Concrete Conditions

Tom Sperlinger

‘As time went by the military government became increasingly obsessed with our reading lists,’ Gabi Baramki writes in Peaceful Resistance (2010), his account of the founding of Birzeit University in the early 1970s. ‘Books we ordered from abroad were often permanently confiscated without us even setting our eyes on them.’ Texts on archaeology, history and Arabic literature were all banned.

Restrictions on what, and who, is allowed into the West Bank aren’t new. But it’s getting harder for foreign academics to teach at universities in Palestine, according to the legal rights groups Adalah and Al-Haq. Haneen Adi is a US citizen and English literature teacher at Birzeit. In November 2017, the Israeli authorities wouldn’t renew her visa. She has not left the West Bank since. She has missed her sister’s wedding and the death of a relative. Her father was denied entry when he tried to visit her.

The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music reports that in the 2017-18 academic year, four of twenty international faculty were denied visa extensions or entry. In 2018-19, it was eight of nineteen. Many of those affected are of Palestinian descent, but are citizens of the US or of a European Union country.

The restrictions on entry to the Palestinian territories are particular and have a long history, but Israel isn’t the only country to deny entry to visiting academics. In June, the UK Home Office was accused of instituting arbitrary and ‘deeply insulting’ visa refusals, especially for applicants from Africa. They are twice as likely to be refused a visa to enter the UK as academics from other parts of the world. After Brexit, the proposed ‘skills-based’ immigration plan means academics from the EU will face the same restrictions as those from further afield, including significant charges, an English-language test and a minimum salary of £30,000 per year.

There are deeper challenges for Palestinian educators, across all sectors. According to a recent report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, more than a thousand educational facilities in the West Bank and Gaza were attacked or used for military purposes between 2013 and 2017, and two thousand Palestinian students and schoolchildren were injured, killed, detained, arrested or harmed.

The occupation also operates in more mundane ways. When I taught English literature at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis in 2013, one of my colleagues, Ahmed (not his real name), took me to visit his family in Ni’lin. The town has lost a third of its land to the Wall. Ahmed, who lives in Ramallah, would like to move back to Ni’lin but Palestinians are not allowed to use the roads that run directly from there to Abu Dis, which are for Israeli settlers only.

The literature programme at Al-Quds is chronically short-staffed, because of a lack of opportunities for postgraduate study in the West Bank or to travel abroad for further study. Ahmed and his students have to navigate frequent road blocks and checkpoints on the way to class. In the semester I was there, Israeli military incursions and tear gas on campus often disrupted seminars and exams.

The occupation is not a single event. But to say it is ‘structural’ might imply that it’s possible to navigate its architecture. When I was teaching at Al-Quds, the advice I was given on how to obtain a visa was vague. There is no clear system by which academics are permitted or denied entry. The uncertainty is designed to be discouraging.

There are calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The European Network for Mental Health Evaluation (ENMESH) recently withdrew plans to hold its 2021 conference in Jerusalem, citing ‘concerns about the chosen venue’. Not all Palestinian academics agree with the approach: Sari Nusseibeh, the former president of Al-Quds, has long been opposed to an academic boycott.

There is agreement on the scale of the problems, however. Nelson Mandela dismissed the idea that a boycott is a matter of principle. He called it a ‘tactical weapon whose application should be related to the concrete conditions prevailing at the given time’. Palestinian civil society overwhelmingly supports the wider boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement; a survey in 2015 suggested public support is as high as 86 per cent. It’s evidence of how much further the prevailing conditions have deteriorated in the West Bank and, especially, in Gaza, since the events Baramki describes in his memoir.

I used to have lively debates with my students at Al-Quds, a few of whom regularly came to class without having done the required reading. We discussed Daniel Pennac’s ‘reader’s bill of rights’, with its emphasis on the right not to read, and on readers’ privacy. I gradually realised that my non-reading students were not apathetic, but were unable to pursue their education freely, even when books were to hand. One of the most vocal students – a reluctant reader – said: ‘The first thing I need is the right not to be arrested for what I read, or for what I do with what I read.’


  • 7 August 2019 at 4:50am
    Fred Skolnik says:
    Here is the West Bank university problem in a nutshell (from the Times of Israel):

    According to the Shin Bet, on June 29, 2019, security forces arrested 22-year old student who was recruited to build explosive devices for use by Hamas operatives. He enlisted the help of other students who were tasked with procurement of the needed ingredients to make bombs.

    The Shin Bet security service on Tuesday said it thwarted plans by Hamas members from Hebron to conduct a bombing attack in Jerusalem earlier this summer, retrieving the three-kilogram (6.6 pounds) explosive device they intended to use.

    The Shin Bet said the cell, along with others arrested by Israeli forces in recent months, had been directed to carry out attacks against Israeli and Palestinian Authority targets by Hamas’s military wing in the Gaza Strip.

    “The operatives in the West Bank were instructed to form cells in order to carry out kidnappings, shootings and stabbings, purchase weaponry, and find and recruit additional operatives for terrorist activities,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.

    A member of the cell planning the Jerusalem bombing, university student Tamer Rajah Rajbi, was arrested in Hebron in June, leading to additional arrests of other Hamas operatives, including other students, the security service said.

    Rajbi studied at Hebron’s Palestine Polytechnic University and was an active member in the Hamas-affiliaited al-Kutla al-Islamiya student group, the Shin Bet said.


    As long as the Hamas-directed terrorism and agitation emanating from West Bank schools continues, Israel and not your writer will determine how to stop it. As long as Hamas uses children as shields and launches attacks from residential neighborhoods in Gaza, Palestinian children are going to get hurt.

    • 8 August 2019 at 2:34pm
      Reader says: @ Fred Skolnik
      This justifies security checks, but I'm not sure I see why it should stop books being sent through, if checked first?

    • 8 August 2019 at 4:58pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Reader
      I have no idea what these books contained and neither apparently does the writer as he is is referring at second hand to what is alleged to have occurred in the 1970s. As I said, as long as the terrorism continues, Israel and not this writer will decide how to stop it. For your information, in the late '60s and early '70s, until the terrorism became intolerable, the borders were open, tens of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel, and Israel's extension services were helping the Palestinians modernize their agriculture. They could have had a state at any time in this period, and still can.

  • 7 August 2019 at 10:04am
    Joe Morison says:
    “I used to have lively debates with my students at Al-Quds, a few of whom regularly came to class without have done the required reading. ”

    Shurely shome mishtake

    • 8 August 2019 at 8:30pm
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @ Joe Morison
      Yes. Now corrected.

  • 7 August 2019 at 3:21pm
    Martin Davis says:
    Well Fred, that is clear enough. The natives are restless. Since their opposition activities are illegitimate it is appropriate to suppress both the incidence of illegal activity, but also the potential triggers and conditions which might give rise to such activities. Such as, in this case, education, especially the technical sort. But this can hardly be the final solution, as suppression without elimination will simply give rise to further illegal activities further down the line. Dilemmas, eh?

  • 11 August 2019 at 12:48pm
    Reader says:
    So, how does any of this (assuming that you and the Times of Israel are correct) justify the harassment of students reported by the writer of this piece? But this is all a minor detail, compared with the real issue. What is the Israeli strategy for dealing, in the long term, with the West Bank? The two state solution is clearly dead, but the alternative - a combined state including all the West Bank - would raise the question, what to do with the Palestinians? Give them citizenship, and the demographic balance in the new greater Israel is upset. Don't give them citizenship, and then you have to solve the problem of dealing with, effectively, an apartheid system. I have seen no clear discussion of what Israel intends, anywhere, though hints of various ideas, never officially endorsed. So have you any idea? Or is Netanyahu making it up as he goes along?

