Israeli military bans Palestinian women activists from higher education

Fayha Shalash

Middle East Eye  /  August 30, 2023

Students engaged in union activities on campus have routinely been subjected to arbitrary suspension decisions, disrupting the women’s academic studies and delaying their careers.

Two months ago, Palestinian medical student Bara’a Fuqaha was notified of an Israeli decision to suspend her for six months from her university studies.

She had been a third-year student at the Faculty of Medicine, Al-Quds University, in the town of Abu Dis east of Jerusalem.

Another woman, Batoul Dar Assi, majoring in medical imaging at the same university, received a similar decision suspending her for four months.

Fuqaha, 24, says that on 25 June, she received a call from Israeli police summoning her to the Ma’ale Adumim police station, east of Jerusalem, where she was interrogated about her student activity at the university.

“The questions were about my participation in student union activities. After they finished questioning, they handed me a paper containing the suspension order,” she told Middle East Eye.

This Israeli policy is not new. In 2018 and 2019, the Israeli army issued similar decisions to suspend several Palestinian university students in the West Bank for several months, which hindered the completion of their studies and delayed their graduation with their colleagues.

Despite Bara’a’s denial of all accusations at the Israeli police station, the suspension decision had already been made before the interrogation, she told MEE.

Bara’a hired a lawyer to challenge the decision with the Israeli Ofer military court, but the appeal was rejected. Then, on 24 August, the court issued another decision confirming the suspension.

The lawyer, Salih Mahameed, told MEE that he asked the court to freeze the decision until another session, during which he might be able to reduce the period.

However, Bara’a, who lives in the village of Kafr al-Labad near Tulkarm, says she won’t be able to enter the town of Abu Dis until an annulment of the decision, which is “unlikely”, given the “escalating punitive Israeli policies in the West Bank against the Palestinians”.

Mahameed pointed out that the decision is a military one and is part of a long list of Israeli administrative decisions that devastate the lives of Palestinians, such as administrative detention, administrative deportation, and administrative demolition orders.

According to the laws of the extended state of emergency, Articles 108, 109, and 110 give the Israeli military governor the power to carry out certain measures against any person, such as deportation, preventing entry to a certain place, or requiring the person to appear for questioning two or three times per month at the police headquarters, or determine their place of residence, or deporting them from their place of residence, as explained by the lawyer.

“In this case, the charges consist of secret files that no one can see, and there is no legal evidence on them, just as it happens in administrative detention, which is a military decision par excellence and part of the existing Israeli arbitrariness,” he concluded.

If the suspension decision is applied for six months, it will end on 25 December, which means depriving Bara’a of an entire term.

“I have a fear now that the Israeli army will monitor me to ensure that I don’t enter the university, and that I may be stopped and my identity checked at sudden Israeli barriers if I try to go to the town of Abu Dis during the expulsion period,” she explained. 

“The matter is ultimately restricting my movement and trying to impede my entry to the university and the completion of my studies.”

‘Racist policy’

The Jerusalem Governorate issued a statement describing the suspension decision against the two students as a “systematic racist policy” against education and its institutions in Jerusalem. 

“This decision is racist, blatant interference and unacceptable in our national universities, where we are proud to practice student union work, guaranteed by the Palestinian constitution, and our national educational institutions are keen on it,” the statement by the governorate said.

The policy of suspending students from their universities has escalated since 2013. During this period, more than ten students received decisions to expel them from their universities in various parts of the occupied West Bank, as Israeli authorities alleged the student activity to be a threat to its security.

Journalism student Sa’eda al-Za’arir, 26, was subjected to the same Israeli policy in 2019, when she was about to graduate from Birzeit University, as a decision was issued to suspend her from the university and completely ban her from entering the town of Birzeit.

“An Israeli officer called my father and summoned me for an interview at the Ofer interrogation centre west of Ramallah. For two hours, I was questioned about my student work, as I was a member of the student council,” she told MEE.

For Al-Za’arir who lives south of Hebron/Al-Khalil, moving to the town of Birzeit, north of Ramallah, takes two hours, during which she may be arrested at any military checkpoint; so she abided by the suspension decision so as not to be arrested.

“Throughout the interrogation, the officer devoted a lot of time to a future threat. He told me that I would be prevented from travelling and wouldn’t work in a good job, all because of my student activity,” she added.

“Because of the suspension decision, Israel prevented me from attending my graduation ceremony.”

The suspension decision was taken against Sa’eda and her friend Ola Totah from Jerusalem in the same period. A year earlier, student Asmaa Kadah was also suspended from Birzeit University and then arrested while trying to reach it.

Sundus Hammad, coordinator of the Right to Education Campaign, told MEE that the first clear Israeli suspension decision was in 2013, and that since then ten students have been expelled from their universities in the occupied West Bank.

According to Hammad, some of the suspension decisions against university students were accompanied by house arrest orders and confinement to a designated residential area.

The researcher and former student activist, Israa Lafi, said that this policy was previously used by Israel as a means of suppressing the student movement during the First Intifada in 1987, a right granted to the Israeli military governor in every region since 1967.

The policy of barring students from their universities aims to weaken the student movement by emptying it of some of its leaders and those entrusted with influencing the university milieu, according to Lafi.

“On the other hand, these students are isolated from the surroundings that they are accustomed to and loved, and are witness to the activity of their youth and their relationships, in an attempt to discourage the students from continuing their lives, especially those who are subjected to detention for various periods and fall behind their colleagues,” she told MEE.

To confront this policy, Lafi believes that it is necessary for the faculty to cooperate with the expelled students and provide alternatives to prevent delays in their studies. If this isn’t possible in the case of arrest, then it is possible in the case of suspension through distance learning, she pointed out.

Fayha Shalash is a Palestinian journalist based in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank