¬including Palestinians with Jordanian
Undoubtedly, the most cruel measure taken against the university
community was the closure of universities, by military order, for
long periods of time. This action deprived the students from
engaging in their productive life by delaying their graduation. By
the same token, it deprived faculty members from using libraries
and laboratories for research, and placed an added financial burden
on the already strained university budgets. Indirectly, the closure
affected thousands of families whose livelihood depended on the
provision of services to students' ¬food, lodging, transport,
Closures varied in length and nature. Those of one week or less
were common, but not considered "serious" as the work could be made
up. However, from 1979, the closures usually lasted for a minimum
of two months. With time, three- to four-month closures became the
norm. The worst case was the extended closure of all universities
in January 8, 1988, for periods ranging from 33 to 51 months. What
made this closure more dramatic was the fact that it was not
imposed as response to any student activity, such as a
demonstration or a book fair or Palestine Week. According to the
military government, it was a preemptive measure lest students were
harboring thoughts of throwing stones in the future! The closures
were continuously renewed at the expiration of each period, an
illegal practice even according to Israeli law.
Closures of a different nature were the checkpoints set up on the
way to the universities. The purpose was essentially to delay,
prevent or even scare off students from reaching their classes,
resulting in the disruption of studies for that day. This occurred
frequently enough during a semes¬ter and would amount to a
total loss of two or three teaching weeks.
The result was that students rarely completed their studies within
the regular four-year period required for graduation. The average
was five years or more if a student was arrested longer than two
months. This delay in graduation was not only frustrating to a
young person, eager to embark on his/her career, it was also the
cause of severe economic hardship. For a majority of students, it
was vital to become self-supporting or to share in supporting the
family, instead of remaining a financial burden.
Naturally, the universities did react in face of the closures, and
in most cases tried to minimize the harm done with off-campus
teaching. Such a procedure entailed many logistical problems of
scheduling, of using schools and laboratories in the area and of
transporting students living outside a given area.
However, during the long closure of 1988, off-campus teaching
acquired great importance, and innovative ways were devised to
carry it out. At first, the method targeted senior students who
needed six credits or less toward graduation. Gradually, junior
students joined, but always in small groups of five to ten, in
faculty and students' homes, mosques and churches. The closure was
challenged (at first by Bir Zeit University)) on the ground that it
referred to on-campus and not off-campus teaching. The military
government did not respond to the challenge, and by the end of the
second year, virtual regular classes were held off-campus.
Reference books and periodicals were smuggled out of libraries, and
even some pieces of equipment were set up outside campuses for
special groups. Admittedly, most laboratory courses in sciences and
engineering suffered, as it was not possible to spirit out all
laboratory equipment and to set them up somewhere else. The
universities could not admit new high school graduates until the
third or fourth year of the closure. Not only were there
insufficient facilities and staff to handle new students, these
Intifada school graduates needed a lot of remedial work to prepare
them for uni¬versity study. Besides, the Tawjihi had ceased to
be the sole basis for admission to university. Rampant cheating and
the inability to complete the required syllabus were among the
major issues invalidating the exam.
Military Order 854
This perhaps is one of the more bizarre military orders. It was
issued in 1980 and modified the Jordanian Education Law No. 16 of
1964, pertain¬ing to educational institutions requiring less
than four years. The order simply struck off the last [italicized]
phrase, extending the law's mandate to universities as well. This
meant, among other things, subordinating the universities to the
same regulations that applied to the primary and secondary schools.
The most critical areas were student admission, facul¬ty
recruitment, curricula, and textbook control and supervision.
Here again, the universities were solidly behind the Council for
Higher Education in resisting the order. When the international
faculty refused to sign the so-called "Loyalty Oath" as requisite
for obtaining work permits from the Israeli authorities, many were
deported. In fact, this whole debate attracted wide international
attention. Finally, it became apparent to the military authorities
that the order  could not be implemented; it was frozen in
1982, leaving a lot of damage in its wake.
