Barriers at Birzeit University
by Skip Schiel

September 2005

© Skip Schiel 2005
Skip Schiel
California photos

The university sits atop a limestone ledge about 5 miles northwest of Ramallah, adjoining the small village of Birzeit. Since 2000 and the start of the second intifada the Israeli authorities often closed the school. They did this with checkpoints—the Surda checkpoint was infamous, a road blockage that forced travelers to leave vehicles and walk across a broken road stretch of about one kilometer. Or direct closures, locking gates for example, or shelling the school. Although the university is known as one of the best in the entire Middle East, drawing international students and professors, with the dangers and anguish of the second intifida the international population dwindled, as did funding. Enrollment from places like Gaza shrank. Students could not easily get from home to school and back.

From “The Impact of Military Occupation on Education”, by Birzeit’s Right to Education Campaign & Nick King, Discovery Analytical Resourcing, 21 June 2005 <>:

Between 1973 and 1992, Birzeit University was closed on fifteen separate occasions, a time period amounting to over seven years when aggregated…At other times, random violence seems designed simply to terrorise students. On December 9 2003, an army jeep arrived at the entrance to the Birzeit University campus and opened fire with rubber-coated bullets, injuring four students….As of January 2005, Birzeit University reported seventy-six of its student and staff members detained in prison or awaiting trial, with eleven students held under administrative detention regulations. Two-thirds of those interned had not been to trial. One member of staff had been arrested twice, the second time sentenced to six months administrative detention. One student has been kept in jail under an extended administrative detention order for over two years - it is in the design of this punishment that prisoners lose their freedom without any clear idea as to why they are being held. Aggregate figures for the higher education sector overall give the total number of students detained since September 2000 as 710.

I arrived in September 2004 expecting to co-lead a photography project that would enlist advanced photo students and recent grads to show their experiences with occupation. I might also teach in the Photo Unit, the only university level photography training available in Palestine. Naturally, I was excited by this prospect and prepared as best I could. I wrote the personnel, trying to gain some insight into student experience and expectations. I collected my teaching materials that I’d developed over 15 years of teaching at an adult education center. I had several conversations with Gretchen Merryman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) who’d studied Arabic at Birzeit and worked on staff. I recall her telling me, when I asked about student motivation, she replied that given their situation of having very few employment possibilities—why study if there is minimal chance of employment? —motivation was a problem. And I studied the issues and histories of the Israel-Palestine (IP) region, drawing on my first experience in country one year earlier.

On that trip in 2003, a reality tour (to places and people not often shown in tours, to demonstrate the effects of the occupation) led by the FOR, I visited Birzeit, met the director of public relations, RB, and was much impressed and drawn by the school. RB spoke flawless English, was dashing and compassionate, and exhibited a lively manner that was very attractive, and to my eyes, unexpected in her situation because of the occupation. Later, while offering my photography and photo teaching experience to various organizations in IP, Birzeit was among the first to reply positively. I was ecstatic. Finally, someone had said yes to my offer, I have a channel for photography and a base of operations. Perhaps I can help in the struggle for human rights and publicize the situation when I return to the States with my photos and stories.

I’d requested minimal hospitality—a place to stay and either food or provisions for food like a stipend—and Birzeit had generously offered an apartment I could share with other faculty and a small stipend.

After making an arrangement with the director of Birzerit’s Right to Education Campaign, HM, to meet me in Jerusalem and escort me to Ramallah (I had no idea how to get from the border crossing to Birzeit), with some trepidation I left my home in Cambridge, flew the 10 hours or so to Amman Jordan, successfully passed thru the border crossing station at the Allenby Bridge, and found my way to the Four Seasons restaurant in East Jerusalem.

And so it goes, in late August 2004, just one year ago, when I was nervously preparing to journey those thousands of miles into a largely unknown-to-me land. I worried: about my house, whether I’d get it packed up in time; about getting into Israel; about illness; my talents in photography; whether I’d be injured or killed in the work; how I’d do in this new situation of co-leading a photo project about an issue I knew little about. And what is the project exactly, what is my role in it?

I’d had minimal contact with my colleagues at Birzeit, a few emails, no phone calls, some reading about Birzeit, the previous meeting I’d had with RB and some students, and most importantly, the conversations with Gretchen of FOR. So I arrived in the middle of September 2004, the university had just opened for the academic year.

HM met me at the Four Seasons restaurant (not a part of the chain known to many US residents, but probably simply borrowing the name). It was large, on two floors, with glass windows, and served reasonably priced Palestinian fare. The food sat in a glass-enclosed showcase, observable, and for someone like me, with minimal Arabic, easily pointed at. It sat across from the Damascus Gate of the Old City, near what is called the Seam, or armistice line of 1967, dividing Israeli held territory from that controlled by Jordan. We ate lunch, then walked a few blocks to the bus station and left for Ramallah, a distance of some 10 miles. In ordinary times Ramallah could be reached within about 15 minutes, but because of the occupation, the trip required upwards of one hour.

