Jerusalem (Al- Quds) has played a central educational role throughout its history. In particular, its schools and faculties, built around the Noble Sanctuary and within the Old City walls, boasted a vibrant academic and scholarly community over many generations. Important scholars felt it necessary to pay a visit to the city, in order to have the honor of publishing their works here. Al-Ghazzali (d.1111), who presided over the University of Baghdad, published one of his famous tracts in Al-Quds. Old manuscripts in use by scholars at the time in medicine, jurisprudence, and mathematics still survive in the city's mosque and family libraries.
Most educational institutes were financed by trusts, one of the largest being the "Salahiyyah" (after its founder, Salah-eddin, in the 12th century). However, these scholarly centers, along with other government and community institutes and activities, declined during the 19th century. The idea of reviving Jerusalem's role as an educational center was expressed at an All-Islamic conference held in Jerusalem in 1931. At that conference, a call was made to establish a University carrying the name of "AL-AQSA" the Islamic shrine in Al-Quds.
The University after 1945
However, this University remained just an idea, with only the Arab College being launched at the end of the British Mandate period in Palestine. The sense of pride in this step, however, was immediately overshadowed by the dismantling of Palestine, the occupation of west Jerusalem, and the Palestinian Diaspora.
The idea of creating Al-Quds University, on what remained of Jerusalem, was again revived in the fifties. By that time, the West Bank had been annexed to Jordan, with Amman as capital. Jordan's efforts were naturally focused on establishing a university in Amman instead. Meanwhile, the Israeli occupation of east Jerusalem in 1967 effected and continues to effect drastic actions in the city. An Arab university in Jerusalem was again kept on the sidelines.
In the early seventies, discussions restarted to establish a Palestinian university able to absorb the numbers of students matriculating from the West Bank and Gaza schools, who, due to the circumstances created by the occupation of 1967, could not easily seek higher education in the Arab world. Although there were calls for locating a university in Jerusalem, the prevailing school of thought was that establishing a university outside what had become Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem would prevent it from coming under Israel's control. Slowly, certain well-established educational institutions in the West Bank evolved into universities, including Birzeit and Al-Najjah, followed by other universities in Hebron and Bethlehem. Again, Jerusalem/Al-Quds was bypassed.
The Roots of Establishment
In the late seventies, several independent colleges were established in Jerusalem and its suburbs, in response to specific needs. The first initiative came with the birth of the College of Daawa and Religious Principles in Beit-Hanina in 1978, to be followed by the Colleges of Medical Professions and Science and Technology in Al-Bireh and Abu-Dis respectively, in 1979. In 1982, the College of Hind Al-Husseini for Women (Faculty of Arts) and the Center for Islamic Archaeology were formed, both in the Sheikh Jarrah district.
A vision of a university in the capital, Jerusalem, began to materialize when action was taken in 1984 for the unification of these colleges. This nominal birth came about in response to a requirement by the Union of Arab Universities as a condition for recognition of their degrees. A coordinating committee was then formed from the various college boards of trustees. So, an evolving process of "confederacy" began in which the different colleges still maintained their legal separation. In 1994, the Faculty of Medicine was founded.
The Official Establishment
The official amalgamation of all colleges and faculties was fully realized in 1995. A "basic law" of the university was endorsed, followed by the honing of integrated bylaws, which were put into effect, thus clearing the way for the birth of Al-Quds University as a single institution. New centers and colleges were opened or amalgamated, and a full range of academic programs and educational plans were implemented to emphasize a positive concept of interaction with society. Al-Quds University, as an entity, had finally come into being.
The Fight for Survival and Current Reality
Al Quds University has been in existence as an academic institution in Jerusalem for over 30 years. It is a leading academic institution in the country and ranks top in the entire Arab world in the number of peer-reviewed publications per faculty member per year. Amongst its many faculties and departments are the first Palestinian schools of law and medicine, museums of mathematics, science and prisoners’ affairs, research centers in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and environmental sciences, centers for community action, legal aid clinics and an educational television station and media laboratory. It employs approximately 1,300 staff who provide educational services for 13,000 students up to the MA level.
Al Quds has two principal campuses, a larger one in Abu Dis at the edge of Jerusalem, and a smaller “city” campus inside East Jerusalem – in the Old City and its environs – with about 1000 students and numerous institutes and research centres. Over the past decade, the Abu Dis campus has been split from the Jerusalem city campus - the central administration of the University and the colleges and centers located within the Israeli-defined borders of East Jerusalem - by the Separation Wall, leaving these in an increasingly precarious position, both legally and practically. The University has been forced to severely curtail its educational activities in East Jerusalem as a result of the consistent denial of access to both students and professors.
