Interview with Laura Hibeiro
& Mira Dabit, Right to Education
Campaign, Birzeit University
Associate and Board member
Comments directly to
Right to Education Campaign - Statement of Aims
“The systematic obstruction of Palestinian education in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the illegal Israeli occupation not only violates the human rights of individuals, it is an attack on the development of Palestinian society as a whole. Frequent closures of cities, hundreds of military roadblocks and the construction of the illegal Wall prevent thousands of students and teachers from reaching their schools and universities. Students are regularly subjected to intimidation, assault and arbitrary arrest by Israeli soldiers. Universities and schools have been closed down, raided and attacked by military order. The right to education is a fundamental human right and basic to human freedom. If peace is sought, then freedom, justice, education and development are necessary. It is the responsibility of governments, organizations and ordinary people to defend the universal right to education and to demand its realization.”1
Vicky S Rossi: When was the Right to Education Campaign first launched? What was the stimulus for this campaign?
Laura Hibeiro: The Right to Education Campaign had a different face in the past. In the 1970s until around the year 2000, it was called the Human Rights Action Project. This project was focused on the issue of political prisoners. It was formed by a group of academics who were very active as a support for students and fellow academics who were imprisoned.
Vicky S Rossi: Were these academics and students imprisoned by the Israelis?
Laura Hibeiro: Yes, it was after 1967 when Israel invaded the Palestinian territories. They were imprisoned for their activities in promoting a Palestinian narrative and introducing an alternative curriculum to the Jordanian one. This curriculum included a narrative on Palestinian identity and history.
Vicky S Rossi: Birzeit University was shut down by the Israelis for over 4 years from 1988-1992. Was that done for so-called “security” reasons?
Laura Hibeiro: Yes, it was under the banner of security. Education was criminalized. Palestinian universities were seen as a breeding ground of dangerous ideas simply because they produced a counter-narrative to the Israeli, largely Zionist, one. It is also true that universities were places for people to meet and discuss things very openly.
Vicky S Rossi: Were other universities closed down also at that time by the Israelis?
Laura Hibeiro: All eleven Palestinian universities were closed down at one point or other. That’s how the Human Rights Action Project became more institutionalized because they realized that the Israeli Occupation was systematically targeting Palestinian education. The group then formed a PR office and took on a lawyer to represent students and teachers, who were imprisoned. This activity is still on-going today.
During the Palestinian Authority (PA) period, the criminalization of education was less obvious because most universities were on PA territory and, therefore, officially under PA jurisdiction. At that point there was a new phase in the right to education campaign. Given the collective experience of oppression, the campaign tried to formulate a collective approach to its activities: apart from defending the individual’s right to education, we collected information on the bigger picture and built networks locally and abroad to draw international attention to the collective struggle of Palestinian teachers, lecturers and students. Israelis also use “administrative detention” practices, that is, detention without charge for an indefinite period, as a means to punish those involved in nonviolent activities, effectively discouraging students from organizing and exercising their right to education as a collective. The next phase of the campaign will try to remedy this by getting students more involved in campaign activities.
Vicky S Rossi: And this was the point at which the Human Rights Action Project evolved into the Right to Education Campaign?
Laura Hibeiro: Yes, that’s right. The Right to Education Campaign brought under one umbrella the issues of academic freedom, freedom of access to education and human rights abuses like the imprisonment of students.
Vicky S Rossi: That would include what your co-student spoke to me about earlier, namely, the difficulties they face in physically getting to the university campus because of the Israeli military checkpoints, closures and so on?
Laura Hibeiro: Precisely. This kind of difficulty faced by students living under occupation is an important component of the Right to Education Campaign; however, the more profound levels of the Campaign like Palestinians having their own narrative, the right to academic freedom, the right to freedom of thought were there even before ‘67 and they constitute a much longer term struggle.
Vicky S Rossi: Through which channels are you promoting the Right to Education Campaign?
Laura Hibeiro: The Campaign has become an outreach project collecting information on education in Palestine and contacting other student groups, Palestinian solidarity groups, interested individuals as well as delegations that visit Birzeit University.
Vicky S Rossi: Are you working with mailing lists and contacting organizations internationally?
Laura Hibeiro: We have contacts with Academics for Justice and we work with mailing lists and networks in Europe and the US. Sometimes we write articles which are published internationally, for example, we had an article published in CounterPunch. We don’t have a huge budget to be able to do a lot of marketing, but the students here have produced a DVD and a photographic book, which are visual ways of promoting the Campaign and which are good to hand out to people who visit us. The visitors have the possibility of then organizing a photo exhibition, which is useful because it captures the attention and interest of people abroad. This also means we can give people something they can do rather than only informing them about the situation.
Vicky S Rossi: Mira, what is your role in all of this? In what way are you active in the Right to Education Campaign?
Mira Dabit: I started working with the Campaign a few weeks ago. What brought my attention to it was the fact that it directly involves us as students. I think generally students are not as active or involved as they ought to be. This Campaign puts youth in the forefront of the movement to promote freedom of education. We want to promote the issues that touch us as Palestinian students, namely, our lack of access to education and academic freedom. The Campaign concentrates on youth, including new initiatives for linking youth internationally.
Laura Hibeiro: There’s a student committee within the Right to Education Campaign. The Campaign continues to do research and to network, but there is also a student group that specifically focuses on youth-to-youth information exchange.
Vicky S Rossi: Are those youth exchanges over the internet or in person?
Mira Dabit: Our student group at Birzeit is just starting out, but our first initiative happened really fast. A group of Irish academics have decided to boycott Israeli academics. What we did with the help of Laura and the Right to Education Campaign is we circulated a petition for people to sign who wanted to thank and be in solidarity with the Irish who are helping us. We got signatures from teachers and students. In this way we were able both to express our gratitude and to show that we agree with the boycott. In less than a week we gathered 1,014 signatures including about 85 faculty teachers’ signatures. So that was our first activity as a student committee.
Vicky S Rossi: Are you in any way connecting up with the United Nations Education for All campaign?
Laura Hibeiro: No, but we are trying to get some funding to get the Right to Education Campaign into different universities. It looks like our project in Bethlehem and An-Najah Universities will go ahead and we also want to include a university in Gaza as soon as the situation permits. In this way we could gather more information on the right to education issues and begin to coordinate activities. Each university in Palestine has educational issues which are specific to that area. There are slight differences from university to university in terms of what the priorities are and we need to collect and assimilate this information to get an overall view. The posts at Bethlehem and An-Najah will also research the situation of neighbouring towns like Hebron and Jenin.
Vicky S Rossi: For the time being, however, the Right to Education Campaign is focused exclusively in Birzeit University?
Laura Hibeiro: It is focused in Birzeit, but we try to reach out, for example, we have a very good relationship with An-Najah University in Nablus. Sometimes they send us stories about what is happening on their campus and we put that up on our website and we try to coordinate some activities. The Right to Education photo book was actually done as a joint project between the students of Birzeit and the students of An-Najah.
We are trying to expand by providing general information on schools as well as higher education. As mentioned before, the photo book has become an exhibition and this exhibition is touring the West Bank. It is currently in the Friends School in Ramallah and will be part of a 3 day book festival with the Ministry of Education there. We will also have a stall with information and be part of the festival which includes children from all over the West Bank. In this way we are introducing the concept of the Right to Education in schools. We can then start providing information materials and sharing ideas with those persons, who show interest, for example, encouraging them to join with other schools internationally in a twinning scheme.
Vicky S Rossi: Are you trying to get this awareness to the Israelis? Are you in any way trying to inform them of what the situation is like for students in Palestine?
Mira Dabit: One thing about the Israelis is that when they reach the age of 18 they go into the military, whereas the Palestinians go into university. I have been in groups where Palestinians and Israelis have met together. I would say the Israelis don’t know what is going on here because if you have everything – the freedom to do and go and see and learn – you are not really concerned about what is going on with your neighbour who doesn’t get the same things. I think they do know what is going on here but it is something that they don’t want to know.
Vicky S Rossi: Are you trying to promote the Right to Education Campaign in Israel, or will Israelis only hear about it indirectly through other channels?
Laura Hibeiro: We have a group in Tel Aviv that is interested in turning some of the photos from the photo book into flyer posters and putting these up around Tel Aviv so that the Right to Education Campaign and the names of some of the students involved can be seen. They are just waiting to get the funding for this.
As the Right to Education Campaign we are trying to establish links with other student groups but to be honest these are mostly Palestinian groups or activist groups that are already conscious of the Occupation.
Vicky S Rossi: Actually we visited the Stop the Wall Campaign earlier today and they mentioned the Right to Education in their talk with us.
Laura Hibeiro: Oh, good. You see at the moment everyone feels kind of stuck and lost in terms of a political future, which is why education, seen as a key to future generations, is becoming a very important issue for everybody - for the international community, for local Palestinians and also for Israelis.
