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Palestinian Al-Quds University Fights for Israeli Recognition

The Israeli government says that the geographic division of Al-Quds University is at the heart of Israel's refusal to recognize it as an Israeli institution, writes Tali Heruti-Sover.
Palestinians look at a burning building at the al-Quds University after it was attacked by gunmen in Gaza February 2, 2007. Fighting between Palestinian factions escalated across Gaza on Friday, killing at least 11 people as Hamas overran compounds used by President Mahmoud Abbas' forces and Fatah set the Islamic University ablaze. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem (GAZA) - RTR1LWWO

At the Palestinian Al-Quds University in Jerusalem they cannot really understand why the university is not officially recognized by Israel. All they know is that for many years now, they have been trying, along with the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE), headed by the minister of education, to find a way out of the mess, alas, to no avail.

As a result, the 14,000 students of the Al-Quds University, about a third of them Arabs holding Israeli blue ID cards, that is, citizens of Israel — who are studying various academic subjects, including medicine, pharmacy, education and social work — are not eligible for work in Israel because the academic degrees they receive are not recognized there.

“The Islamic College in Gaza is recognized by Israel as a foreign institution of higher education,” says Adel Ruished, who is in charge of the ties with the government at the university and acts as the representative of president of the Al-Quds University professor Sari Nusseibeh. “At the same time, we are not recognized. How could it possibly be? There is a shortage in Israel of Arabic-speaking doctors, teachers and social workers; however, although we have excellent graduates and they are available for work here, in Jerusalem and its environs, they cannot earn a decent livelihood and get ahead in the Israeli market.”

Just what is the problem?

“Well. That’s the question. This is precisely what we, too, are asking.”

Life under an occupation regime gives rise to quite a few anomalies. The status of the Al-Quds University is one of these. The university was established in the early 1990s as a merger of four small colleges set up in the Jerusalem and surrounding Arabic neighborhoods of Beit Safafa (for economics, business administration and law), Sheikh Jarrah (a women-only college for education, social sciences and humanities), the Old City of Jerusalem (a small campus offering programs in archeology and post-graduate studies) and Abu Dis — where the major campus of the Al-Quds University is currently seated, housing the faculties of medicine, engineering, and science and technology, which includes the department of computer science & information technology and the departments of exact and natural sciences.

In the wake of the Oslo Accords, the direct link between the various university campuses has been cut off. While the Jerusalem campus, where 1,000 students are enrolled at present, is located in Israel proper, the Abu Dis campus, where 13,000 students study, is manifestly Palestinian, located in Area B (which is under joint Israeli-Palestinian control). Only seven kilometers [about 4.35 miles] separate the two campuses; however, it takes no less than 45 minutes to get from one campus to another, as the way between the two campuses passes through a separation wall and a checkpoint.

The geographic division between the Al-Quds University campuses has created a problem. The Israeli authorities, first and foremost the CHE, announced that as long as the Jerusalem campus was academically linked to the Abu Dis campus, the CHE could not supervise any part of the university nor recognize it as a foreign university. Consequently, the Al-Quds University falls through the cracks.

It is not an Israeli university recognized and supervised by the Israeli authorities, nor is it a foreign university whose degrees may be recognized by the CHE. Thus, the degrees granted by the Al-Quds University are not recognized in Israel and cannot serve its students when they are looking for work in the Israeli market, particularly where academic education is a prerequisite for job applications. The graduates of the Al-Quds faculty of medicine are the principal victims of the situation. Each year, some 80 students graduate from this faculty, a third of them Israeli Arabs. However, under the instructions of the Ministry of Health, in the absence of recognition by the CHE, they are barred from taking certification exams and from receiving a license to work in Israel.

“Israel is short of physicians. Yet, our graduates are looking for jobs in hospitals in Ramallah and Nablus or go abroad to pursue their studies, as officially, they cannot practice medicine in Israel,” says Ruished. “Had they presented a degree from some obscure university in Latvia, they would have been allowed to take the exams, and either pass them or fail. But they are not even given the chance, as the Ministry of Health bars them from taking the exams.”

What about other professionals?

“It is the same story all over again. Our teachers are barred from employment in the Ministry of Education. Social workers who graduate from our university find it difficult to move up the ladder in the civil service. The graduates of our faculty of dentistry are faced with a real problem and, likewise, nurses cannot fit in. It is a terrible waste of human resources, caused by unreasonable bureaucracy and, of course, politics.”

