Reflections on Higher Education in Palestine: Barriers to Academia and Intellectual Dialogue in the Palestinian-Israeli Context

Reflections on Higher Education in Palestine: Barriers to Academia and Intellectual Dialogue in the Palestinian-Israeli Context

Mona Jebril

This article is a scholarly contribution to the topic of Palestinian-Israeli dialogue which has been an issue for debate for a long time, but has largely failed to materialise even among the most educated Palestinians and Israelis.  That said, the piece is not written as a call for support of the BDS or against it. It is merely a reflection on research which I have conducted during my MSc in Oxford on this topic, and which I am still confused about its outcome.

In 2005, I left Gaza to study for an MSc in Higher Education at Oxford University. This experience highlighted my nationalistic feelings for Palestine, while also creating a strong curiosity towards ‘the other’, which encouraged me to engage with people from all backgrounds. However, I had conflicting thoughts on whether, as a Palestinian, I should engage closely with Israelis in the academic context.

I decided to explore this topic through my MSc dissertation which was entitled: Reflections on higher education in Palestine: Barriers to Academia and Intellectual Dialogue in the Palestinian-Israeli Context. This was a speculative study which aimed to explore the possibility of a dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli universities. For this purpose, I interviewed a sample of students and lecturers from both Palestine (the Gaza Strip) and Israel, as well as international experts, in person, by e-mail and on the phone. I wanted to know whether these universities had or could have co-operative academic relations, given that dialogue is something that humans do and something that should take place at all times.

My attempt to research this topic brought skepticism from both sides. On the one hand, a Palestinian academic in Gaza, who I initially contacted to participate, declined my request for an interview, replying that this was a topic which he ‘doesn’t subscribe to’. On the other hand, an Israeli academic whom I anonymise as Interviewee IAB told me: “When I received your request, I was initially worried lest the opinions I express are used for political purposes”. She agreed to participate only after she was assured that I was “professionally focused”.

Does dialogue exist between Gaza and Israeli universities?
The findings of my study showed that neither Palestinian nor Israeli universities had any significant academic relations with each other, nor were they making any efforts to have them. In fact, Gaza universities did not have cooperative relations, for example, in terms of sharing resources between themselves or with other Palestinian universities in the West Bank either. Similarly, the data pointed towards a discrimination between Palestinian (so called Arab Israelis) and Israeli academics and students on the campus of Israeli universities. For example, Interviewee NSA mentioned that “Israeli students or academics feel more free to criticise even their own government…for Arab students this freedom is much more limited and insecure”.

When I asked the participants on each side, the Gaza Strip and Israel, whether they believed they should have an academic dialogue with each other, they both emphasized the importance of dialogue. This contradiction between the ‘ideal’ and the ‘real’ in Palestinian and Israeli responses prompted me to explore what barriers may have prevented this dialogue from both perspectives, and whether dialogue, on the academic level, could be possible, if not in the present, then in the future.

Why don’t Gaza and Israeli universities talk?
In addition to skepticism and a lack of trust, dialogue may be undermined by a few other strong “barriers”. Earlier Palestinian and Israeli experiences of dialogue were “discouraging” and thus prompted caution to engage in new attempts. The Participants were also aware of the differences between their life conditions, educational systems and opportunities. While Israeli participants perceived that they were academically and professionally superior compared to their Palestinian counterparts, Palestinians explained that Israel has, over decades, undermined their rights and opportunities for academic and professional development.

Teaching one-sided language and history, and the use of loaded vocabulary at both Gaza and Israeli universities have also created two (oppositional) mind maps that so often made it difficult for people to meet in productive conversations, even on the academic level. The data also showed criticism of the military service training in Israel since it could be construed as preparing students to be ‘violent’. Students and academics at Gaza’s universities also study and work in a political culture. Sometimes, traditional conventions and practices in Gaza also negatively impacted academic dialogue at Gaza HE institutions. This is in addition to Israeli restrictions on Gaza life and borders, which limited critical dialogue at Gaza’s universities themselves. In fact, Adam Roberts, Boel Joergensen, and Frank Newman explain:

There is “a conflict of interest between [the universities in Palestine] and the Israeli authorities”. Gaza’s universities reflect the widespread desire of Palestinians for some kind of statehood; the Israeli authorities oppose that aspiration. In the resulting collision, the only point of convergence between the two positions that is easy to imagine is that the Israelis might have an interest in stunting the growth of these universities while the universities might have an interest in appearing to be persecuted” (p.71).