In spite of the problems caused by the Israeli military
authorities, the uni¬versities continued to manifest the
"normal" aspects of development. They had their share of student
unrest and strikes against university administrations for the usual
reasons: student fees, better facilities, stu¬dent council
rules and regulations and curricular changes. The universities also
faced many difficult moments when funds became scarce and they
could not pay faculty and staff on time. Unionization of the staff
and fac¬ulty led to further points of conflict that hampered
the development of the universities. But at the same time, it is
fair to say that the universities became the natural microcosm
where faculty, staff and students were able to practice democracy
and freedom of speech.
Palestinian universities developed under abnormal circumstances. It
is remarkable that they grew quantitatively and qualitatively, even
under such adverse conditions. Indeed, the three older ones [Bir
Zeit, Bethlehem and An-Najah] compare favorably with international
In 20 years, the student population grew from a few hundred, in
1972, to over 20,000 in 1992. Faculty members with master's and
doctorate degrees increased from 20 to 900 during the same period.
10 The universi¬ties grew in number and spread over the
geographic areas of Palestine. Now they cover almost all fields of
specialization at the undergraduate level, and limited areas at the
graduate one. Except for Al-Quds Open University, all the
universities are governed by autonomous boards of trustees. Almost
all their building program was carried out through pri¬vate
initiative, with the major source of support from Palestinian and
other donors from the Arab world. Running costs were met, by and
large, from grants from the PLO and, recently, from the Economic
Union, at the rec¬ommendation of the PNA. The greatest
achievement of the universities, however, lies in their reversing
the brain drain. They have succeeded in keeping a well-qualified
faculty in Palestine, and in producing young graduates who stayed
in the country, thus minimizing youth emigration.
1. The University of Jordan was established in Amman in 1963 on the
recom¬mendation of the Royal Commission on Education. It is
noteworthy that the chair¬person of the Commission, Musa
Nasser, submitted a minority report in which he recommended the
establishment of the university in Jerusalem rather than Amman.
This recommendation was not followed.
2. Community colleges undertaking teacher training and vocational
technical training existed since 1951 and belonged to the
government, UNRWA and the pri¬vate sector. They all had
terminal programs leading to a diploma, but little trans¬fer
credit was given to students wishing to transfer to
3. The Jordanian government did not allow the establishment, on the
West Bank, of private universities until the late 1980s. Bir Zeit,
as a two-year college, met with great resistance from the Jordanian
Ministry of Education, simply because the 1955 and 1964 Jordanian
education laws made no provision for this type of
4. Hebron University started as a Sharia College with Israeli
government backing. Later, it established a board of trustees and
severed all relations with the Israeli gov¬ernment. For more
details, see Gabi Baramki, "Building Palestinian Universities under
Occupation," Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1987, pp.
5. The wisdom of this split is still quite controversial.
Unquestioningly, it was a great academic setback. Meager facilities
had to be distributed over the two uni¬versities, each
becoming more congested and less endowed.
6. Bir Zeit University wrote to the military commander of the West
Bank in 1976 that, after completing its four years of development,
and with an ongoing building program (approved by the military
government) it considered itself a full-fledged university. It
therefore deemed the license given it as permanent, unless it heard
otherwise from him. No response was ever received to that
7. The UNESCO missions in 1978, 1980, 1987 and 1989, investigating
Israeli prac¬tices in the OPT in the educational field, called
repeatedly upon Israel to allow periodicals from the Arab world to
enter the OPT. Such permits were denied, even when lists submitted
to the authorities were limited to periodicals available at the
Hebrew University library.
8. Many papers, monographs and reports were written about Order
854. For a good analysis, see Ruth Gevison et aI., "Report on the
Conditions of Universities in the Occupied Territories," Spring
9. See Anthony Thrall Sullivan, "Palestinian Universities under
Occupation," Cairo Papers in Social Science, Vol II, Monograph 2,
10. The student population for 1995/96 is 36,000 and the number of
faculty mem¬bers with M.A. and Ph.D. degrees is 745 and 761
respectively. For complete statis¬tical information on the
universities, see the Council for Higher Education Statistical
Yearbooks, P.O.Box 17360, Jerusalem.