Weeks before Israeli Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu declared he was putting an end to college-level studies by Palestinian prisoners, the inmates had already stopped making notations in textbooks on Islamic history and studying for final examinations in international relations.
But both the students and their teachers are angry and perplexed by the decisions.
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About 300 Palestinians among the 5,640 security prisoners currently held in Israeli jails had been hitting the books, taking courses ranging from Basic Concepts in International Relations to Islam: An Introduction to the History of the Religion. In an unusual arrangement, they are taught by professors from Israel’s Open University while their tuition was covered by the Palestinian Authority.
Muhannad Anati, a Palestinian field researcher with the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, completed his bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations while serving a nine-year prison term in the 1990s. Netanyahu's decision would be counterproductive, he said.
"It's a stupid idea," Anati told The Media Line. "As the saying goes: 'a
wise enemy is better than a foolish friend." He said an academic
education teaches prisoners to think differently and change their
behavior. "Prisoners have lots of time on their hands. If they don't
occupy themselves with studies, they will do other things that won't
necessarily be in Netanyahu's benefit."
Netanyahu thinks otherwise. In a bid to pressure Hamas, the Palestinian
group holding Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit hostage, the prime minister
declared last week he would tighten conditions of Palestinian prisoners
held in Israeli penitentiaries.
This week, some Hamas prisoners have been transferred to solitary
confinement, visitation rights have been limited and meat was reportedly
removed from the prison menu. But academic education is the issue
Netanyahu chose to highlight.
"We will stop the practice whereby terrorists sitting in Israeli prisons
for murdering innocents enroll in academic studies," Netanyahu told a
conference in Jerusalem last Thursday. "There will be no more
masters-degree students for murder and PhD students for terrorism."
Netanyahu has been under public pressure to strike a deal with Hamas,
which kidnapped Shalit five years ago this week, that would entail
exchanging the soldier for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Hamas has
continually refused to provide the International Red Cross access to
Shalit or proof of his wellbeing.
In fact, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) already decided a few weeks
ago to end the study program, although it didn’t offer a reason for the
"The decision to stop enrollment in academic studies was taken over the
past few weeks by the IPS Commander and there is currently no new
enrollment," Lieutenant Colonel Sivan Weizmann, an IPS spokeswoman, told
The Media Line in a written statement.
Tal Shoval, a faculty member at the Open University who teaches
Palestinian inmates, said cancelling the studies was wrongheaded.
"If the move is retaliation for the behavior of Shalit's captors, it’s
not only silly and cynical, it is also immoral," Shoval told The Media
Sufian Abu-Zaida, a former Palestinian minister of prisoners' affairs
and now director of a think-tank called Gaza for Political and Strategic
Studies (GPSS), regretted not being able to study while he was in
prison in Israel from 1981 to 1993. Instead, he and his fellow prisoners
taught themselves Hebrew using self-study textbooks.
"I first started learning Hebrew to 'know my enemy', but it became much
more than that," Abu-Zaida told The Media Line. "It's about widening
Security prisoners began enrolling in university in 1994 after a number
of them launched a hunger strike demanding the same right to study as
criminal prisoners, who had enjoyed that right since 1978. The Open
University doesn’t require students to have a high school matriculation
certificate (bagrut), so Palestinian prisoners could study without prep
Learning was considered such a privilege, Anati said, the prison
administration would punish misbehaving inmates by barring them from
"There are certain courses that were banned altogether, like one called
The Age of Revolutions, which discusses the history of the American and
In 2002, the IPS singled out 30 courses that it tried to ban
Palestinians from taking, but the move was struck down by Israel's
Supreme Court following an appeal by the Association for Civil Rights in
The Palestinian Authority funds the academic tuition of Palestinians in
Israeli jails, Anwar Shihab of the media department in the Palestinian
Ministry of Detainees, told The Media Line. The tuition is part of a
larger package that includes a monthly stipend and spending money for
the prison canteen.
"We have just signed a new agreement with the [Palestinian] Al-Quds Open
University, but the agreement has been frozen following the Israeli
decision," Shihab told The Media Line.
Not everyone thinks letting Palestinian prisoners get an academic degree
is a good thing. Mordechai Kedar, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat
Center for Strategic Studies at Tel-Aviv's Bar Ilan University, said the
courses were being used as a tool to make Palestinian inmates happy and
content rather than assert control over them by ordinary prison
"When I first heard they were allowed to get degrees I nearly fell off
my chair," Kedar told The Media Line. "How did we come to this? Do they
allow academic studies in Guantanamo Bay or in any of the European
prisons? … We always try to appease people in order to be loved, but it
simply doesn't work."