    • 11 August 2019 at 4:09pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Reader
      The parameters of a two-state solution are understood by everyone, including the rational part of the Arab/Palestinian population, the moderate part of the Likud and most Israelis. Netanyahu has stated his commitment to it but as time goes by and the Palestinians persist in their refusal to negotiate (Abu Mazan because he lacks the support and determination and Hamas because it wants everything) there will be less and less will on Israel's part to pursue it. In that case, Israel may act unilaterally and annex around 5% of the West Bank containing up to 75% of the settlements (without the land swap that it has offered), or extend Israeli sovereignty to just the settlements. It's up to the Palestinians. They don't even have the sense to test Netanyahu.

    • 12 August 2019 at 12:04pm
      Reader says: @ Fred Skolnik
      "It's up to the Palestinians". I don't believe it, given that the Israelis are overwhelmingly the stronger side here. It's up to the Israelis: they will decide on the eventual solution, influenced to minimal extent by Palestinian reaction, sure, but not much. Israeli domestic politics is determined by the necessity of forming coalitions, which will include parties that want full annexation and the formation of Eretz Israel, to include the West Bank.

      But this just raises another question: if the West Bank Palestinians continue on their present course, which is essentially to do nothing, what is the Israeli vision for the long term? (You raise the spectre of Hamas, but they are relevant only to what happens in Gaza). And what will Israel do about the parts of the West Bank that they don't annexe? This remaining area will be divided up into smaller, disconnected units by the settlements and their connecting roads.

      Moreover, the Israelis have said that they will remain in control of the Jordan valley, for strategic/defence reasons. Even now, if you look at a map of Palestinian controlled areas it is more like a measles rash than a continuous area. As a state, it will not be viable. And for Israel, it will be far from ideal too. The nationalists want to annexe what they call Judea and Samaria, and the Palestinians will hardly be happy with this half way house solution either.

      Saying "it's all down to Abu Mazin" is just a way of avoiding giving an answer. And one has to ask, why such reluctance to do this? Either because the Israelis really don't have a clue how to resolve the problem - which is worrying enough - or because resolving it would involve some kind of ethnic cleansing - which is more worrying.

    • 12 August 2019 at 2:48pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Reader
      It's up to the Palestinians means that they have to return to the negotiating table if they want a state, which is the long-term solution. If you were familiar with the West Bank other than from maps you would undestand that whatever the configurations are, a West Bank state would be viable in geographic terms. Drive around in it for a few hours before you decide what it will look like. In any case, the land swap would involve the settlement blocs, not isolated settlements. Hamas is of course relevant in the West Bank. It would gain control of it in five minutes if Israel did not continue to be responsible for security even after a settlement, or at least until Hamas was dissolved as a terrorist organization. Extreme elements in Israel certainly wish to annex the West Bank. If you feel that you are sufficiently informed about Israeli society to evaluate their chances of succeeding, go right ahead. My understanding of Israeli society tells me that this will never happen. If the Palestinians continue to do nothing as you speculate, what may occur is what I noted at the end of my previous reply.

  • 13 August 2019 at 4:05pm
    Reader says:
    Call me ultra-sensitive, but do I detect a defensive note creeping in to your last reply? There is really no need for it, because I am not out to attack the Israeli government, but simply to discover its attitude on a key issue. Let us agree that a two state solution is on the table and that the Abu Mazin administration has not accepted it. It is a strong possibility, surely, that they will never accept it. Being rational people, the Israeli analysts will have been doing scenario planning based on this outcome. My question is a simple one: what is this plan? Given that the balance of power is overwhelmingly in Israel’s favour, the government is capable of imposing such a plan unilaterally if needs be, so we can forget what the Palestians might or might not do in that eventuality. But my question remains, what is the plan? I have seen no authoritative statement on this from the Israeli side. It seems that you do not know yourself. But then one has to ask, if even a person so well informed about Israeli affairs as you is in ignorance, then why is the Israeli government being so secretive about it?

    All you have said in your replies is basically “they may do this, and they may do that”. I find this a very disturbing answer. Has there been no public debate on this in the Knesset? Has Likud not included a plan in its manifesto? Has Netanyahu not made clear in a broadcast or a speech, what will happen if the Palestinians don’t accept the offer? The implication of your reply is that none of these things have happened, otherwise you would have given more details. But this means that this vital strategic issue has not been subject to the test of public opinion, and if so, what price Israeli democracy?

    Anyway, thank you for at least confirming what I already suspected, and feared. I am depressed, but also better informed.

    • 13 August 2019 at 5:35pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Reader
      You seem to be playing games. Of course I have replied to all your points. You are pretending that I haven't.

      Abu Mazen does accept the two-state solution. He has stated this publicly. The issue is negotiating it. He refuses to do so for reasons that I'm sure you're aware of.

      In such negotiations Israel will advance positions. That is "the plan." What these positions are, are common knowledge. They are not talked to death in public because they are not on the table, There is no table, and in any case, when real negotiations take place, they are bound to be sensitive, as were the negotiations leading up to the Oslo Accords or Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, which were held in secret, so the less they are talked about, the better. If negotiations ever begin, the Government will no doubt review its positions, journalists will speculate about them, and a supreme effort will be made to conduct the negotiations out of the limelight in order not to provoke undue agitation among various interested parties. That is how diplomacy works. Negotiations between countries on sensitive issues are not conducted in public to entertain people like yourself. What is certainly debated in the Knesset and in public are the principles, not the specifics.

      If there are no negotiations, or they fail, Israel will review its options and act accordingly. I have suggested two such options. An intelligent twelve-year-old child can work out what these options are but apparently you can't. Until they are actual, there is also no point in getting into specifics, for obvious reasons. Please don't play the fool and ask me whether Israel has announced how and when it will act under a variety of given or possible circumstances.

    • 14 August 2019 at 1:12am
      David Ascher says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Avigdor Lieberman. The East Bank of the Jordan River is now openly discussed as part of "Eretz Israel". Israel has annexed bits and pieces of the West Bank, ending the fiction that the settlements there were not "authorized" by the government. Israel has annexed the Golan Heights. Not Occupied. Annexed. Israel seems to have decided that it's time to act with Trump in the White House and no friends left to lose. But it's all the fault of the Palestinians because they won't just emigrate someplace else... which they cannot do without the permission of the Israeli State which won't grant that either.

    • 14 August 2019 at 1:11pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ David Ascher
      Not quite. The only part of the West Bank that Israel has annexed is East Jerusalem. There are no bits and pieces. The only settlements on the West Bank that were not authorized by one government or another are the the so-called "maozim," the hilltop settlements generally consisting of a few caravans. There is no fiction that the others were not authorized. At least get the simple facts right.

      All right-wing extremists in Israel have always talked about the East Bank of the Jordan River as part of Eretz Israel and some of them would certainly like to see all the Arabs there emigrate. The question is whether this will happen and as I said above, "If you feel that you are sufficiently informed about Israeli society to evaluate their chances [the extremists] of succeeding, go right ahead. My understanding of Israeli society tells me that this will never happen." Lieberman by the way is the one who proposed transferring Wadi Ara to the Palestinians in a land trade, which would be a big bonus for them, though of course Israeli Arabs would refuse to live under Palestinian sovereignty, as polls have overwhelmingly and not surprisingly shown.

    • 14 August 2019 at 2:02pm
      David Ascher says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Fred is playing word games. Much of the West Bank is clearly under Israeli military control and off limits to Palestinians for "security purposes" and has been so for years. During the last election campaign Netenyahu promised to 'extend Israeli sovereignty' over the West Bank. After the election he "clarified" that he'd said "extend sovereignty" not "annex" - and that he would further clarify the difference after he had done it. In fact, there is no real difference except in propaganda terms. Israel at this point is looking for some kind of arrangement where the Palestinians in the West Bank would not be entitled to be citizens of Israel but would be living in "Israel". That's another baby step toward making the existence of the Palestinians effectively illegal - the goal of the Israeli "right-wing", which Netenyahu depends upon to stay in power - and which reflects the most aggressive form of Israeli irredentism that Netenyahu's father instilled in his children.

