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Palestinian Universities Are Urged to Help Prisoners to Complete Higher Education

Academics have urged Palestinian universities to do more to support an initiative which enables women in Israeli prisons to complete their higher education.

The initiative was launched last year by the Palestinian parliamentarian Khalida Jarrar, who has herself been arrested three times and spent most of the past six years in jail.

In a statement issued before she was released from Haifa’s Damon prison on September 26, Jarrar said: “Hope in prison is like a flower that blossoms from a stone, and education for us Palestinians is our greatest weapon.”

Since she launched her initiative a year ago, 49 female prisoners have completed courses in international humanitarian law and received certificates approved by Palestinian ministries.

The first of its kind, Jarrar’s program aims at deepening the analytical capabilities of female prisoners and helping them to realize their aspirations.

In addition to international law, female prisoners also study human rights, literature and the Arabic and English languages. (See a related article, “Palestinian Law Students Get Practical Experience in Human Rights Work.”)

“Hope in prison is like a flower that blossoms from a stone, and education for us Palestinians is our greatest weapon

Khalida Jarrar
Founder of an initiative for educating Palestinian women in Israeli prisons

Without financial support from any international institution, the initiative relies on Jarrar’s voluntary efforts. She weekly meets with female prisoners and discusses academic subjects with them, according to the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, the Palestinian nongovernmental organization that is defending Jarrar before the Israeli courts.

Empowerment Through Education

Palestinian academics have praised the program but say not enough is being done to support it.

In a phone call, Ehteram Ghazawneh, head of the research and documentation unit at the Addameer Association, noted that certificates given to women who complete the course qualify them to study for a master’s degree in Palestinian universities, but are not academic degrees.

Jarrar, who has a master’s degree in democracy and human rights from Birzeit University, was accredited by Palestinian universities to teach these subjects to female prisoners at the bachelor’s level. She was also approved by the Ministry of Education to teach some subjects and supervise high school exams inside prison.

Palestinian Universities are Urged to Help Prisoners to Complete Higher Education
A law class at Birzeit University hears a presentation on the Israeli military court system, which prosecutes Palestinians who are charged with “security violations.” (Photo courtesy of the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association)

Ramzy Baroud, the Palestinian-American scholar who documented Jarrar’s story in his book “These Chains Will Be Broken,” believes the significance of the program goes beyond learning.

“Education is a form of individual empowerment, but in the Palestinian case, it is also a form of collective resistance, through which Palestinian prisoners, women and men alike, educate each other on many subjects, learn and teach languages, politics, and religion,” he wrote in an email.

“The psychological impact of educating prisoners, which depends entirely on self-sufficiency, is more profound than the idea of acquiring knowledge. It turns prison into a place of empowerment, unity and society-belonging in defiance of the conditions they endure.”

Adapting Programs for Imprisoned Students

Before Jarrar launched her program, there were no educational programs that fit the prison experience.

“This initiative must be built on,” Wissam Rafidi, a professor at Bethlehem University, said in a phone call. “Universities and official institutions must take it up in order to encourage prisoners to complete their university education.”

“This initiative must be built on. Universities and official institutions must take it up in order to encourage prisoners to complete their university education.”

Wissam Rafidi
ِA professor at Bethlehem University,

Rafidi, who spent a total of nine years in prison on separate occasions, said: “Individual initiatives by professors or some universities cannot be a substitute for an official policy and customized programs.”

For his part, Mustafa Jarrar, a professor of artificial intelligence at Birzeit University, said in a Zoom interview that most prisoners were able to study thanks to individual professors, rather than educational programs designed for prison conditions.

Palestinian detainees have the legal right to complete their education in prisons, and committees from Palestinian universities are working to follow up on postgraduate programs for them.

However, Mustafa Jarrar says it is difficult to find enough teachers. He believes that this will change only with specialized programs that enroll a large number of students.

Most Palestinian universities require students to regularly attend classes in person, but Al-Quds Open University and Al-Quds University in Abu Dis have programs that allow prisoners to study remotely in certain disciplines in social sciences and humanities.

“We hope that these people will be included in more than one educational program that accommodates their interests.”

Hanada Kharma
An activist in the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University

Nevertheless, Hanada Kharma, an activist in the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University, said that the program offered by Al-Quds Open University to prisoners is not sufficient. “It does not accommodate all Palestinian prisoners in light of its limited disciplines,” she said in a phone call, adding that students rarely completed bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

Great Expectations

There are currently about 80 students detained in Israeli prisons, says Kharma, calling on Palestinian universities to build on Khalida Jarrar’s initiative to help these students complete their education in various disciplines.

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“We hope that these people will be included in more than one educational program that accommodates their interests, suits their geographical distance from classrooms, and pushes them to employ their current conditions in order to turn their detention into a ‘cultural revolution’ through reading and education,” she said.

By: Amr EL-Tohamy

Amr is an Egyptian journalist who writes for Al-Masry Al-Youm.
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