Scientific Stars Join Activists: Noted Palestinian Professor Arrested and Released—Again

Professor and astrophysicist Imad Al-Barghouthi was arrested by Israeli authorities for the second time in 15 months.

Recently, for the second time in 15 months, noted Palestinian professor and astrophysicist Imad Al-Barghouthi was arrested by Israeli authorities. Barghouthi, a professor of space physics at al-Quds University, was arrested at an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank on his way home. According to the New Arab news source, Barghouthi, “a leading researcher, publishing frequently in academic astrophysics journals,” has previously worked for NASA. In what appears now as an extended manipulative game played by the Israeli government, Barghouthi was arrested, released, re-arrested, exonerated, and yet not released as should have been the case. Rather, after the prosecutor for the initial charge said he had no compelling evidence to keep Barghouthi under detention, and thereupon the military court said it would release Barghouthi, a new charge of “incitement” has been cooked up to keep him detained.

Barghouthi was never charged by the military court. His administrative detention was based on “secret information” that has not been disclosed to him or to his lawyer. This system of administrative detention is a flagrant violation of international law. An occupying force has the obligation to protect the fundamental rights of the occupied people under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The suspicion is that both detentions were due to Barghouthi’s posts on Facebook condemning the Israeli occupation. Indeed, for some time now Israel has been monitoring Palestinian Facebook accounts, arresting individuals and shutting down accounts. The flimsiness of the case was made evident by his attorney.

Several days ago it appeared Barghouthi was to be released on May 29, after tremendous international protest, manifested in an Open Letter signed by 340 intellectuals and activists from around the world, including Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, and Judith Butler. However, on that very day, Israel announced that that was not going to happen. The release authorized by the military court was rescinded. As the Electronic Intifada reports:

The Palestinian Prisoners Club said in a statement on Sunday that Israeli occupation forces had canceled Barghouthi’s expected release after military prosecutors filed charges over statements the Al-Quds University professor allegedly made on Facebook.

Jawad Boulos, a lawyer from the Palestinian Prisoners Club, described the latest Israeli move as “shameless.”

Boulos said the Israeli military prosecutor had told the military judge that he had examined Barghouthi’s file and found insufficient evidence to charge him.

It was on that basis that the prosecutor had asked the military judge to extend Barghouthi’s administrative detention, which the military court refused to do.

Boulos said that Barghouthi’s case “demonstrates to anyone who still needs proof that all of the ‘legal’ procedures established by the occupation forces … are flimsy and fake and give no heed to legal principles.”

Those working to secure Barghouthi’s release are increasing their efforts, driven even more by this latest flagrant act of intimidation and harassment. And they have a widening circle of supporters to draw on. What is perhaps most significant about the list of signatories is the overwhelming presence of luminaries from the international scientific community, a group not usually associated with protesting the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli state. Those signing the statement include leading physicist Freeman Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; David Mumford, recipient of the Fields Medal 1974 (the “Nobel prize of math”); and Chandler Davis, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Toronto.

The letter, a joint collaboration of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), Jewish Voice for Peace, and the French organization AURDIP (Association of Academics for the Respect of International Law in Palestine), was addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu. It reads in part:

We are writing to urge you to order the immediate release of Dr. Imad Ahmad Barghouthi from Israeli military custody.

Dr. Barghouthi, a Palestinian resident of the West Bank, is an astrophysicist and professor of physics at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. He was reportedly arrested by Israeli soldiers at the military checkpoint at Nabi Saleh in the West Bank, northwest of Ramallah on 24 April 2016. The Times of Israel reported that “neither the IDF nor Israel Police would comment on the matter, and it remains unclear which branch of the Israeli security forces was responsible for his arrest.” The Palestine Information Center reported that on 2 May 2016, “An Israeli court … issued an administrative detention order against Professor Barghouthi. ” Professor Barghouthi is being held without charge, a serious violation of human rights.

As described in the journal Nature, Professor Barghouthi was previously arrested without charge by Israeli Border Police on 6 December 2014 when he attempted to cross the border from the West Bank to Jordan to board a flight to the United Arab Emirates so that he could attend a meeting of the Arab Union of Astronomy and Space Sciences, an organization he helped to found.

Professor Barghouthi’s attorney at that time, Jawad Boulos, alleged that Dr. Barghouthi was arrested because of his statements in support of Palestinian activities during Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip the previous summer, and that during interrogations Dr. Barghouthi was asked what statements he wrote on Facebook and what he said on television in opposition to the Israeli occupation [3]. Following letters of protest from international scientific organizations, including the Committee of Concerned Scientists in the United States, Dr. Barghouthi was released on 22 January 2015.

The re-arrest of Professor Barghouthi is part of a broader pattern of disruption and suppression of Palestinian educational systems. The University of Gaza has been bombed multiple times. Birzeit University in the West Bank has been closed down at least 15 times by the Israeli military, and its former president, Dr. Hanna Nasir, a physicist, was deported and remained in exile for 19 years. Arrests of faculty and students, in some cases because of Facebook posts in opposition to military occupation, have continued into 2016. Israel has destroyed or damaged hundreds of Palestinian schools, even kindergartens.

Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Israel is a signatory, grants all people the right to education. We urge you henceforth to respect those principles and to order the immediate release of Professor Imad Barghouthi.

I asked scientific scholars from around the world why they were drawn to this issue, and what they felt was most significant about the protest. Upon hearing the news, Ahmed Abbes, a French mathematician, told AlterNet: “The decision of the military court to release Imad Barghouthi after an international campaign of the scientific and academic community shows that Israel is sensitive to international pressure. The new charges filed by the military prosecutors, after the military court refused to extend Barghouthi’s administrative detention on their request, lays bare the arbitrary character of the judicial system to which the Palestinians are subjected.”

David Klein, Professor of Mathematics at California State University Northridge and member of the USACBI Organizing Collective notes, “A large number of the signers of the open letter are graduate students, visiting postdocs, and assistant professors. They took courageous and principled stands because of probable opposition by more senior colleagues. But more support is needed. The continued detention of Professor Barghouthi is an illustration of how the entire legal system in Israel is just a network of Kangaroo courts. What is this charge of ‘incitement’? It is nothing more than a charge of principled opposition to the racist policies of the apartheid regime of Israel. We should all demand to be charged with ‘incitement’.

Mario Martone, an Italian particle physicist, also drew particular attention to “the many non-tenured researchers who have taken a courageous stand showing unequivocal support for the liberation of Professor Barghouti. Having paid a heavy price while a graduate student at Cornell University for my pro-Palestine stands, I know too well the extent of the pressure on young researchers to be silent on this issue. Dr. King once said: ‘The arc of moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.’ In fact, despite all of that, the support for justice and fair treatment of Palestinians is fast growing even within US academic institutions.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist at the University of Washington, had this important insight with regard to the racist element in Barghouthi’s persecution:

The continued imprisonment of astrophysicist Imad Barghouti makes clear why Moshe Ya’alon recently resigned as Israeli Defense Minister while decrying Israel’s policies as extremist and racist. These kinds of actions are fascist in nature. Of course they are not new, but the apartheid state is becoming more and more brazen in its efforts to suppress free debate about its segregationist and violent treatment of Arab Israelis, African migrants, and Palestinians in the occupied territories.

As a Black and Jewish American, I understand the very real dangers posed by a race-based system of mass incarceration and death that penalizes people just got daring to breathe. I also recognize in Professor Barghouthi a fellow theoretical astrophysicist who is passionate about the universe in all its aspects, whether it is understanding the inner workings of our home star or pushing for equality and justice in the communities where we come from. I am disgusted that Israel would attack the very basis of a free, democratic society — free speech — in the name of protecting Jews like me. Not in my name.

Finally, I spoke with Dr. Anat Matar, senior lecturer at the Department of Philosophy, Tel Aviv University; and head of the Israeli Committee for the Palestinian Prisoners, who offered this critical statement:

In the bigger picture of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian society, the aspect of the Palestinian academic community is quite seldom mentioned. But Palestinian campuses are often raided by the Israeli army; faculty and students are arrested and put in administrative detention, or sentenced for all sorts of “security” offences; difficulties in traveling abroad or getting visit permits for foreign lecturers are less dramatic than these phenomena, but still hamper the academic life in the OPT.

The absence of almost any mention of these obstacles to Palestinian academic life is particularly resounding given the Israeli (and partly international) outcry against the Palestinian call for a boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli academic institutions. Apart from the exception of several Israeli academics, one can hardly detect any interest among the Israeli academic community regarding the situation of the Palestinian academy.

All this is true in general. The recent arbitrary arrest of Professor Imad al Barghouti reminds us both of the daily oppression suffered by the Palestinian academic community and of the heavy silence with which it is usually met.

This is not the first time an international outcry causes the military prosecution to change course, and instead of administrative detention, to press concrete charges. A few months ago we witnessed a similar procedure in the case of member of the Palestinian parliament, Khalida Jarrar. She was first put in administrative detention but after a very short while – and following an energetic international campaign – she was put to trial for all sorts of ridiculous offences.

It is obvious that the military prosecutor believes that the international community would be silenced by such a move, since the legal status is now “normalized”, and there seems to be no indefinite arbitrary detention. But he’s wrong. We’re talking about a military court – no justice is done there. The case of MP Jarrar shows precisely that: the trial goes on and on, an endless line of witnesses is brought – or often not brought, as the testimonies are postponed – and thus the arrest period turns out to be much longer than the expected sentence. Hence, the accused signs a bargain deal, admitting to have committed some of the offences. Bingo.

So technically, this may be the case with Professor al-Barghouti. But the international pressure should not – and would not – stop; neither would the boycott.

At the time of Barghouthi’s first release, he told the scientific journal Nature that he believed that “the letters of support from international scientific organizations, which were presented to the judge by his lawyer, were instrumental in persuading the court to release him.” He stated, “I am a scientist and I am devoted to research but I am also a firm opponent to occupation.” As much as there is little doubt that Israel will continue its pattern of harassment and intimidation, we can also be sure it will be met with the same resistance. And this resistance on the part of Palestinians is now being supported by a growing group of scientific leaders—these kinds of attacks on one of their own are making them, and the world community, increasingly aware of the oppressive nature of the Israeli regime.

When those arguing against the academic boycott of Israel voice concerns about how it might “threaten” academic freedom, they should take into account these very real, and persistent, attacks on the academic freedom of Palestinians and their supporters. Just as Anat Matar drew attention to the fact that Israeli critics of the boycott pay no attention to the denials of academic freedom to Palestinians, so too the mathematician Michael Harris conveyed to Alternet the paradox in the American academy: “When our colleagues attack the academic boycott of Israel as incompatible with academic freedom, they should be asked repeatedly: where were you when a Palestinian astrophysicist was imprisoned without charges and without trial? Why is it not your concern when a Palestinian academic is denied not only academic freedom but even the most elementary protections of the rule of law?