      Lieberman may have toned down his rhetoric over the past few years to appear more acceptable to the internation community especially during the time he held important cabinet posts and was the Deputy Prime Minister- especially to the American Jewish community - and no longer refers to Palestinians as cockroaches in his speeches. It is unlikely that his core beliefs have changed. He resigned the post of Deputy Prime Minister because of a ceasefire in Gaza which he characterized as "surrendering to terror."

      Clearly, the right wing in Israel will never get its dream of an Israel from the East Bank of the Jordan River to the Sea because Fred doesn't think it will happen. Trump and Jared will probably come out in favor of this after Jared's nutty "peace plan" gets rejected.

    • 14 August 2019 at 2:40pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ David Ascher
      They're your words, not mine, so don't try so hard to save face.

      Netanyahu also said, on NBC, “I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.” So what? Your analysis of Israel's thinking and intentions doesn't really have any meaning or value. I hope you realize that. You might as well be talking about China.

  • 15 August 2019 at 1:03pm
    Reader says:
    I am playing no games, simply trying to find out the truth, which is proving difficult in your case. You say that the Israeli position is common knowledge, and at the same time, is sensitive. The contradictions in your reply suggests that you are not really interested in the truth. Instead you seem to be following a propaganda line: blame the Palestinians for everything, and show hostility as soon as this position is questioned. I can only conclude that you are not interested in an honest debate.

    By the way, to respond to a previous point, I am familiar with the West Bank from multiple visits, and so I well know that a Palestinian state on the present basis is unviable. I suggest that my knowledge here is probably greater than yours, unless you have attempted to travel from end to end of the West Bank as the Palestinians do, on the roads they are allowed to use, as I have done. If you have gone around on the special settler roads, you will have had a misleading impression of the ease of travel. These roads give an excellent network both within the West Bank and with Israel proper.

    If I have to draw a conclusion from your response, which I take to reflect the Israeli government's official position, I think that they have put forward a "solution" that they know the Palestinians will not accept. They can then blame them for any failure to reach a solution, while at the same time preparing their real bottom line, which will be to create a set of Palestinian bantustans, in what will become in effect an apartheid state. The Basic Law of 18 July 2018 already establishes an undemocratic division of the State of Israel into two classes, with different rights. The de facto annexation of the West Bank will establish yet a third class of, effectively, stateless Palestinians. Whether or not this will be followed by ethnic cleansing and the implementation of the "Jordan is Palestine" policy remains to be seen.

    Thank you incidentally for giving such a clear indication of the Israeli "party line" on the issue, fully demonstrating both its strengths and weaknesses. I have gained some useful insights from this exchange.

    • 15 August 2019 at 3:51pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Reader
      No, there is no contradiction. The principles are common knowledge, the details will be worked out in negotiations, such as detailed maps establishibg the permanent border. I'm sure you understand this but are pretending not to.

      As for the rest, you are talking gibberish and do not seem to be familiar with the West Bank at all or were driven around it without understanding where you were. Explain to us specifically what problem there will be getting, say, from Jenin to Hebron under an agreement where a few large settlement blocs pretty much adjacent to the old armistice lines are incorporated into Israel in exchange for Israeli land like Wadi Ara, for example

    • 15 August 2019 at 10:31pm
      dmr says: @ Reader
      An excellent response - none better since the day Mr Skolnik, with his determination always to have the last word, appeared on this blog - to dishonesty, mystification, and the peddling of falsehoods. I thank you for it. The tone is calm and respectful, the argument measured and aligned with things as they are. Personal insult is eschewed.

