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Monday, May 02, 2005

 

Bir Zeit President: 'We don't approve of this and you should change your ways.'

It’s not a boycott of academics but pressure on Israel

an interview with Nabil Kassis
Published April 27, 2005 Volume 11 Number 43

This week Palestine Report Online interviews Nabil Kassis, President of Birzeit University, on the boycott of two Israeli universities by the British Association of University Teachers (AUT).

PR: Do you think the boycott initiated by the AUT is a positive step?

Kassis: I think it shows awareness on behalf of the AUT of the problems that beset the Palestinian educational system and the problems that teachers here are facing. It’s a step that shows solidarity and signals disapproval of the practices of some Israeli universities.

PR: There is some cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli universities. Could such a boycott affect Palestinian institutions?

Kassis: The cooperation you refer to is not between Israeli and Palestinian universities. There are researchers in certain universities that work together or have arranged to work together. In fact, there is a kind of boycott already in our case, manifest through the fact that we cannot move around. We cannot move freely within the Palestinian areas let alone go to Israeli universities and meet with Israeli colleagues and professionals in their fields. If that happens at all, I think it happens in conferences that take place outside the country. The circumstances that pertain here, makes a boycott a fact of life, whether intended or not.

PR: There has been some criticism of the boycott in terms of academic freedom, that such boycotts are counterintuitive in terms of what they are trying to achieve and how they are trying to achieve them. How would you respond?

Kassis: There was also criticism of the boycott of South Africa participating in international sports events. But the question is much deeper than this, and can’t be brushed aside with such general statements as to the validity of sports events or academia.

You have here an occupying power that is in very clear breach of the 4th Geneva Convention regarding how to deal with occupied territory. Settlements are being built in occupied territory and you have universities and educational institutions established in these illegal settlements. So how do you react to such a gross violation of international law? Do you say this is an academic activity and we have nothing to do with it? This would be too hypocritical. You cannot be for international law and also condone things that are in breach of international law.

PR: This boycott is limited in scope and comes from one group in one country. Are you hopeful that such a boycott might spread?

Kassis: It’s not the boycott per se. It’s about pressure on Israel to desist from practices that contravene international law and are in breach of the law of occupation. This is occupied territory. Israel has been doing things contrary to international law for the past 37 years. Somebody should be telling them ‘we don’t approve of this and you should change your ways’. Any way this message can be conveyed is welcome. It is not a boycott of academics that is the exercise, but the pressure on Israel, and the pressure on those who can pressure Israel from within, like Israeli academics. It’s a protest against the practices of the occupation.

PR: Are these useful and effective ways for people outside to voice their displeasure and pressure Israel?

Kassis: More than displeasure. There should be some very clear positions [by the international community] on the right of Palestinians to exercise academic freedom, which means the right to travel, the right to move, the right to attend conferences, and not have to ask for a permit every time we want to move. The present situation is such that even if you want to go and attend a conference with Israelis held somewhere in geographic Palestine, say in Jerusalem, you need a permit if you are from the West Bank. If you are from Gaza it’s even more difficult. Such a permit is not required from Israelis. Israelis can move freely. We can’t.

This lack of parity is something the international community should see as a breach of academic freedom because it does not allow academics to pursue their work. It is taken for granted that an Israeli academic can hop to the airport, take a plane, attend a conference and come back without any problems. In our case we haven’t been able to plan academic activity for this reason for four decades. This should draw the attention of the international community and calls for action.

PR: The EU in particular has always publicly upheld international norms on this conflict but has been criticized for not following through. Will this boycott help pressure the EU to do more, boycott goods from the occupied territories etc.?

Kassis: I hope that this will provide an example to all those who stand for freedoms, academic and otherwise, and do very little about it. It’s no secret that all signatories of the Geneva Conventions are not only obligated to respect the Conventions but also to ensure respect for them. I haven’t seen any country do anything serious to enforce that clause of the 4th Geneva Convention on Israel.

Everybody agrees that Israeli practices here are contrary to the 4th Geneva Convention but no country is doing what we think they should be doing to fulfill their obligations under the conventions, which is to ensure compliance. The European countries are no exception to this. We haven’t seen any country taking any measure that might be seen as really pressuring Israel.

On the political level, many European countries take good positions, but when it comes to pressuring Israel, well, look at the results: After 37 years, the settlement activity is still ongoing and this is the one activity that makes this occupation different from any other occupation. It’s an occupation to displace people and replace them with the population of the occupying power. This is something that calls for serious protests to stop it. This hasn’t happened over the past nearly 40 years and I haven’t seen anybody taking a serious step on that front.

So, if you are asking whether what is happening by the AUT is moving things in the right direction and more boycotts will occur, this is a little optimistic. But at least it might open the eyes of some academics.-Published April 27, 2005©Palestine Report

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