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Director’s Blog: Crossing Borders

On February 14th, the Arava Institute will open its doors to the students of the 2017 Spring Semester. We are expecting a large contingent of over 50 students and interns from Israel, Palestine (West Bank and Gaza), Jordan, Egypt, the U.S., Europe, and Africa! This will be one of the largest and most diverse semesters in the history of the Institute. The academic staff is working diligently to get the campus ready, prepare the syllabi for courses, set up the orientation schedule and finalize trip plans for the semester.

One of the most challenging aspects of preparing for a new semester is to ensure that each student has the appropriate visa or permit in order to enter Israel. Judy Bar Lev, the Administrative Director of the Arava Institute, is responsible for this task and spends about half of her work day dealing with the issue. Leading up to a semester like this one, for a few weeks, it becomes Judy’s fulltime job. She is in constant contact with the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for issuing visas to all international students, and with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Civil Administration, which issues permits for Palestinians. In addition, all non-Israeli Middle Eastern students require clearance from the General Security Services (GSS – Israel’s FBI).

From 2000, with the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada (the Second Intifada), the IDF placed a ban on all Palestinian students studying in Israel. From 2000 until 2007, no Palestinian students were allowed to study in Israel’s institutes of higher learning. In 2007, the Arava Institute joined a suit filed in the Israeli Supreme Court by Gisha, an Israeli non-governmental organization which helps Palestinians with issues of mobility. Gisha was representing a Palestinian PhD student asking to finish her studies at Hebrew University, where she had begun studying before the ban. The Institute joined the suit asking that the IDF remove the ban altogether and implement security checks on a case-by-case basis. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Arava Institute and ordered the IDF to remove the blanket ban on Palestinian students studying in Israel and to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Our first Palestinian student after the Supreme Court ruling came in 2008 from Bethlehem. He completed his PhD studies at Ben-Gurion University last spring.

The Institute is currently allowed to put in requests for 10 Palestinians per semester. However, we have not been able to bring in a student from Gaza since before the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Over the past year, the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management has been working with a number of organizations to launch a program that would bring Palestinians from Gaza to study at the Arava Institute. Unfortunately, certain bureaucratic issues torpedoed the original program but, due to the good connections made, especially to the section of the Israeli Army which deals with permits for Gazans, we hope to host two Gazan students this semester and more in the future.

It is not a simple thing to cross borders here in the Middle East. Movement is especially challenging for Palestinians who not only have a difficult time entering Israel, but also find travelling within the West Bank complicated due to Israeli security check posts. For both Palestinians and Jordanians crossing the border into Israel, there are not only the various security checks, but also the risk of significant social repercussions due to the strong anti-normalization movement in Palestine and Jordan, the movement to pressure Palestinians and Jordanians to not cooperate with Israelis and break all ties. Despite these challenges, students come each semester.

For Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and students from around the world, security is, of course, a real concern, and at the Arava Institute, we take that concern very seriously. All students are interviewed by us prior to acceptance, and the appropriate security precautions are taken by the Israeli government when issuing our students visas and permits.

While some put their faith in walls, fences, and blanket bans for their safety, I believe that real security is achieved through people-to-people interaction, the breaking down of stereotypes and building bridges of understanding and trust around mutual concerns like the environment. We look forward to welcoming this Spring Semester’s cohort of students from the Middle East and around the world.

David Lehrer        

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