Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses,” extols the reader “To follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” To be a Palestinian university student, however, is to be limited in that quest, for how can one follow knowledge when there is a checkpoint in the way?
Simply put, being a student in the West Bank or Gaza is a fundamentally different experience from being a student in the United States. There were over 600 checkpoints in the West Bank as of 2009. Yet this statistic, high as it is, does not convey the sheer scale of the physical barriers that students may encounter, since it does not include partial checkpoints, roadblocks or military posts.
Nor does it indicate the adverse effects of the Wall, the separation barrier constructed by the Israeli government, which bifurcates the West Bank and currently blocks 15,740 students’ routes to school. The Qalandya checkpoint near Birzeit University detains students for an average of one to two hours daily. All Birzeit students who do not have Israeli state IDs run the risk of deportation or imprisonment whenever they pass through a checkpoint.
Fifty-seven percent of students at An-Najah National University in Nablus have to pass through at least one checkpoint when commuting to school. In a survey conducted by Birzeit, 91 percent of an-Najah students reported having arrived late to class because of delays at checkpoints, while 84 percent admitted that they had skipped class altogether because they did not want to undergo the frustrations and delays of travel.
In Gaza the situation is more dire still; the Israeli government prohibits Gaza’s Palestinian residents from studying in the West Bank — which contains more and better universities. Those residents are also denied access to universities in Israel or in Egypt.
Such restrictions on movement constrain the actions of faculty as well as students. From May 2006 to September 2007, there was a 50 percent decrease in the number of Birzeit faculty who held foreign passports, since any Palestinian with a foreign passport can be denied entrance into the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Thousands of such Palestinians have been turned away at the border since September 2006.
Also, the psychological effects of such obstructions do not show up in these statistics. Rita Giacaman, a professor at Birzeit University, has argued that the daily humiliation students experience at checkpoints has lasting adverse effects on their mental health. In his comparative study of Bosnian and Palestinian youth, University of Tennessee professor Brian K. Barber found that Palestinian youths’ families were more frequently humiliated and verbally and physically abused at home, at school and in transit.
For example, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers have ordered young men at checkpoints to remove their clothing and women to take off their headscarves. Preserving Israeli security by conducting these types of searches at Israel’s own border crossings would make sense. But checkpoints within the Occupied West Bank serve no such security role — they don’t control access to Israel proper. They do, however, protect the property and well-being of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers living there — Israelis whose settlements, it must be noted, are illegal under international law.
But what of the security of Palestinians? Israeli settlers committed 222 acts of violence against Palestinians in the first half of 2008 alone. According to a UN report, such violence has risen, with more casualties in 2011 than in either 2009 or 2010. The same report states that 90 percent of these crimes went unpunished. Not only can settlers avoid prosecution; they are also not subject to the same intense searches at checkpoints as Palestinians.
The checkpoint system is part and parcel of a security apparatus that safeguards Israelis while ignoring Palestinian security almost entirely. It violates the dignity and circumscribes the freedoms of millions of Palestinians for the sake of half a million illegal Israeli settlers — something which is fundamentally discriminatory. The question is not one of security, but of whose security and at whose expense.
Jacqueline Outka is a senior in Ezra Stiles College and the events coordinator for Students for Justice in Palestine. Contact her at email@example.com.