In the last few years, the University has noted a marked increase in the pressure applied to it by the Israeli government, both on the political/legal front and on the military one. In 2013 alone, 1769 students and staff were injured by the Israeli army in 26 separate attacks on the University campus in Abu Dis – one attack actually occurred during a visit by the U.S. Consul-General to the campus, on July 3rd 2013. In the handful of weeks since the beginning of 2014, the Israeli army has attacked the Abu Dis campus on three separate occasions – January 14th, 22nd and 30th. The attack on the 22nd of January caused 438 injuries among students and staff, including over 40 requiring hospitalization; dozens of armed soldiers entered the campus, causing damage to University buildings and cars, firing hundreds of canisters of tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition. They then prevented anyone from leaving the campus for more than five hours. Meanwhile, staff and students are frequently summoned, arrested and intimidated, both in the Abu Dis campus and in the premises in the Old City, which have also been raided, and sometimes closed down, on numerous occasions.
At the same time, at the legal/political level, the University has been struggling for its very existence, battling the threat of closure by the Israeli authorities for the past seventeen years, both in the Israeli courts, and through attempts at negotiation with the Israeli authorities. Although Al Quds University is fully accredited and licensed by the relevant Palestinian bodies, and recognized worldwide, the Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem – part of the territories occupied in 1967, and therefore not recognized as part of Israel under international law – have insisted that it submit to Israeli accreditation as an Israeli institution or be closed down and have its administration arrested. However, the Israelis have also not allowed the University to straddle the Israeli-defined “border” between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank as a single institution, but are forcing it to cut itself in half to survive. The University’s repeated attempts to comply with the Israeli authorities’ requirements have had no success.
Al Quds University was ultimately forced to apply for accreditation of its “city” campus as a separate institution under Israel's jurisdiction. It did this based on an informal agreement with the Israeli Ministry and Council of Higher Education that, once it had submitted its application, Israel would automatically recognize all of the degrees held by the University’s graduates. Despite the University’s best efforts – and despite hiring the pre-eminent Israeli lawyer in this field, at considerable cost – the application has been delayed for years by the Israeli authorities, far longer than even Israeli law allows. Meanwhile, the Israeli authorities have reneged on their commitment to retroactively recognize the University’s degrees, and the University’s Israeli lawyer has been informed by his contacts at the relevant ministries that the University’s file is being handled by the Prime Minister’s Office. Even if the Israeli authorities do, in the end, recognize the University’s city campus as a separate Israeli-regulated entity in East Jerusalem, this would still leave the University with all the consequences – financial, administrative, etc. – of having been forced to split in two.
Israel’s refusal to recognize Al Quds University degrees is a vital issue. It means that University graduates cannot work and make a life in Jerusalem, especially in the vital sectors of medicine, health professions, education etc., which are regulated by the Israeli authorities, and in which there is a dire shortage. For instance, it is estimated that there are currently 10,000 school-age children in East Jerusalem without access to school education. The University’s Hind Husseini College for Girls, in Sheikh Jarrah, graduates approximately 50 teachers with BA’s in Education every year – who are then not allowed to teach in Jerusalem schools because their degrees are not recognized by Israel. Similarly, Al Quds University has a preeminent College of Medicine, whose graduate doctors are prevented from practicing in Jerusalem, where the main Palestinian hospital, the Makassed, is located. Not to mention the central role the University plays, as the major remaining Palestinian institution in Jerusalem, in many other essential activities in the city, cultural (through the Centre for Jerusalem Studies, for instance), social welfare (through the Community Action Centre, which provides adult education and legal aid, or the Child Institute, which works with learning disabilities and therapy, etc.), and so on, all of which are under threat.
Al Quds University has reached the end of its legal recourses. Palestinians living in Jerusalem have a right to an education, and to work and make a life there; and Al Quds University has a right to exist as a university in East Jerusalem. In September 1993, as Israel and the PLO were signing the Oslo Accords, Israel’s Foreign Minister (now President) Shimon Peres made a formal statement to the Knesset, reiterated in his letter to Minister Holst of Norway on October 11, 1993 (quoted): “Therefore, all Palestinian institutions of East Jerusalem, including the economic, social, educational and cultural, and the holy Christian and Moslem places, are performing an essential task for the Palestinian population. Needless to say, we will not hamper their activity; on the contrary, the fulfillment of this important mission is to be encouraged.” The plight of the University ought not to be a political issue – it is a vital one for the inhabitants of our city – but it is one which now can only apparently be resolved by pressure on Israel to respect both international law, especially the right to education, and its own stated commitments. Israel must cease immediately from attacking Al Quds University’s campuses, staff and students; and it must permit the University to work freely without hindrance in Abu Dis and East Jerusalem, and provide recognition to its graduates.
While the University encourages purely scholarly and research activities where the end is "knowledge for itself", it balances this support for the pursuit of knowledge with a strong interactive role in society. Thus, whether through the practically-oriented degree-offering programs it provides (such as medicine, nursing, law, dentistry, social work, computer and IT know-how, food-processing technology etc.); through the practical credit-hours students have to invest in the industry; through its research activities (such as in public health, social science, environment, agro-chemical industry, etc.), or through its outreach programs and institutes (such as a community service center, a continuing education program, a television station, etc.), the University manages to maintain its feet firmly on the ground, both in terms of how it "listens" to society as well as in terms of how it “influences it”.