Given this impossible situation, where the Al-Quds University students are left in midair, unsure of their professional future, the university already appealed to the CHE a few years ago, demanding a solution to the problem. It was soon realized in the Al-Quds University that they had to choose one of three options: move the Palestinian campus of Abu Dis to Jerusalem, in which case it would be recognized as an Israeli university; move the Israeli campus of Jerusalem to Abu Dis, so as to obtain recognition as a foreign university — whose degrees may be recognized subject to compliance with specific academic requirements — or, alternatively, adopt another, quite revolutionary course of action and split between the two bodies.

In that case, an Israeli Al-Quds College would be set up in Jerusalem and operate under the CHE supervision, even though it would not be funded by the government, while the Abu Dis campus would be recognized as a foreign Palestinian university. Surprisingly, the Al-Quds University has opted for the third alternative.

No one in Israel thought that Nusseibeh, who is a descendent of an aristocratic Muslim family from Jerusalem, whose roots in Jerusalem date back to the seventh century and in whose hands the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have been held for over 150 years, would say “yes” to a move that could be interpreted as tantamount to the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

“No one really expected them to do it,” says Adv. Raanan Har-Zahav, who has been representing the Al-Quds University through the process. “The Israeli officials involved were astonished, to say the least. They were sure that, presented with the option of separation, the Al-Quds University would summarily reject the proposal and the problem would thus be resolved. However, as it turned out, they were in for a big surprise. Contrary to what might have been expected, the Al-Quds University embraced the proposal, and a new era has begun.”

“They were clearly taken aback in the CHE when we chose the third option,” adds Ruished. “They thought that we would give in for fear of being depicted as supporting normalization. Indeed, we were criticized over the issue, but we did not let it stop us. After all, it should be borne in mind that it is not a simple matter for a Palestinian university to establish a college and seek recognition by Israel.

"Anyway, in the course of 2010 we fulfilled every requirement posed by the CHE: We set up an association for the establishment of the Al-Quds College in Jerusalem, and we did it at our own expense, never asking for any funding by the state of Israel. At the same time, we hired an advocate to handle the formal aspect of the matter, and in compliance with the CHE request, we also engaged the services of an Israeli academic advisor. All that remained to be done was to submit the academic curricula for ratification.”

“The programs for social work and education studies were submitted in accordance with all applicable rules,” says Har-Zahav. “In January 2011, a confirmation of receipt was received and we were informed that the documents submitted were under examination. The university followed the requirements to the letter, and you should realize that it had been asked to submit to the CHE a number of voluminous tomes — not just a few papers. The entire university joined in the effort, in an attempt to meet the standards. We are still awaiting an official response. Two and a half years passed by, but no program has been approved.”

Asked to comment, the CHE issued a statement to the effect that this was the “standard procedure” generally applied. ''In January 2011, the Al-Quds College filed a request for a permit to set up an institution of higher education funded by foreign sources and intended to offer an undergraduate program for a first degree in social work (BSW). The establishment of the Al-Quds College is designed to enable the regulation of the academic activity in East Jerusalem, which is currently carried on under the auspices of the Al-Quds University, a Palestinian university supervised by the Ministry of Higher Education in the Palestinian Authority. The college is designed to operate in two campuses in East Jerusalem, in the Beit Hanina neighborhood and in the Hind al-Husseini College, and it is to be headed by Nusseibeh. Under the work procedures of the CHE, the curricula submitted are reviewed by academic committees (made up of experts in the relevant fields of study). The request filed by the institution (in 2011), is under comprehensive assessments in accordance with the CHE procedures, as is the rule for any other academic institution.”

However, Ruished suspects that completely different factors are behind the delay. “They simply don’t want us to be in Jerusalem,” he says. “They are trying to transfer us. The Israelis must be telling themselves: 'Let’s keep denying them recognition, until they finally give up hope and cave in.' They reckon that 1,000 students and 100 faculty members would then move to Abu Dis, along with at least some of their family members. Thus, once they finish their studies, the graduates would no longer consider the option of returning to Israel but rather seek work in Palestine.”

So, perhaps it would have been wiser to move the Jerusalem campus to Abu Dis?

“Why should we do that? We wish to provide academic services to our community in Jerusalem. There is not even one single Palestinian academic institution in Jerusalem today. Why should we deny girls who seek to acquire higher education close to home the option of doing so? Why should we force 1,000 Israeli students to spend time and money on travel, and why should they have to pass security barriers and checkpoints on their way? We are not going to close the Jerusalem campus. No way! It is our academic duty to offer programs.”

The ongoing foot-dragging stirred some frustrated students into action. Two years ago, 15 students of medicine, fed up with the red tape, appealed, through Jerusalem Advocate Shlomo Lecker, to the Supreme Court against the Ministry of Health, claiming that it barred them from taking the certification examinations.

The Supreme Court ruled that regardless of the bureaucratic barrier, the appellants should be enabled to take the certification examination and instructed the Ministry of Health to act accordingly.

“Our students took the exam and passed it with higher grades than most Israeli students. Nobody can argue that our academic level is low.” The success of the first 15 students encouraged others to follow suit and in mid-2011, another such petition was filed. However, that time the petition was rejected by the Supreme Court. Yet, under the court ruling, if by the end of 2012 the CHE did not conclude its review, then the minister of health would no longer be able to use it as a pretext for denying students the option of taking the certification exams, and in that case, the Ministry of Health would have to formulate a policy of its own, irrespective of the CHE. “It is four months now since the Ministry of Health should have informed us about its policy,” says Har-Zahav. “However, even that has not been done. It seems that the students will have to go back to court.”

Why doesn’t the university take action in their place?

Har-Zahav: “The University would rather go by the book in its dealings with the CHE and refrain from taking legal steps.”

"Adel Ruished is a realistic person. It is a no-win situation,” he says. “No one is profiting by it — neither our students nor the labor market in Israel. But we have patience. We are here to stay. Am I optimistic? Not really.”

It has been claimed — even though not out loud — that the body that stands in the way and blocks the recognition of the university and, in particular, the promotion of its medical graduates, is none other than the Israeli government itself. As it turns out, this claim has legs. It transpires that then Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser attended in person the discussions held at the Ministry of Justice all through 2012 with the aim of formulating the state’s response to the second petition submitted to the Supreme Court [in mid-2011] by the group of medical students (the case where the Supreme Court ruled that if by the end of 2012 the CHE did not conclude its review, then the Ministry of Health would have to formulate a policy of its own, irrespective of the CHE).

“He [Hauser] sat on all the meetings convened to discuss the issue and all along, justified the government's position — according to which those students should not be allowed to work in Israel,” a close associate divulged. “It was targeted prevention on the part of the government. The cabinet secretary is a busy man and he is not supposed to take part in professional deliberations of this kind, unless it is a purely political matter that is under discussion. And Hauser not only attended the meetings, but actually steered the discussions, impacting the decision.”

In the Ministry of Justice, they do not deny that Hauser was involved in the discussions. “As indicated in the legal arguments submitted on behalf of the state of Israel in response to the appeal to the Supreme Court — in the consultations undertaken during the handling of the matter, which involved other government elements, in addition to the Ministry of Health, and even the political echelon — the issue on the agenda was discussed and analyzed in depth, and it was eventually decided that the State of Israel could not possibly accept a situation where a university that operated within the State of Israel and specifically in Jerusalem would be deemed a foreign university, even though it had branches elsewhere. It should be noted that the appeal filed with the Supreme Court was rejected in August 2012.”

Be that as it may, so far, the Ministry of Justice has failed to provide an answer to the question, why should a “political official” bother to discuss the issue whether 15 students holding blue ID cards may or may not be allowed to take certification exams in Israel.

The Al-Quds University — ID

Established: in the early 1990s, as a merger of four campuses in Jerusalem and Abu Dis

Number of students: 14,000

The Jerusalem campus: 1,000 students (studying humanities, social sciences, education, social work, law, economics, archeology)

The Abu Dis campus: 13,000 students (faculty of science and technology, which includes the department of computer science & IT and the exact and natural science departments; faculty of engineering; faculty of medicine; a large faculty of health professions, including a department of nursing and midwifery; faculty of dentistry; and faculty of pharmacy)

Makeup of the student population: a third of the student body are Israeli Arabs and the rest Palestinians from the West Bank, as well as a small number of foreign residents

President: Professor Sari Nusseibeh

Number of faculty members: 800

Admission prerequisites: Matriculation examination grades (SAT not required) + admission tests and an interview at the university

Language of Study: Arabic

Tuition: NIS 8,000 per year [roughly $2,200] (as opposed to NIS 12,000 [just over $3,300] in Israeli universities)

Tali Heruti-Sover is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and the editor of the entrepreneur, career and management sections of The Marker, the leading economic daily newspaper In Israel (by the Haaretz group). During the last 10 years she was a magazine writer on Yediot Achronot, the most popular newspaper in Israel; Ynet, the most popular news website and Globes, the second-leading economic newspaper in Israel.

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