We passed the newly constructed Separation Wall in Al-Ram, an 8 meter (24-foot) high concrete barrier with watchtowers, in this location running down the middle of the main street. It not only separated Israelis and Palestinians, but Palestinians living in the same town. I made my first photo, thru the window. More an obligatory photo, a warm up, than anything serious and usable. It was to be my first—of this trip, I’d made many on the previous journey in 2003—of the Wall, in different parts of the West Bank, and in its various manifestations, concrete and chain link, completed, unfinished.

We left the shared taxi, the service (pronounced “serveece”) before reaching the heart of Ramallah, Al-Manarah (meaning the clock tower, but the clock was long gone), in the southern section of the city. Ramallah numbers some 60,000 people and had been largely Christian. It adjoins its sister city, El-Bireh, traditionally Muslim. The word Ramallah translates as “the hill of god,” Ram-Allah. El-Bireh is thought by some to be where Mary and Joseph, the parents of the adolescent Jesus, first discovered he was not with them as they made their way to their home in Nazareth. Later they discovered he’d remained at the temple in Jerusalem listening to and perhaps arguing with the priests. A mosque marks the site of the family’s discovery...

…I wandered around campus, not sure how I was being received—the perennial outsider, a spy, a know-it-all Westerner, American to boot? My eye was immediately struck by the gleaming white limestone facades over concrete on all buildings, the clear sky, the hot dry air, the relative (to Ramallah) quiet, the fresh breezes, and the relative peace. Dropping in by parachute, unaware of recent history, one might surmise that this is any university campus, most anywhere in the world. The men had shiny black hair, often made to stand straight up with hair gel, some women were covered, but unlike many US campuses, people hung out together outside. There was a constant din of soft conversation, people sat together on curbs and embankments, like one big reception...

...Shortly after watching the video [about the effects of the occupation on education] I encountered not only my first flying checkpoint, but the obligation or mission to photograph one. I’d purchased a camera with a long telephoto lens, and here I could use it. I walked to the taxi stand at Al-Manarah, a 45-minute walk I made every morning—my constitutional and a way to be seen and meet people. Unlike most mornings, the area was clogged with hundreds of students milling about. I inquired. A flying checkpoint on the road to Birzeit. Don’t know when it will clear, how long we’ll have to wait. An impulse led me to try to get thru, or at least get there, since I was to photograph scenes illustrating the effects of the occupation on education. Couldn’t just sit there waiting.

I found a group of women students sitting in one of the taxis, one seat remained. I asked if they were intending to go to the checkpoint. They were. Could I ride with them? I could. But first I photographed clusters of students waiting, not knowing. One woman wearing a bright chartreuse head covering caught my attention. I stood in front of her, using what I call “the Lou Jones technique of street photography”—not interrupting the action by formally asking permission to photograph but by a series of steps, the photographer signaling clearly the intent while being fully vulnerable should the people prove resistant—and when I saw she was effectively giving me permission to photograph her, I made a series of portraits. Woman waiting, not sure when she will be allowed in to her campus.

In the taxi my heart beat hard and fast. I sweated. I took out my camera and made sure all the initial settings were correct. I had no idea what to expect.

About two thirds the way there, a short distance past the old Surda checkpoint, there it was, first indicated by a long line of vehicles, people standing around, then I saw it: two jeeps, brown, antennas high, flashing roof lights, soldiers looking mean, conspicuously wearing automatic rifles, looking mean and nervous. Not the ideal setup for photography, does not meet the guidelines YD had suggested would be appropriate for photography of tough situations.

I remained about 100 feet away, using my telephoto lens, and tried to view with my camera at waist level since photographers and videographers have been shot by the army when they placed their equipment to their faces. The army claimed they thought it was a weapon. I deliberately lined up students waiting or walking toward the soldiers with the checkpoint to show the combination. Noticing what some others were doing with their passports, once I thought I had the photos, I held my passport up high, waved it at the soldiers, and walked forward when I thought they saw me and had beckoned me forward.

Reaching them, they said, in fairly good English, “Were you photographing us?”

“I was photographing the students.”

“Have a nice day,” they replied, waving me thru.

The checkpoint came down by 1 pm but by then many students and staff including HM, YD, and R had decided to stay home. Another day lost. The cafeteria was half empty. I went swiftly thru the line and enjoyed the relative quiet of the dining hall.

Later, with R and HM, we chose from this set of photos several to place on the Right to Education website. The university also used some of my health minister tour photos. These were my highest moments at Birzeit, I’m afraid. From there it was mostly downhill.

This was day 6, September 22, 2004.

(To be continued)

Right to Education Campaign, Birzeit University

Photographs by Skip Schiel of the flying checkpoint on September 22, 2004

Another Birzeit anecdote, wiht a photo