Middle East Monitor / November 15, 2019
Khaleel Shaheen is a senior at Birzeit University in Ramallah. When he heard that four close friends and fellow students were arrested by the Israeli authorities, he didn’t go to the campus for five days.
As a volunteer with Birzeit’s Right to Education Campaign — a student-led group which monitors Israeli violations against students — Shaheen is finding it difficult to continue his work as normally as possible while this latest crackdown against students unfolds.
“I feel so angry,” he told me. “I feel so helpless. “I cannot just go to school. I cannot focus. I cannot function to go to class.”
According to the Right to Education Campaign, 20 students have been detained by the Israeli authorities since the beginning of the current academic year. This is nothing new. Since 2004, more than 1,000 students enrolled at Birzeit have been arrested, 80 of whom are still in Israeli prisons. Seventeen of these are currently held under administrative detention, a process which Israel uses systematically to hold Palestinians indefinitely with neither charge nor trial.
Students are often denied access to a lawyer for up to 60 days and subjected to harsh interrogation and treatment in Israeli custody. Most are taken from their homes in the middle of the night or even kidnapped directly from campus.
Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association, told me that a total of 250 students across various Palestinian universities are currently in Israeli prisons. “There are also around 190 Palestinian children detained and imprisoned in Israeli jails, of whom 20 are under 16 years old,” Addameer’s advocacy officer pointed out. “Those children are all students in primary or secondary schools.”
In an exclusive statement to MEMO, Birzeit University described this escalation of arrests as an ongoing Israeli policy targeting students who have political affiliations and activism. “They are targeting students who are very active in the student movement in the university,” Shaheen explained. “They are not just going after people at random.”
Birzeit University is the only West Bank higher education institution which holds student body elections, with representation from all Palestinian political parties. In a society that has not held a General Election since 2007 — hence the deadlocked political system and a president whose own term ended 10 years ago — Birzeit University’s elections are one of the only ways to gauge public opinion.
“These elections are very, very important for both the [Palestinian] government and the [Israeli] occupation [because] it depicts the streets… and what the new generations are voting for,” said Shaheen. He confirmed that no particular political party’s members appear to be targeted; arrests occur across the spectrum of political affiliation.
Birzeit seems to be targeted because of its reputation for producing politically active students. “The students care so much about politics,” added Shaheen. “They care about what is happening on the streets.” He told me about the weekly demonstrations that students arrange in support of prisoners, refugees and martyrs; or simply demanding their right to education.
The student body council has the power to gather students together and give them a voice. “For the Israelis, this is dangerous. It’s dangerous for them [to have] active students who have a voice and opinions, and influence the opinions of others.”
Last year, a video went viral of undercover Israeli forces kidnapping the president of the student body council, Omar Kiswani, directly from Birzeit’s campus. The video and various reports show six plain-clothed officers beating Kiswani and firing their guns in broad daylight.
Birzeit University faculty member and Professor of Media Dr Widad Bargouthi was swept up in the latest round of Israeli arrests based on a military law of “incitement”. According to Addameer, the indictment was based on social media posts made by Dr Bargouthi, despite them being a part of a class regarding the basic journalistic principles of freedom of expression.
“I believe that most of those arrests [are carried out] to create an atmosphere of fear inside the university,” Shaheen said. This has drawn students away from making social media posts or even simply attending classes. “They want to make students fearful of everything.”
When asked for a comment, the office of the Israel Defence Forces spokesperson indicated that the cases are under investigation by Shin Bet, the internal security agency, and no information could be shared. “The students that are in custody have been suspected of terrorist attacks in which Israeli citizens were killed,” is all that the spokesperson would say. No details of the specific “terrorist attacks” in question were provided.
A public gag order on all student cases was issued on 10 September and has been renewed twice. The current order will expire on 7 December. This limits Addameer’s ability for advocacy. The order — requested by Shin Bet — was not issued by a military court, but a civil court in Jerusalem. “The session was one-sided, without the prisoners or their lawyers [present],” said Addameer’s advocacy officer.
Birzeit University told MEMO that Israel’s policy of arresting students and teachers is a “grave violation” of basic rights to education and academic freedom. “The reality now is turning higher education in Palestine from safe spaces where students can grow, excel and express themselves freely, into zones where students are in grave danger both on and off campus.”
Israel’s crackdown on Palestinian education is criminalising hundreds of young people. This is not the act of a genuine democracy.
Megan Giovannetti is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem