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By David E. Miller
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.
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 move.
"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," Lt. Col. 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 Line.
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 your knowledge."
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 courses.
Learning was considered such a privilege, Anati said, the prison administration would punish misbehaving inmates by barring them from study.
"There are certain courses that were banned altogether, like one called The Age of Revolutions, which discusses the history of the American and French revolutions."
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 Israel (ACRI).
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 discipline.
"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."
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