In terms of direct dialogue with Israelis, the effectiveness of it will depend on the terms of dialogue. In the past there has been a sort of ‘dialogue industry’ where people talk but end up creating exceptions in their heads and keeping to the same prejudices as before, “oh, that Palestinian was nice but everybody else is still a ‘terrorist’”. Palestinians are generally getting tired of engaging in this way.
Mira Dabit: The Palestinians as a people have been changed into an idea. We have been changed from being normal human beings into an idea. People no longer think of Palestinians as persons with thoughts, hopes and dreams. It’s very difficult for us as Palestinians to read or hear about ourselves in the news because the image that is portrayed is not something we can relate to anymore. Our whole identity has been changed from a human being into this idea – it’s either of us being a - I don’t want to use the word - “terrorist” or being a victim or being a martyr. But in the end what do we all share in this world? The fact that we are human beings and we all have a mind to think. Palestinians are not just something that the international community can play with, that Israel can play with, that the Arab world can play with. We should be able to have the right to self-determination, especially the new generation.
Laura Hibeiro: Also of importance is the Right to Entry Campaign, which is a separate initiative, the launch of which coincided with some issues that were happening academically. For example, some international academics as well as Palestinians academics living abroad were being refused entry visas to attend conferences.
Vicky S Rossi: When did this campaign start?
Laura Hibeiro: Around May 2006. As well as academics, there were PhD students, who were coming here to do their research and were denied 3 month visas or threatened with deportation.
Vicky S Rossi: These were international students coming here to do doctoral research?
Laura Hibeiro: Actually a lot of them were Palestinian, or of Palestinian origin, but they didn’t have a hawya 2, in which case they should have been treated like other internationals and given a 3 month visa. We also had a separate issue with internationals - non-Palestinians - from the PAS (Palestinian Arab Studies) programme, which is a programme here at Birzeit University that attracts a lot of international students who come to study the Arabic language and culture. Some of them were not allowed to get back after the initial 3 months and were therefore deprived of completing their courses.
Mira Dabit: We have a story with an American girl at the moment, who was denied entry about a week ago. Then she tried again and they gave her only one week. This problem with denied entry means that we have a 50% drop from last semester in students coming on the PAS programme.
Vicky S Rossi: This will have an impact on funding I presume since they would be bringing money in to the university.
Laura Hibeiro: A huge impact on funding, but also a huge impact on the international presence here on campus. It’s important to have international students here just to meet Palestinian students and to come to Palestine. This is particularly true for those students of Palestinian origin. It’s important for them to come and get to know their families and their own culture.
Vicky S Rossi: What has the situation been like for teachers in recent months? Have their salaries been paid despite the freeze in funds following the non-payment of tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority by the Israeli government?
Laura Hibeiro: Birzeit is essentially a private university so it has not been affected as severely as others. Although it does receive some funds from the Ministry of Education and that has caused a cash flow problem, it also gets money from private research institutions.
Vicky S Rossi: Can students afford their tuition fees as they seem quite high to me in relation to the cost of living? For a BA it is 500 Jordanian Dinars per semester and for an MA it is double that.
Laura Hibeiro: It’s true they are very high.
Vicky S Rossi: Can students get scholarships or sponsorship from somewhere to help them?
Mira Dabit: It depends. Some people can afford to pay their fees at Birzeit, but right now the situation is very difficult because there are people, who have not been paid for around 8 months because of the international embargo on the Hamas government and Israel’s confiscation of tax and customs revenue. This means parents don’t have the money to pay the tuition fees for their children. Around 1,200 students could not afford to pay the university recently.
Vicky S Rossi: That’s 1,200 out of a total of how many students?
Mira Dabit: 7,000. That was a big issue as you can imagine. What happened was that for 2 weeks all the students went on strike in solidarity and there were literally no classes. The university didn’t know what to do. Over the last months, people working for the government or in the public sector have not known whether they would get paid or not. People working in the private sector could be more assured that they would get their salary at the end of the month.
What the university decided was that either students would pay when they had the funds or they could pay a portion of the fees that was affordable for them at that moment, for example, some students paid 50 Jordanian Dinars instead of 500.
Vicky S Rossi: Will there be arrears payments in the future though? I mean will the students have to find the funds to cover the fees that they were unable to pay over these last months?
Laura Hibeiro: Well, the current policy is pay according to your means and when you can, but I think there’ll be an issue when it comes to graduation. I think that students have to come to some arrangement with the university before they graduate.
