A resolution alleging that Israel threatened academic freedom in, and interfered with freedom of travel to and from Palestinian universities on the West Bank and Gaza was placed on the agenda of the Business Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA). In advance of the meeting that was held on January 9, 2016 in Atlanta, I requested that the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC offer a response. As there was an accusation, I thought it important that AHA members hear the case for the defense. On December 18, 2015, diplomats in Washington Embassy sent the following reply. With their permission, I am pleased to make it available to readers of The Times of Israel.

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Right to education

Israel is a democratic country founded on the values of freedom, justice and peace. Freedom of education is one of the fundamental principles of the State of Israel, irrespective of religion, race or sex. This is true for citizens of Israel, and also for the residents of the Palestinian Authority (PA) who can study advanced degrees in the Israeli institutes of higher education. Due to the cooperation between Israel and PA in accordance with the Oslo agreement, the Palestinian higher education system developed into one that is considered among the most agile and fast-developing not only in the region, but in the world. Over the last ten years the number of undergraduate students has nearly doubled (from 129,000 in 2005 to 209,000 in 2015), the number of graduate students has nearly tripled (from 14,000 to 36,800), in addition to increases in faculty (from 3,700 to 6,680).

“Invasion” of campuses in the WB

Israel’s policy is to improve the economic and social environment in the PA in general, and allow the proper functioning of its educational system. However, Palestinian universities periodically serve as sites of violence and incitement, as occurred recently for example at the Tul-Karm University. When faced with violence, Israeli security forces are obliged to act to ensure security and order. If periods of violence continue for a sustained period, as is the case with the recent wave of stabbings of Israeli citizens and attacks on Israeli security forces, it inevitably impacts the functioning of a university. The responsibility for this lies solely on those organizations and individuals who exercise or call for violence. Sadly, the PA is itself deeply involved in the campaign of anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic incitement in the last three months.

Movement of faculty, staff, visitors in the West Bank

The accusation that Israel arbitrarily limits the entry of foreign nationals who are visiting to lecture, teach or attend conferences at Palestinian universities is baseless. There are no restrictions on foreign academics teaching in the West Bank. Foreign nationals who are invited to lecture in the West Bank are free to enter, unless there are exceptional security concerns. There are accepted procedures and regulations determining the entry of foreign citizens into the West Bank, which are outlined in the interim agreement signed by Israel and the PA. The entry visa/permit is a routine procedure all over the world. They are issued for a limited period of time but can be extended with relative ease.

Students from Gaza in the West Bank and abroad

In the summer of 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, the Military Administration that was established there in 1967 was cancelled, and the PA took control of this territory. In June 2007, Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization, organized a violent coup d’etat, and ultimately took control of Gaza. This organization was and still is in state of armed conflict with the State of Israel. Countless attacks by Hamas, such as rocket firing, terror squad infiltrations and terror tunnels, pose immediate threat to the lives of Israeli citizens. In order to protect the Israeli population from these threats, the crossing of individuals and goods to the Gaza Strip is strictly monitored and limited to humanitarian cases. It should be noted that Egyptian authorities adopted similar policies regarding the crossing of individuals and goods through the common border between Egypt and Gaza Strip.

Israel works to expand the number of permits given to Gaza civilians who wish to enter Israel in order to go abroad to pursue their studies. In fact, COGAT, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, provides special arrangements in order to allow Palestinian students to pursue their studies abroad. Israel allows foreign nationals to teach in Gaza, and academic professionals are among the first to receive permits for entry.

It’s important to note that there are security concerns in allowing students from Gaza to study in West Bank institutions, since they can operate as Hamas operatives there. Hamas is still operating a network of terrorists in the WB, and was involved in terrorist attacks there, most recently in the murder of an Israeli couple in October 2015. However, Israel works to expand the number of these permits.

Institution of higher education in Gaza targeted during 2014 operation

Israel does not target deliberately civilian sites in its war with the Hamas. However, Hamas uses educational sites (schools and universities), as well as religious sites (mosques), hospitals, hotels and more in order to carry its attacks against Israel.

Regarding the attack on the Islamic University (IU) in Gaza, intelligence indicated that the University was being used by Hamas for building, testing and launching of rockets from locations within the University grounds. In this facility, professors and staff members of the science faculties were working for years on the production of rockets. On August 2nd, 2014, this military facility, located within the Islamic University, was struck in an air strike. The target of the strike was a military facility of Hamas within IU, that was part of the Hamas chain of weapons production and a launching site for its rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. It is unfortunate that Hamas prevents its citizens from proper higher education by using universities for terror acts.