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Global Palestinian 'Right to Education Week' kicks off at Birzeit

Nov. 12, 2013 11:35 A.M. (Updated: June 20, 2015 4:58 P.M.)
By: Alex Shams
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- A week of events focusing on the Palestinian Right to Education kicked off Monday afternoon at Birzeit University as part of a global campaign in solidarity with Palestinian students.

Right to Education Week at Birzeit University commenced Monday with a workshop on the education of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli occupation jails.

Events will be held on campus throughout the week highlighting the obstacles faced by Palestinians under occupation in their pursuit of education.

Sundos Hammad, coordinator of the campaign at Birzeit, stressed the importance of education for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

"Education is our tool to resist occupation. It is important to keep our Palestinian heritage and to resist the narrative of the occupier," she told Ma'an.

The week of events at Birzeit University is part of a global movement supporting the Palestinian Right to Education. Events will take place on at least 25 campuses in the UK, USA, Norway, Netherlands, South Africa, Canada, and Ireland.

As part of the week, Birzeit University students will participate in events that help students abroad see the obstacles Palestinian students face under occupation, including video conferences.

There will also be numerous events, discussions, and workshops at Birzeit University oriented towards educating students about obstacles faced elsewhere in Palestine.

'The more you are aware, the more you can resist'

The Right to Education movement has been in the works since the First Intifada in 1988-93, when the Palestinian people rose up en masse against Israeli occupation.

Israeli authorities frequently closed Palestinian universities, schools, and even kindergartens by military mandate during this time, denying Palestinian students the right to an education amidst wide-ranging restrictions on freedoms of assembly and movement.

Right to Education week officially began during the Second Intifada, as restrictions on Palestinian students' ability to receive an education dramatically increased again.

Israeli forces erected a checkpoint directly in front of Birzeit University, cutting the campus off from students in Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank. Schools across the West Bank were subject to frequent closures and attacks by Israeli forces, while many others were taken over and converted into Israeli military bases.

Birzeit University students subsequently reached out to the international community for support against the Israeli occupation.

"Initially, Right to Education Week was only on the international level," explained Hammad, who has been an active organizer in the campaign for more than two years.

"The campaign started during the Intifada, when every Palestinian was living under occupation and was always aware of the violations taking place," she told Ma'an.

"We wanted the international community to be in solidarity with our cause."

However, in the last five years, as Israeli troops have withdrawn from West Bank city centers, campaign organizers realized the need for the campaign to have a local dimension to help educate the public about ongoing violations of the right to education.

"Now, there are violations that are not visible. Occupying the minds of Palestinians, changing the history of Palestine in textbooks, giving the narrative of the occupier- there systematic violations changing how we think about Palestine."

"Students are shocked when they begin to realize" how pervasive the mental occupation is, Hammad explained.

"They are living the situation, but they don't feel directly occupied, especially in Ramallah and Birzeit. It's not like when the checkpoint was in front of the university in the Second Intifada," she added.

"It is important to raise awareness on the local level because people are tending to live normal lives because the occupation has become a part of our lives. But they have to resist these violations."

"The more you are aware, the more you can resist."

Breaking the 'Siege of the Mind'

The theme of the Right to Education campaign this year is "Mental Occupation" and breaking the "Siege of the Mind," focusing on Israel's violations of Palestinians' right to an education and identity that take place on a psychological level through the "normalization of occupation."

"The occupation doesn’t only apply to land, the apartheid wall, and the checkpoints- it's about why these violations exist in the first place," Hammad told Ma'an.

Hammad stressed that the mental occupation was taking increasingly insidious forms, for example through the influence of conditional foreign donor funding in changing Palestinian textbooks and "normalizing occupation."

"The Palestinian Authority teaches us that Palestine is Gaza and the West Bank in the textbooks they make. This legitimizes occupation [of Palestinian lands inside Israel]."

"In history books, they say that the Nakba was a 'war' between Israel and 'Arabs.' They don't even say 'Palestinians.' They describe it as a war where there was a 50-50 chance," she said, referring to the 1948 ethnic cleansing of 7-800,000 Palestinians from their homes inside what became the State of Israel.

"These books are written under foreign aid and supervision. They want to get rid of 'anti-Israeli bias' because they say we are now in a time of 'peace,' and they make foreign aid conditional on this language," she said, pointing out how strange it is that ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands is considered "peace."

"This will generate a generation of students who don't know their own history."

Right to Education Week, however, seeks to oppose this normalization by the spreading of a critical consciousness among Palestinians of how the Israeli occupation continues to deny Palestinians the right to education, identity, and their own narrative.

"Our job is to document violations, resist, and raise awareness," Hammad told Ma'an.

And while foreign aid is a crucial part of the problem, international solidarity as a part of the global Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement is an important part of the solution as well.

"We must put pressure on the occupation by convincing students and universities to boycott Israel in all ways we can, especially through the academic and economic boycott."

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