Birzeit is a public university based just north of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The institution, which is the second-largest university in the West Bank and widely considered a prominent center of higher learning and political activity, has survived decades of closures, raids, and on-campus arrests by the Israeli military of students, faculty, and staff. Indeed, despite the IDF’s continuous, systematic disruption of Palestinian education, last year, for the first time, Birzeit was ranked as among the top 3% of universities globally.
As Palestine’s preeminent institution of higher-learning, Birzeit continues to struggle against Israeli efforts to stifle the advancement of higher education, and, with it, Palestinian civil society and socio-cultural development in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). On July 12, the university released a statement regarding faculty members with foreign passports who have been increasingly denied visas to enter and remain in the West Bank:
Since the beginning of the current academic year (2017-2018), scores of foreign passport holders, many of Palestinian origin but without residence documents, living and working in the occupied Palestinian territory have been denied entry in the country, or have had their visa renewal applications refused by the Israeli authorities. At Birzeit University alone, we have 15 foreign passport-holding faculty members whose requests for visa renewals have been refused or significantly delayed.
Academics in the oPt, who are foreign passport holders, must acquire a B2 visitor’s or multiple entry visa from Israeli authorities in order to enter, work, and travel within the West Bank. The visa can be periodically extended upon expiry, or renewed by exiting and re-entering the territory.
Over recent years, Israel has increasingly obstructed visa renewal and attainment for tens of thousands of foreign passport holders in the oPt through various arbitrary procedures and conditions. According to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Commission, the visa renewal rate has dropped from 70% in 2017 to just 10% so far this year. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Education, over the past two years, more than half of foreign passport-holding academics in the West Bank have faced difficulties obtaining or renewing their visas. Those negatively impacted include senior faculty, department chairs, students, and staff, many of whom have family in the region.
Hoping their documents will be renewed, academics are overstaying their visas while awaiting final word on their delayed applications. In the interim, many are staying close to their immediate areas of residence, fearing that, if they travel too far, they may encounter the IDF and be deported. Others, like Roger Heacock, a Professor of European history at Birzeit who has taught for thirty-five years in the West Bank, have already left on their own, preferring to leave rather than risk deportation and associated penalties for residing in the territory without status.
As emphasized in Birzeit’s public statement, these measures are all part of an Israeli assault on Palestinian academic freedom and educational rights, which extends to Jerusalem and Gaza. These travel restrictions impede learning and impact the overall quality of education. Palestinian students and faculty are being isolated by these pervasive measures, which include innumerable checkpoints throughout the oPt and affect one’s ability to travel and share research. It also makes it more difficult to recruit faculty to work in the oPt.
The recent upsurge in visa denials is impacting workers in sectors beyond education, including health and civil society. These measures are part of a much broader attack on Palestinian socio-cultural and institutional development in the oPt. In concert with these Israeli measures, the Trump administration has recently decided to suspend aid to the oPt is causing major project reductions and job losses for humanitarian and civil society groups dependent on American money in the oPt. The aid freeze comes on the heels of restrictions imposed by the Taylor Force Act, a bill passed and signed into law in March 2018 that halts U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority, with some exceptions.
Considering the overall context of these visa restrictions, they appear designed to weaken Palestinian social infrastructure, shrink the space for collective action, and destroy the basis for a Palestinian state, ultimately securing Israeli ascendency and paving the way for formal annexation of large parts of the West Bank.