Palestinian University Education under Occupation
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 running.
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 citizenship.
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, etc.
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. 8
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 [854] could not be implemented; it was frozen in 1982, leaving a lot of damage in its wake.

Internal Matters

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 standards. 9
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 university.
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 institution.
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. 12-20.
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 letter.
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 1981.
9. See Anthony Thrall Sullivan, "Palestinian Universities under Occupation," Cairo Papers in Social Science, Vol II, Monograph 2, Summer 1988.
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.