Palestine Monitor, 1 November 2010
On 26 August, Israeli forces stormed a student apartment in Birzeit.
“They arrested six students with political or activist ties,” said Anan Quzmar, coordinator of Right 2 Education (R2E), a student’s rights organization based in Birzeit University.
“They came in the middle of the night,” said Quzmar. “They arrested half a dozen students and trashed up the house.”
The students were taken to detainment facilities and then prison. A few were released, but most have remained behind bars, waiting for their hearing, to meet their lawyers, and see the single judge who will decide their fate.
Ameel Abdel was lucky. He had been picked up along with other members of a student group connected to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), or the second largest political organization in Palestine’s ruling coalition. As he sat in Ofer prison with other members of al-Kutob al-Tulab al-Democrati (Democratic Student Writers), his lawyer from the Palestinian advocacy group Addameer were hammering out a plea bargain.
“Since 2009 we’ve seen a heightened criminalization of human rights work,” said Magda Mughrabi, advocacy and outreach officer for Addameer. The lessons Israel took from international outcry over Operation Cast Lead and the flotilla fiasco was not restraint, but the need to repress intellectual resistance to the occupation. The students are part of the push to cripple the left inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and, according to a database run by R2E, they are the latest in a systematic campaign of occupation.
The numbers are a shocking record of Israeli forces stunting Palestinian higher learning. Since 2003, 411 students have been arrested and one has been held for over three years, according to a 2009 report by R2E. Half of these students represented by R2E lawyers were “prisoners of conscience who are serving time solely for their belonging to student societies or political parties.”
The occupation’s pressures are a constant threat for students: nearly a third of students in Birzeit have been detained for “arbitrary interviewing.” Students know it’s a question of when, not if, they are picked up by Israeli forces. Sitting in his dormitory, student Rawad Darweesh was shocked, but not surprised, when sound bombs erupted around him.
“A feeling of horror filled the entire area – there were loud screams from the residences, and I immediately realized that there were Israeli jeeps all over the area,” wrote the student on R2E’s website in 2008. “Since I started at Birzeit University, I had watched it happen to other students, and I had been waiting for the day that my friends and I would be the ones targeted by the Israeli army – arrested with no charge in an attempt to frighten us.”
Addameer work to manumit these students and other prisoners, get visiting rights for their families, and better their incarceration. Their work is not easy: disenfranchisement is the Israeli military justice system’s design. Prosecution can submit “secret” evidence defense lawyers cannot discern or argue. Lawyers are refused permission to enter Israel from the West Bank in order to defend their clients. Many defendants are forced to sign documents they can’t understand, and, despite contrary court decisions, lawyers are similarly denied mandated translations. Just finding their clients in a labyrinthine penal system can take lawyers months. When they are finally allowed to meet, it is often just minutes before appearing in a court ruled by an Israeli soldier serving as the single judge. Prisoners can be detained by Israel for up to 90 without a lawyer, 188 days without being charged in a military court, and 730 days until the trial must be completed.
Targeting students is a systematic attack on civil society, said Mughrabi, designed to ruin the development of political challengers from within Palestine.
“Universities are a centre of future political leaders and social life in the making,” said Mughrabi. “Students who are political, who are affiliated with parties or part of student unions, are obviously, after graduating, more likely to remain politically active.”
As of March 2011, 6,631 Palestinians sat in Israeli detention. Currently, two out of every five Palestinian men has an Israeli prison record. But not all of those arrested go to Israeli prisons – twenty students and faculty from An-Najah University in Nablus are sitting in Palestinian Authority jail for belonging to rival parties like the PFLP and Hamas. It indicates a disturbing trend in the student arrests.
Political allegiances outside Fatah are disproportionately targeted, leading some to believe Israeli and PA forces cooperate – unofficially and perhaps inadvertently – to curb political pluralisation outside of the occupation’s precarious power balance.
“These people are often considered more dangerous than Palestinian leaders who signed off on Oslo or international development,” Mughrabi said.
Abdel was released after 25 days in jail – Addameer’s plea bargain worked. He confessed to joining the Marx-influenced Democratic Student Writers while in college and handing out political pamphlets. Abdel is now a free man, after agreeing to not participate in any banned political parties like the PFLP for eight years and paying 2,500 shekels.
Right 2 Education Addameer