From West to the west

Saed Abu-Hijleh speaks about teaching in the West Bank to a crowd in Ellis Hall on Tuesday

Saed Abu-Hijleh, geography professor from the West Bank, says he thinks education isn’t a privilege but a right.
Saed Abu-Hijleh, geography professor from the West Bank, says he thinks education isn’t a privilege but a right.

Saed Abu-Hijleh almost didn’t make it past Pearson Airport officials to get into Canada. After arriving in Toronto this week, the Palestinian geography professor was held for four hours and questioned about his intentions for visiting.

“The woman asked me, after four hours of holding me, ‘Are you going to speak against Israel? Are you going to agitate people against Israel? Do you have material in your bag that you’re going to distribute against Israel?’ I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m attending a freedom of speech conference.’”

Abu-Hijleh, who teaches at An-Najah National University in the West Bank, was in Toronto for the Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Teach conference.

On Tuesday, he came to Queen’s to deliver a lecture called “Education under Military Occupation and Apartheid.” “Basically, I gave a detailed description of the Israeli military occupation,” he said. “What it means politically, geographically, economically, culturally, demographically—you know, all aspects of a civilian population being subject to the conditions of an Israeli military occupation.”

Abu-Hijleh’s family gained world attention after his mother, activist Shaden Abu-Hijleh, was shot and killed by Israeli Defense Forces at the family’s home in the city of Nablus on Oct. 11, 2002. Saed Abu-Hijleh and his father both sustained injuries in the attack. An investigation of the shooting remains unsolved.

Abu-Hijleh said he thinks there are a number of violations being committed against Palestinians that obstruct their efforts to obtain education.

“[I] classify these violations from the closure of universities and colleges, to the destruction of campuses and educational property, to the detention and imprisonment of teachers, professors and students, to the killing of students and professors, to the imposition of military checkpoints that limited and put obstacles on Palestinian students attending universities,” he said.

At one point, there were 600 military checkpoints in West Bank and Gaza, he said.

Abu-Hijleh said he knows of students who have been held in jail for months without being charged. “I have students now who are 27 years old who went through administrative detention by the Israelis and they lost semester after semester.”

Abu-Hijleh said he doesn’t think criticizing the Israeli government’s policies is the same as anti-Semitism. “You’re criticizing the policies of an oppressive state,” he said. “A lot of people can’t make the distinction between Israeli and Jew, or between a Zionist and Jew, and because Israel is calling itself the Jewish state and is doing all of these human rights violations in the name of a Jewish state, then it’s actually harming the Jews.” Abu-Hijleh said the goal of his lecture wasn’t only to address Palestinian students’ problems but to explore ways to improve their conditions.

“We created a campaign … where we try to educate our students about their rights,” he said. “A lot of students think it’s a privilege to go to university. No, it’s their right.” Abu-Hijleh helped create the Student Support Fund to allow students from low-income families to attend Palestinian educational institutions.

He has been active in establishing links with European and North American universities through twinning agreements, which enables them to share research and knowledge and cross-cultural student interaction. “We try to build bridges with the outside world,” he said. “We do things like video conferencing to connect students in the United States or Canada who care and [students in] Palestine in order to make them feel that they’re not isolated.”

Abu-Hijleh said he thinks access to information and knowledge are crucial to affecting change. “A lot of people have misconceptions, a lot of people have stereotypes—very simplistic stereotypes,” he said. “They think that Palestinians and Israelis have been fighting forever. … It’s completely simplistic and ignorant and that’s why the first step in changing is education.”

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