Palestinian students are graduating this weekend from Bir Zeit University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank despite having suffered persistent and considerable violations of their right to academic freedom, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the beginning of the so-called Al Aqsa intifada in late September, Bir Zeit University has faced a military blockade that has often prevented students from attending classes and has at times shut down the university completely. The graduation ceremonies, which will take place over the next three days, have been delayed by about one month because of travel restrictions imposed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Approximately fifty students from Gaza will not be able to attend those ceremonies because they are stranded in Gaza, and no longer authorized by Israel to travel to the West Bank. Meanwhile, another three hundred students from Gaza are stranded at the university and have no way to return home.

Many of these students are unable to support themselves because the Israeli military crackdown has greatly worsened economic conditions. The United Nations Development Program initiated a special emergency fund on May 1 to solicit donations from governmental and private donors that would allow Palestinian students to continue their studies.

"The students and faculty of Bir Zeit are suffering a cruel form of collective punishment," said Saman Zia-Zarifi, director of the academic freedom program at Human Rights Watch. "The Israeli blockade is raising tensions with the best and the brightest of Palestinian youth."

Bir Zeit University has a total student population of 5,447, including many foreign students. The university is the oldest and most prominent Palestinian institution of higher education, and has the highest academic standards among the Palestinian universities. Bir Zeit Univesrity also offers several graduate (masters level) courses in topics ranging from statistics to water management to women's studies. Many of the 276-member faculty are foreign or foreign-trained, and conduct many classes in English.

The university was shut down for one month in October, but classes resumed without incident for the next five months. On March 7, 2001, a few hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office, the Israeli Defense Forces cut the only road connecting Bir Zeit University to the city of Ramallah, located about five miles away. The blockade was tightened after the bombing of a discotheque in Tel Aviv on June 2, just as final exams were underway at the university.

Several students were subsequently injured during demonstrations against the blockade in June, and seventeen were wounded on June 11 when IDF troops fired on a march at Checkpoint Surda.

The IDF has not provided any specific security reasons to explain the checkpoint's placement. The IDF declined to respond to requests for information from Human Rights Watch.

According to faculty and students interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the normal commuting time along the university road to Ramallah was ten to fifteen minutes, but now regularly takes as long as three hours. When Checkpoint Surda is closed completely, the only means of travel between Bir Zeit University and the outside world is through a narrow, brush-filled trail.

According to university officials, after the blockade, attendance was at an average of 60 to 80 percent of normal, dropping below 50 percent on days when the military checkpoint engaged in strict searches. Classes were cut from fifty minutes to forty minutes to accommodate a shorter study day necessary to allow students the extra time necessary for reaching and leaving the university.