On Israeli campuses, Palestinian student activists fear for their safety

A spike in harassment and arrests of Palestinian organizers shows that Israeli universities are far from the liberal bastions they profess to be.

Universities have traditionally been the home of revolutionary thought and hubs of freedom of speech. But on Israeli campuses, Palestinian student organizers are facing violence and harassment from police and students alike.

For over a decade, excluding the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Palestinian students at Tel Aviv University have held an annual Nakba Day commemoration event to remember the ethnic cleansing of their families. The event takes place in Entin Square, which is right outside the university’s main gate and plays host to all kinds of demonstrations and other social events — most of which happen without much fuss. However, as Israel’s suppression of expressions of Palestinian identity has intensified of late on both sides of the Green Line, Israeli university campuses have been no exception.

This year’s event took place, as every year, on May 15. An hour before it was scheduled to begin, while organizers were still setting up, activists from the far-right Zionist organization Im Tirtzu — which has branches at 20 Israeli universities and regularly seeks to undermine any Palestinian efforts to protest or express their identity on campus — arrived to confront one of the Palestinian students, Rami Khatib. Khatib escaped the crowd, but soon realized that undercover police were chasing after him too.

Khatib was arrested along with two more Palestinian students: Nimer Abu Ahmad and Ahmad Jabareen. They were charged, among other things, with obstructing and assaulting police officers, and Khatib was additionally charged with assaulting civilians. Khatib and Abu Ahmad were released that night; Jabareen was detained for three days before being released due to insufficient evidence.

The students reported after their arrest that they had been physically abused, and showed the bruises and handcuff marks they had sustained from the ordeal. No one from the Im Tirtzu crowd was arrested.

The three Palestinian students were forbidden from attending campus for a week. Abu Ahmad appealed the ruling and was able to return to campus, but the two other students chose not to. Videos filmed by other students of the incident show what really happened, and demonstrate the excessive force that police used against Palestinian students for simply being there.

‘Police only see a Palestinian’

The unspoken rules of surviving as a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship don’t change on university campuses. You lay low, and try to make it to the end of the degree as smoothly as possible. You become accustomed to racially insensitive remarks, only speaking up if another Palestinian is there to witness it — and then you pay the price for your opinion with further insensitive remarks, glares, hushed comments, and, at best, an awkward semester, because the professor will try to “keep the peace” by neglecting the important conversations that need to happen on campus.

The events that unfolded in Entin Square on May 15 before the Nakba commemoration ceremony are the result of accumulated systematic injustices against Palestinian students, enabled by the university’s ‘tolerant-at-best’ attitude toward them, which leaves the students to fend for themselves while still being held accountable for any and all incidents that occur.

One of the most significant differences between this year and previous years was that police, who are usually present at a distance outside Entin Square, were allowed into the square itself. Because the square is technically off-campus, the university does not claim responsibility for it. However, everyone who intends to use it for an event must still coordinate closely with the university’s campus security — as Ahmad, a member of the Jafra student collective in Tel Aviv that was involved in organizing the event, told me.

Rizeq Salman, a law student who has helped organize the Nakba commemoration on campus for five years, noted that the entrance of police into the square, in place of campus security, completely changed the dynamic of the event. Whereas campus security knows the students and organizers, he said, police don’t care who you are — they only see a Palestinian.

In previous years, the police have even joined the Im Tirtzu protesters in hurling insults and slurs at Palestinian students. Unlike employees of the university, like campus security, who have an obligation to their paying customers to be impartial, the police are protected by Israel’s partial justice system.

Adi Mansour, a lawyer at Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and a former organizer of the Nakba commemoration event at Tel Aviv University, confirmed that the police would ordinarily remain outside of the square during all student events. However, this year the police came in massive numbers, including undercover officers. They had also put up metal barriers, which were supposed to protect the students but instead provoked more conflict by forcing the Palestinian students to pass through the Im Tirtzu crowd in order to access the commemoration.

Harassed by fellow students

The day after the Nakba commemoration event, the incitement against Palestinian students continued. Right-wing Israeli students shared the social media profiles of first-year student Aleen Nassra, one of the organizers of the event, and harassed her on Instagram, bombarding her with curses and telling her to “get out of here.” On Twitter, a user began updating their followers on all of Nassra’s movements, and called for her to be deported.

Khatib received similar treatment from Im Tirtzu: students distributed flyers across campus following his arrest, with Khatib’s name and picture alongside the words “Together we’ll end hate crimes against Jewish students.” There were also posts about him on social media, and the campaign seeking to have him removed from Tel Aviv University is still up on the homepage of Im Tirtzu’s website.

On the night of May 17, two days after the Nakba commemoration event had taken place, the harassment of Palestinian students by Zionist extremists transcended the digital sphere. After campus security had closed the gates and left for the night, a group of far-right Israelis arrived to Entin Square, chanting “Death to Arabs.”

They came to both the gates of the university and the student dormitories, yelling for Palestinian students to come out; one of them threatened, “We’re gonna kill you.” When a student asked one of the police officers who was still present on campus if he had heard the crowd chanting “Death to Arabs,” he said that he wasn’t paying attention.

Palestinian students had no guarantee of protection that night. In the face of a real threat of far-right violence, university security was off duty, the police neglected to do its job, and Palestinian students only had each other and their cameras.

Despite the threats against her online, Nassra took the risk to go and see what was happening, because “without documentation, you have nothing. They can simply lie as much as they want.” Khatib, who police had barred from campus for a week following his arrest, didn’t take the same risk as Nassra. “The night they came to the dorms, I was outside the gate, and they passed by me,” he recalled. “I wasn’t afraid because there were others there, but I didn’t risk it, and lowered my hat and went straight home.”

‘Liberal, pluralistic, and tolerant’

Palestinian students at other Israeli universities experienced similar threats in recent weeks — from fellow students and government ministers alike. After Palestinians at Ben Gurion University in the Negev/Naqab held their own Nakba Day event, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened to cut the university’s budget for allowing the event to take place.

Meanwhile, at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, a group of Jewish-Israeli students was filmed verbally harassing a Palestinian student on campus, accusing him of supporting terrorism. After receiving little support from the school’s administration, Palestinian students at Bezalel have filed a lawsuit against the harasser.

In a letter sent to students by Tel Aviv University’s president Ariel Porat following the incidents at his university last month, he cited violence at the May 15 event from “both sides of the political barricade,” renounced any responsibility for the events that occurred in Entin Square because it had been under police control, and credited the police with dispersing the extremists on May 17.

“We are proud of Tel Aviv University being liberal, pluralistic, and tolerant,” he went on. “The meaning of this is that each and every student is entitled to express his or her opinions fearlessly, given that he or she do not cross the border line between permitted expressions and expressions of hate and incite[ment].”

Abu Ahmad sees the attempt to apportion blame to “both sides” as nothing more than an equivocation. “We had a message, we had something to say, and their message was that we are lying,” said Abu Ahmad. “We hosted three students who came to speak about their displaced families in three different languages, while they were playing Eyal Golan songs [to try to drown us out].”

What’s more, for the students who experienced these events first-hand, it was certainly not proof of their ability to express themselves “fearlessly.” When commemorating the massacring and displacement of their people 74 years ago at the Nakba Day event, the Palestinian students were undermined, threatened, and left unprotected. And after the night riot, Nassra realized how afraid she really was: “If something were to happen to me, there’s no guarantee that the police wouldn’t just ignore me and say they didn’t see it, like they did that night.”