In its war on Palestinian students, Israel deems book fairs and falafel sales a crime

From campus raids to dubious indictments, Israel’s persecution of Palestinian students aims to suppress political activism in West Bank universities.

Two years ago, in March 2018, Israel arrested Omar al-Kiswani, the head of Birzeit University’s student union, in broad daylight. Undercover Israeli security agents dressed as Palestinian students and journalists, known in Hebrew as mista‘revim, violently arrested him on campus and dragged him into their vehicle, which was parked at the entrance to the university, while firing tear gas everywhere.

Al-Kisawni is an activist with Al-Kutla al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Bloc), a student group affiliated with Hamas. He was put on trial and sentenced for receiving funds from Hamas intended for Al-Kutla’s Birzeit chapter. His arrest took place just two days before Birzeit’s student union held its elections, which were won by the Fatah-identified Shabiba by just one seat over the Islamic Bloc.

Nizar Obeid from Kafr Qaddum, a student at Palestine Technical University – Kadoorie in Tulkarem was similarly arrested in August 2020 at the gas station he worked at, as captured on video. Obeid has been in custody ever since.

Over the last few years, Israeli security forces have ramped up their arrests of Palestinian students involved in political activism in universities across the occupied territories. The shameful practice of arresting students is often entirely absent from the Israeli public discourse, particularly among academics.

WATCH: Israeli undercover forces arrest Omar al-Kiswani

In November 2018, Yahya Rabi’, a third-year economics and business student at Birzeit University, was arrested, and in March 2019, mista’revim once again raided the student union offices and arrested three more students: Hamza Abu Qar’, Oday Nakhla, and Tawfiq Abu ‘Arqub — all members of the Islamic Bloc.

The next in line was Shatha Hasan, who served as the head of the union and was arrested in 2019. After a two-hour interrogation, in which she was solely asked about her student activism, it became clear that the Israeli authorities could not find any reason to indict her. Thus, she was placed in administrative detention.

Israel uses administrative detention to indefinitely detain Palestinians without charge or trial. Administrative detention orders, handed down by the IDF commander in charge of the occupied West Bank, are reviewed every six months, but the detainees are not told what crimes they are being accused of, or shown the evidence against them.

When Hasan was brought before an Israeli military court to extend her remand, the judge stated that she had been arrested for her campus activities, which included membership in the Islamic Bloc and financial ties to Hamas. But because she was in administrative detention, neither Hasan nor her attorney had access to the ostensibly incriminating material that the Shin Bet had handed over to the judges. The judge stressed that, according to a previous Supreme Court ruling, there is no difference in this context between militant and organizational activity. The court renewed Hasan’s administrative order in the beginning of March 2020; she was finally released in May.

Indicted for ‘selling sandwiches’

The systematic harassment of hundreds of students in the West Bank over the past two years has been exacerbated by administrative detention, detention pending sentencing, or imprisonment. Israel is currently imprisoning or holding in custody dozens of students from universities across the occupied territories, including An-Najah National University in Nablus, Birzeit University, Bethlehem University, Palestine Technical University – Kadoorie (from its two respective branches in Tulkarm and Hebron), and Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem.

The increase in student arrests in recent years is related to the Shin Bet’s intensive efforts to prevent any political organizing aimed at resisting the occupation, even in theory. However, one cannot ignore the fact that these arrests serve the interests of the Palestinian Authority as well — as evidenced by the timing of al-Kiswani’s arrest. It seems that as the status of Fatah’s leadership, which controls the PA, weakens, Israel increases its arrests of activists and civil society leaders who seek to build an opposition to their leadership. Thus, along with students, Israel arrests feminist activists, freed prisoners, and Palestinians employed in civil society organizations.

The majority of students who are arrested are tried for their involvement in student organizations on campus. These are routine activities that characterize student life around the world: encouraging students to join their groups; attending book fairs; organizing social events, discussions, and lectures; and managing the day-to-day affairs of student organizations, including funds, membership registration, etc.

Yet Palestinian students who engage in these activities are repeatedly charged for “membership in an illegal organization.” These proscribed organizations are the political student groups that oppose Israel’s occupation and are unaffiliated with Fatah. Along with the Islamic Bloc, Israeli authorities have persecuted members of Al-Qutub al-Tullabi al-Dimoqrati al-Taqaddumi (The Progressive Democratic Student Pole), which is affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a leftist Palestinian organization. Although the Israeli army only declared Al-Qutub a proscribed organization in August 2020, its student activists have for years faced persecution by the authorities.

Almost none of the indictments of students from the Islamic Bloc or Al-Qutub mention any suspicion of ties to the military activity of Hamas or PFLP, respectively. The following is a compilation from indictments against students from the abovementioned organizations, as documented over the last two years by the Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer and the Israeli anti-occupation group Machsom Watch, that are supposed to substantiate the accusation of “membership in an illegal organization:”

“The defendant participated in a stationary fair at Birzeit University on behalf of the ‘Qutub’ organization. She sold goods while wearing a PFLP scarf. Red flags were hung at the fair.”

“The defendant participated in decorating an event hall for a reception for new students, as part of the ‘Qutub’ organization. He hung red flags of the PFLP as well as photos of shaheeds [martyrs] and prisoners.”

“The defendant participated in a [student] election campaign on behalf of an organization at Birzeit University, as well as a book and stationery fair that was organized by the organization. He sold sandwiches, falafel, and coffee on behalf of the organization.”

“The defendant served as the secretary and head of the cultural committee of Al-Qutub al-Tullabi at Birzeit University, and managed the organization’s events. During elections in the organization, she was chosen to serve as the head of the education committee, whose role is to help students with academic topics, including choosing materials and study topics according to priorities. All of this was done on behalf of the organization.”

“Along with others, the defendant organized a three-day summer camp in Aboud intended for members and activists with Al-Qutub al-Tullabi, with the goal of strengthening their relationships. Around 20 people participated in the camp.”

“The defendant voted for Al-Kutla al-Islamiyya in the [student] elections and encouraged others to vote for the Islamic Bloc. He also took part in a graduation party organized by the Bloc.”

“The defendant shared photos and quotes on social media that should be viewed as incitement.”

Generally, the indictments also mention participation in protests against the occupation outside campus, including protests that may have involved stone throwing, aiding stone throwers, or standing next to stone throwers. In many cases, the indictments do not mention the specific date of the protests, only the month or year they took place. They also include protests that took place years before the indictments were served.

In rare instances, the indictments include the filling of two Molotov cocktails, as was claimed in the case of Mais Abu Ghosh. As opposed to other arrests, Abu Ghosh’s arrest was able to penetrate the wall of silence and reach the Israeli media. Abu Ghosh was sentenced to 16 months behind bars and was recently released.

Her friends in Al-Qutub, including Samah Jaradat and Amir Hazboun, received similar treatment. Jaradat was arrested in early September 2019, three days after finishing her studies at Birzeit University. She was interrogated and tortured for 22 days, sentenced to nine months in prison, and released in June 2020. Hazboun, a fourth-year engineering student, was arrested on Sept. 10, 2019. He, too, was tortured and barred from meeting with his lawyer for 22 days. He was eventually indicted over membership in Al-Qutub, handing out flyers in the run-up to the student union elections at Birzeit University, and actively participating in undated protests (this clause included alleged stone throwing). He was sentenced to 16 months.

Will the academic community speak out?

Despite the recent surge of student persecution — and a confluence of interests between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli security authorities — student arrests have been a familiar phenomenon for years. A close reading of Machsom Watch’s archives points at a sequence of indictments filed against students, beginning in 2007, when the organization’s members began reporting from the military courts.

One report from December 2007 briefly mentions the trial of Fadi Hamad, who was then the head of Birzeit’s student union and was sentenced to one year in prison. The archives also include a November 2008 report on a student from An-Najah University who was suspected of taking part in Hamas activities, participating in demonstrations, and possession of weapons. There is a 2014 report on the extension of the detention of a 30-year-old law student from Al-Quds University, and a report on a brief five-minute hearing on the extension of detention of a student at Birzeit, who was taken in for two weeks of interrogations and forbidden from meeting her lawyers.

The persecution of Palestinians involved in political activity comes in waves. The arrests of students affiliated with the Islamic factions increased following their victory in the 2018 student union elections. The wave during which Abu Ghosh, Hazboun, and Jaradat were arrested came after the assassination of Rina Shnerb at Ein Bubin spring in August 2019, allegedly by a PFLP cell. Along with them, Israel has arrested dozens of other students and activists from Palestinian civil society — all identified in one way or another with the PFLP. Some of them — the most famous being Khalida Jarrar, a member of the now-defunct Palestinian Legislative Council, which hasn’t functioned since 2007 — are still awaiting trial. The vast majority of them, including Jarrar, are in no way linked to the murder that took place.

Administrative detention is one of the most common tools used by Israel to suppress Palestinian political expression. Because this form of detention does not require putting Palestinians on trial while allegedly relying on confidential evidence, it is impossible for detainees to defend themselves against it. Administrative detention does not carry any semblance of due process: it is — almost demonstratively and deliberately — a scam. Since there is no claim that the detainee has violated any law but only that they pose a “danger to the security of the region,” the detention “looks to the future” and is therefore not limited in time, especially since detention can always be extended according to the whims of the Shin Bet.

Indeed, in recent years, hundreds of Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons as administrative detainees at any given moment. Most of them are political activists without even the slightest basis for prosecuting them.

However, there is nothing proper about the other legal arm at the service of the occupation: prosecution and trial in military court. It is true that Palestinians on trial have been served an indictment, can turn to legal representation, and are given a clear release date from prison. But beyond the fact that Israeli law considers Palestinian political student activity in the occupied territories a criminal offense, the filing of indictments against them often involves a situation in which the students are coerced into signing plea bargains based on forced confessions of acts they did not commit. This is as a result of torture during interrogations and extended remands.

In recent years, we have seen a number of cases in which Israeli authorities have used both administrative detention and standard detention on the same prisoner interchangeably. In some cases, the authorities will suddenly file an indictment against administrative detainees after months of arbitrary detention. In other cases, prisoners who have completed their prison term are thrown into administrative detention on the day of their release. This legal-military flexibility has often been applied to students, ranging from arbitrary administrative detention to arbitrary judgment.

The deliberate abuse of Palestinian students and Palestinian higher education does not end with these arrests. Since July 2011, the Israel Prison Service has decided to stop allowing so-called security prisoners from completing their education at the Open University of Israel, a distance-learning institution. There are also many restrictions on the kinds of books allowed into prisons. Books on history, philosophy, and politics are carefully screened before prisoners can read them. For example, “Notes from the Gallows” by Czechoslovak journalist and anti-Nazi resistance leader Julius Fučík, as well as all of the books by Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci (and in particular his “Prison Notebooks”), have been banned.

The book ban was recently detailed in a letter penned by Khalida Jarrar that was smuggled out of prison. Jarrar also noted that as punishment, prisoners are often denied books for two to three months. In this way, Israeli authorities not only cut off prisoners from completing a university education, they also place severe sanctions on studies in general.

Israel’s occupation regime seeks to systematically persecute a generation of young, educated, and activist Palestinians. While on campuses around the world, student activism tends to be accepted and welcomed, that same kind of activism is forbidden for Palestinian students. Israel’s persecution is not only about campus raids and student arrests, damage to the fabric of students’ lives, or even simply their ability to study and build their lives. The Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council is right to state that the delegitimization of student groups must be understood in the broader context of suppressing the younger generation’s desire to establish a democratic society, alongside its opposition to the occupation. It is this desire that disturbs the Israeli government.

This is precisely where the Israeli and international academic community must step in. It must stand up against the trampling of academic freedom, harassment of student life and activity, administrative arrests, and arbitrary and baseless indictments. Furthermore, it must protest the harassment of political prisoners who are not allowed to study and read books as they wish. This is a call to action. Now, where are members of the academic community who will take up the gauntlet?

A version of this article was originally published on the Social History Workshop’s blog, published on Haaretz’s Hebrew site.