I chose to end my MSc thesis with a human rather than a political note, pointing out that dialogue can happen, and it can start with those Israelis from the left-wing who acknowledge the Palestinian cause and support human rights, as this may provide common ground between academics and students at Gaza’s and Israeli universities.

From Oxford Reflections to Reflections on the Ground in the Gaza Strip
After I graduated from my Oxford MSc, I returned to work at two of Gaza’s universities. My return coincided with international sanctions being imposed on the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of Hamas winning the 2006 elections. I stayed three weeks on the Rafah- Gaza border not able to cross because of the blockade. When the border opened, I entered Gaza after 12 hours of humiliation at the checkpoint. I realised later how lucky I had been to enter Gaza at all; immediately afterwards the siege on the Gaza Strip was tightened for two consecutive years.  The reality of occupation conditions of siege, power cuts and bombardment affected me on a daily basis. I also witnessed the 2008 Israeli war on the Gaza Strip and how it caused much suffering  and destruction.

In such conditions, I found myself reflecting back on my MSc findings and wondering whether it was ethical to have academic dialogue with Israeli universities when my neighbours and friends were mourning their dead and injured and Palestinian universities were being destroyed. Under these violence conditions, dialogue simply felt hurtful to the general feeling in Gaza. Practically, too, it was impossible.

Studying for a PhD in Cambridge between 2012-17, I met a few Israeli colleagues. Although we were meeting as part of an international university where friendships of all kinds were encouraged, the barriers seemed to have influenced our minds, memories, worldviews and sometimes reflected on our interactions.

Can a contradictory approach to dialogue be helpful?
So often, I wondered whether peacemaking could actually work without acknowledging the right of participants to hold onto disagreement if they chose to. Yet at the same time I was aware of how devastating conflicts can be to societies and their individuals and I could not find an alternative to peacemaking. But attempts at peacemaking in the Palestinian-Israeli context are already jeopardised by the severe contradictions between participants’ life conditions. For example, Interviewee PSC who participated in one of these peacemaking sessions, stated: “In that bubble you were equal […] You see Israelis or Palestinians as normal people but then when you go back to your own community… you forget that very quickly.

So, a more feasible question then is how, under conditions of occupation, would it be possible to find a way of dialoguing without actually dialoguing? In fact, pushing forward academic dialogue in the Palestinian-Israeli context may require a research study in its own right. Nonetheless, in the meantime, Palestinian and Israeli universities have a duty to empower their students  by strengthening their human capacity for dialogue with those who may hold different views, with the opposition and even with what they classify as their enemy, creating a space for human solidarity towards what is right and just.

Three devastating Israeli offensives on Gaza since 2008, and an ongoing siege is not a practical context that is supportive to dialogue, even on the academic level. Hence what I am describing is a paradoxical and long-term route that brings together two contradictions: dialogue and the lack of it, focusing on HE, for building the capacity of individuals as agents of change.

Roberts, A., Joergensen, B., & Newman, F. (1984). Academic freedom under Israeli military occupation: report of WUS/ICJ mission of enquiry into higher education in the West Bank and Gaza. World Univ. Service (UK) and International Commission of Jurists.


Mona Jebril is a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, working on the R4HC-MENA project. Her research focuses on the political economy of health in Palestine (the Gaza Strip). She is also a member of the Network of Evidence and Expertise at Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy. She completed an MSc and PhD in higher education and education at Oxford and Cambridge respectively. She has produced four films from her PhD.