Vicky S Rossi: Are there such things as student loans from banks in Palestine?
Mira Dabit: There are rare cases, which are facilitated by the student council. It’s for students, who really have problems with money. It’s called a loan programme, but it is actually a scholarship. This means that after graduation if the student has the money to pay back the loan he/she should do so, but if they can’t then they don’t have to.
Vicky S Rossi: I have a question which is not directly linked to the Right to Education Campaign, but which I think is an important topic. In my discussions with Palestinians I have heard time and again from them that the Occupation will end one day, but that the real problem is the lack of internal unity within Palestinian society. I have been told that these divisions are mirrored in the universities, so that in some universities the student councils are strongly led by Hamas and at other universities by Fateh. If these divisions are so strongly marked on campus, isn’t that something students will take with them when they leave the university? Are students in any way trying to bridge those divides to come to some agreement between these political factions so that they can maintain their political affiliations but at the same time unite as Palestinians?
Mira Dabit: This subject is so important at the moment because I don’t think there has ever been so much division between political parties as there is currently in Palestinian society. I feel really sad that this is happening to our people. These political divisions are affecting villages and families, even marriages! When it gets this far, somebody has to stay, “Stop! This isn’t working any more.”
I am sure you have heard on the news about the fights between Fateh and Hamas because it is constant and yes it is affecting our university. The student council is usually led by one of the political parties. This is done democratically through elections, but it is expected that once a student is elected to the student council they will represent the whole student body – not just those who have the same political or religious affiliation.
Laura Hibeiro: The university has a lot of Christians studying here as well as Muslims.
Mira Dabit: But what is happening now is that the student council is becoming biased. Students affiliated with Hamas refuse to speak to students affiliated with Fateh and vice-versa. There is a lot of verbal violence in the sense that they speak badly of one another. This is a reflection of the general political situation because when the Palestinians are united in society you don’t see this political division amongst students. We are just products of our society. As students we look to our elders for guidance. We have been taught in our culture to respect and follow our elders.
Laura Hibeiro: In Birzeit University, unlike other universities, there are almost an equal number of students affiliated with Fateh as affiliated with Hamas. That’s what makes student politics in Birzeit a real reflection of the political situation in the outside world.
Vicky S Rossi: Would it not be true then that there is also a real potential here in the sense that if students can find a way of reconciling their differences – political or religious – this could then be reflected back at a society level?
Laura Hibeiro: Well, yes. It’s true that politicians first get active politically when they are students at university; this seems to be the case everywhere. However, things are quite complicated at the student level right now; there are differences on the kind of future they aspire to, how to get there, the nature of this struggle and the identity of the struggle. Palestinian society is very multicultural and pluralistic but the organized resistance movements are finding this a burden rather than a strength at the moment.
Vicky S Rossi: There are nearly 4 million Palestinians inside Palestine and about 5 million outside Palestine. Is that right?
Laura Hibeiro: Yes. The issue of identity is complex. You have a Diaspora identity which is constantly trying to find its roots, while experiencing many physical obstacles. It is not only difficult for them to enter Palestine, they have not grown up here either which means that they are initially foreign to the everyday life and traditions of their relatives. The refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are not allowed to come back at all, so they reproduce their identity in their own way as best they can. Then you have the ’48 Palestinians3 – that go through an Israeli education system that tries to whitewash a lot of history. These Palestinians can’t come to the West Bank and Gaza very easily as Israeli citizens are no longer permitted to come to Area A or they will get arrested by the Israeli army. Within the West Bank and Gaza you also have a range of identities. Each town in the Occupied Territories has its own particular history and experience under Occupation, which forms part of an individual’s identity.
Vicky S Rossi: How important is religious identity in this complex overall Palestinian identity?
Laura Hibeiro: Palestinians identifying collectively along religious lines is something relatively new. People never used to ask each other what religion they are. Perhaps this is linked to the past failures of politicians and some disillusionment in political ideology, leaving people with their personal identities to hold on to and unite around.
Vicky S Rossi: What do you think is the unique contribution students can make to promote reconciliation both within Palestinian society and vis-à-vis Israel?
