Palestinian engineer Loay Elbasyouni is a remarkable man, not least because he is an integral part of the NASA team which made history last week by developing the technology to fly a helicopter on Mars. Born and educated in the Gaza Strip, like so many gifted students from the besieged Palestinian territory he is proof that they have much to offer their own country as well as the wider world.
The truth is that, given the chance, there are thousands of talented young men and women who have the ability to make their mark academically and in the work place, just like Elbasyouni has done. Israel’s brutal occupation and siege, however, makes it a nightmare for them to be able to put their talents and qualifications to the best possible use.
Israel prefers to portray Palestinian youth in a negative light by calling them terrorists and a threat to the world, solely in order to justify the siege of Gaza and its making of life as difficult as possible in the occupied West Bank, riddled as it is with military checkpoints, illegal settlements and settler-only roads lacerating the countryside. Every year we hear about students who are offered scholarships to study at Ivy League universities only to find that Israel won’t let them travel. Even high achievers in sports and athletics are prevented from competing on the international stage, hindered at every turn by Israel and its military occupation.
On visits to Gaza and the occupied West Bank, I have seen for myself how Palestinian schoolchildren regard their education as a form of resistance against the Israeli occupation. Such is their strength of character that they willingly risk school runs fraught with danger because of out-of-control vigilante Jewish settlers living in illegal settlements. Getting the best out of their education is their way of fighting back.
This determination to succeed in education was highlighted in a 2001 report by Ramzi Rihan, professor of physics and vice-president for planning and development at Birzeit University. “Since 1948,” said the former consultant to the Palestinian Ministry of Education for Higher Education, “Palestinians have realised that the only reliable basis for their economic survival is their knowledge. Sudden cataclysmic demographic shifts, continuous political instability, and the dearth of local natural resources have made human resources the most important foundation for social progress, economic development, and cultural identity among Palestinians.”
The more that Israel bombs and bulldozes schools, the more determined that these children are to continue their education. As a result, Palestinians of both sexes are notably the most educated identifiable population in the Middle East, especially as far as girls are concerned. Statistics show that despite being hindered so severely by Israel, children living in occupied Palestine achieve the highest marks in education across the Arab world, including the wealthy Gulf States. Indeed, according to the World Bank and UNESCO, they even rival their counterparts in the developed world as well as being ahead of those living in developing countries across Africa, Asia and South America.
It is no surprise that some of the world’s top universities, including Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford, have offered scholarships to bright young Palestinians. However, there is a dark side to this success story, and one which is much under-reported. Many of these scholarships are not taken up because Israel, and Egypt in the case of Gaza, will not allow the students to travel overseas to study. In the occupied West Bank, some students never make it beyond the first Israeli checkpoint a few miles from home. It’s as though they are being punished for being, quite simply, so brilliant.
Quite why the Israeli government appears to resent and despise the achievements of these youngsters is beyond most Western educators, many of whom share the Palestinians’ pride in their academic excellence, hence the scholarships. Hundreds of students in Gaza, in particular, appear to have been punished by the occupation authorities ever since Hamas took control of the coastal strip after the last Palestinian elections in 2006.
Israel’s targeting of Palestinian education also means that international scholars are prevented from working in universities in the occupied territories. The Israelis either block them from getting into the country in the first place, or refuse to renew the visas of those already working in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Reading about Loay Elbasyouni’s journey from Gaza to the NASA space programme is inspirational but his success is also a poignant reminder of the wealth of untapped talent being stymied by Israeli callousness. The settler-colonial state is doing its best to suffocate the ambitions of young Palestinians, but it won’t succeed, for the simple reason that its brutality can’t mar their dreams and aspirations.
Elbasyouni describes his journey from Gaza to the US in 2000 as a “mission impossible” with a return journey to his homeland being too risky. “It’s really hard to get into Gaza without putting my career at risk,” he explained recently. “If I go in there, I might get stuck.” This speaks volumes about the inhumanity of the occupation imposed by Israel.
“With the Mars situation it’s science that determines things,” he added. “With science we can calculate everything and predict everything as much as we can, and we stick to our hopes and beliefs and our mathematical proof. But when it comes to situations involving politics it depends on people’s opinions, and they’re unpredictable.”
As long as Zionist Israel is driven by spite and malice there will be more attempts to block the young dreamers in the occupied Palestinian territories. There is something sadly wrong when extremely talented scientists and engineers like Elbasyouni can smash through the frontiers in space by flying an aircraft on another planet, yet thousands of bright young Palestinians cannot put a foot outside their occupied homeland.
Just this week Israel was, yet again, branded as an apartheid state by a major human rights organisation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the opportunities it provides for Jewish students which it refuses as a matter of routine for young Palestinians. Nevertheless, extremely gifted Palestinian dreamers continue to defy the nightmare of Israeli occupation. Long may they do so.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.