      What a contrast it makes to the excitably accusatory and unpleasantly contemptuous manner of this Netanyahu mouthpiece.

  • 16 August 2019 at 5:44pm
    Reader says:
    I think it was Einstein who defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result”. Why then should I bother to respond to the irate, not to say abusive comments of Mr Solnik, especially as they have been made, mostly, to other people? Someone who acts as a tireless propagandist for the Israeli government is hardly likely to change their mind, or to admit it if they did. One reason for my not imitating Scheherazade and discreetly falling silent is that Solnik represents a disturbing trend, which needs in my opinion to be resisted. This is the tactic, used increasingly by right wing media commentators of all nationalities, of attempting to bully their opponents rather than debate with them.

    Bullies derive emotional gratification from inducing negative emotional responses in other people, and the best way to counter any bully is to remain polite and to state one’s position calmly and rationally. If you become emotional and angry in response, the bully has won, and if you are frightened into silence, he has won too. And yet being a bully seems to work: we have seen an upsurge of successful political ruffians around the world. Nevertheless, in fair debate the bully is under a disadvantage: he generally has a poor case, viewed objectively. To quote Orwell, I hold to the outmoded opinion that in the long run it does not pay to tell lies, and I leave it to any reader of these exchanges to decide for themselves which of the various participants (including Mr Ascher, who has made a late but valuable contribution) has made the better case, based on the presentation of facts and reasoned argument.

    However I cannot pass up this opportunity to share one anecdote with you. Some years ago I was working with law enforcement on international money laundering. As part of my job I had dealings with the Channel Islands police, and one day I was rung by a puzzled chief inspector who told me that someone by the name of Benjamin Netanyahu had opened an offshore account in Guernsey, and was accumulating considerable sums from overseas sales of his books. The Inspector wondered if this might be connected with money laundering through the Israeli mafia?

    Now, I have no idea if this Netanyahu was the same man who is now prime minister, or whether it was quite a different Netanyahu, who just happened to share his name. Nor do I know whether concealing one’s overseas earnings in a tax haven is legal or illegal under Israeli law. I do know, however, that the man who has set a record for time served as prime minister has been under criminal investigation on and off for many years. I began to be involved with Israeli affairs in one way and another over 25 years ago and can remember charges being prepared against him in the year 2000 if not earlier. It may be that he is completely innocent of all these charges, or it may be that there is some fire behind all this smoke. But it is truly claimed that a fish rots from the head, and if you want a simple explanation for the problems with Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and the general dishonesty with which they are explained to the outside world, look no further.

    But perhaps the real explanation is to be found much further back, in the words of Isaiah chapter 6: “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed”.

    • 16 August 2019 at 10:49pm
      dmr says: @ Reader
      Perhaps the time has come to cut Mr Skolnik some slack. Deep down he does not, I feel certain, mean to come over as discourteous, offensive and suspicious to the point of paranoia of others' motives. After all, he did, I believe, grow up in New York City, where civilized norms of conduct are observed - more or less - in daily intercourse and where a degree of mutual trust and respect among people is commonly maintained. But if his way of going about his business on this blog departs from these standards, it must surely reflect the nature of everyday life in the country he adopted some 40 years ago. There, as one knows from personal experience, the violence that marks the behaviour of the state in its dealings with "the Arabs" is in many ways the violence writ large of everyday life among ordinary Israelis, famed as they are for their rudeness, aggression and overall lack of consideration. In the universe of thought and feeling Mr Skolnik now inhabits, his manner of speaking, the effrontery that has left dismayed so many of his fellow contributors, is no more than par for the course and is as such unexceptionable.

      Plus comprendre, plus pardonner...

    • 16 August 2019 at 10:52pm
      dmr says: @ dmr
      (recte: plus comprendre, c'est plus pardonner.)

  • 17 August 2019 at 6:35pm
    Fred Skolnik says:
    At this level of silliness, I will respectfully bow out of the discussion.

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