Mira Dabit: We are the generation of the future. We are the ones who are going to make the decisions for the next 20, 30 or 40 years. It’s difficult to live like this. Nobody wants to live under Occupation and nobody wants to be the Occupier, at least that’s what I think. Human beings don’t want to be at war, in a constant state of emergency. They want to be at peace and they want to be happy, so I would like to see a clear decision made on the ground rather than just in theory. With regards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I would like to see young Jews all over the world learn more about the conflict – there are always 2 sides to a story, even 3 sides. I would say to them, “Take a look at what’s going on. You have the right to make your own decisions. Understand what’s going on. It’s the most important thing. After that if you want to become an activist that’s your choice, if you don’t want to become an activist that’s fine also.” What is important is to become knowledgeable. The more knowledgeable you are, the more empowered you are, the more able you are to make changes within your own circle, your own society. I would advise everyone my age to pick up a book and read about something new in matters of religion, conflict, literature.
Vicky S Rossi: I assume you would send the same message out to Palestinian students, namely to ask them to try to understand why the Israelis have this great fear and need for security, what has happened to them psychologically to make them act in the way that they do?
Mira Dabit: Yes, because it is important to see the other side, especially during a situation of struggle. But the reality is that Israelis have more access to us than we have to them. The only time we can see them is when they are in uniform and representing the occupation [West Bank ID holders are not permitted to enter Israel]. The problem of the regular Israeli citizen is that they have not completely grasped the concept of being a part of an occupying power, and being responsible for their government. Actually, sometimes I think we Palestinians understand them better than they understand themselves. Understanding them is a necessary part of understanding why we are occupied, for example, we know they do not have a clear image of what is going on here and this is why Israelis can’t understand why some of us are fighting against them, and why people make Qassam rockets at home even if they are not going to be very effective. I think the reason regular Israelis don’t want to know is ultimately because they can afford to be ignorant; they have power on their side.
Laura Hibeiro: So far in the peace process, the focus has been on changing the minds of the Palestinians i.e. changing the minds of the oppressed rather than the minds of the oppressor. For example, getting the Palestinians to accept checkpoints and maybe making them more efficient by telling the Palestinians if you cause less trouble you’ll spend less time at the checkpoints. That’s very much like a lot of the arguments you get from Israeli civilians, soldiers and government. The message is if you cause less trouble, the Occupation will work for you. That perspective tries to get Palestinians to forget the principles of a just peace and to just accept the Occupation.
Vicky S Rossi: Laura, how would you suggest students use their unique position in society to promote both internal unity and eventual reconciliation with Israel?
Laura Hibeiro: One action that the student committee is really keen to do is to introduce activities for students that are not faction-based although they are political in nature. For example, we are thinking of doing a film festival showing films from South Africa, Ireland and other parts of the world. The idea is that this festival will also be an exchange so we show their films here and they show Palestinian films there at the same time. This would be a different form of solidarity in the sense that it’s not just other countries doing things for us, we can do something in return too and enrich our experience in the process.
Vicky S Rossi: You are suggesting that Palestinian students get away from the narrow focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by looking beyond it to other situations in the world? I guess this might also bring new insights.
Laura Hibeiro: Yes, right. We can look at how other countries have solved their problems in the past and learn from that.
Mira Dabit: I would tell the youth: “Let’s stick together as Palestinians and look at what we need to do to make our society, our country and our culture what we want it to be – the dream of Palestine. Let’s not just talk about it. Let’s do it. Let’s take action. Let’s take the initiative and create the Palestinian state. For that to happen all Palestinians need to be united whether they are in the Diaspora, whether they are refugees, whether they are this or that identity. It doesn’t matter. Let’s just unite – the youth, the adults, the elderly.” We have to work together as Palestinians for an internal solution. Then we have to work together with the Israelis for a solution to the conflict. Then we have to work with the world for a world peace – if there is such a thing and I am sure there is if we can start to think as human beings.
*This transcript represents an accurate but non-verbatim representation of the original interview.
For further information, please contact:
Laura Hibeiro & Mira Dabit
Right to Education Campaign
Public Relations Office
P.O. Box 14, Birzeit
West Bank, Palestine
Tel/Fax: + 972-2-298-2059
2 The hawya is the right of residency given by the PA in the mid 1990s. Returnees after that date, especially family reunion cases, need the permission of the Israeli Interior Ministry to reside in the Palestinian Territories.
3 Palestinians made refugees in 1948 and still living in Israel.
Academics for Justice http://www.academicsforjustice.org/
UNESCO “Education for All”
Ramallah Friends Schools http://www.fum.org/worldmissions/ramallah.html
Stop the Wall Campaign http://www.stopthewall.org/
Right to Entry Campaign http://www.righttoenter.ps/
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