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Curled up in her cousin’s bed trying to sleep one evening last month, Merna Al-Azzeh was surprised at the fear she was feeling. Outside the window, shouting in the Bethlehem street from 3 until 6:30am, a group of Israeli soldiers searched homes and interrogated her family’s neighbours.
The soldiers were looking to arrest someone, but in the process they bellowed, swore, banged doors and managed to keep the entire neighbourhood from sleep.
“At 3am I heard something outside and I looked from the window and realized there were soldiers,” said Al-Azzeh, still shaken from the incident. “I had that feeling I always have when I see soldiers. I couldn’t sleep. I usually think I might get used to seeing soldiers but whenever I cross a checkpoint or whenever I see them I always get really scared. I always think I might get used to them, but I never do.”
Al-Azzeh missed the next day of classes at Bethlehem University – too tired and upset to go to school. Her cousin’s neighbour, Muthafar Jawareesh, also a Bethlehem University student, as well as the target of the Israeli searches, has missed every class since. He was arrested the next day and is currently being held in Atsyoun Prison near Bethlehem.
Muthafar is one of hundreds of Palestinian students arrested because they are politically active on campus. Most of these students languish in Israeli jails, denied their basic rights to due process, a fair trial and legal representation. Some are held waiting to be charged for up to two years, others are charged under a military law that does not meet the standards of international law. Membership to a student group is outlawed under this military law, which means students who engage in political pursuits or student groups during their studies are vulnerable to arrest or detention by Israeli security forces.
Muthafar’s lawyer, Jakelene Al-Farraj, said this has been his fate. Charged with being politically active on Bethlehem University’s campus, she fears he may now sit behind bars for many months or longer.
Al-Farraj said Muthafar is nervous and upset. It’s his first time in prison and she said the conditions are terrible; and the conditions of Israeli military courts even worse.
“It’s a very bad jail,” she said last week. “His family are very worried. And they’re worried that he’s missing his education.”
There are currently seven Bethlehem University students in Israeli prisons. The Palestinian Prisoner’s Society has said they were all arrested because they took part in political activities on campus. One student, Mahmoud Hasan Al Wardian, is being held under administrative detention – which is a system of incarceration without charge, where secret evidence from Israeli intelligence is shown to the military judge and used to justify incarceration for a period up to 6 months, on a renewable basis. His incarceration was recently renewed for two more months.
Muthafar’s brother said his family worried he might be arrested because he was involved in university politics. Mu’taz Jawareesh said several of his brother’s friends had recently been arrested and Muthafar worried he’d be next. “Many of my uncles were arrested and spent many years in jails and in his first year of university they spoke to him and told him his education was the most important thing.”
Unfortunately, like many students who want to take part in campus events and politics as well as try to get an education, Muthafar ended up in prison.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, there are currently approximately 9,000 political prisoners in Israeli prisons or detention camps.
The threat of imprisonment is a daily reality for hundreds of Palestinian students. Those students who don’t fear it themselves fear for their friends and loved ones. As she lay in bed last month trying to block out the sounds of aggressive soldiers looking for Muthafar, Merna Al-Azzeh couldn’t help but think of all the other people in her life who’ve been arrested – including two brothers.
One brother is still in university, studying years after his peers graduated because he missed two years of classes after being arrested for his involvement in school politics. Another brother, 19-year-old Mu’taz, was arrested soon after finishing high school. He’s currently in prison under administrative detention and, like so many Palestinian prisoners, has yet to be charged with any crime.
Merna forces a smile, attempting to shrug off the pain of a divided family and the fear that more loved ones may be arrested. “I’m not unusual,” she says. “We all know someone in prison or someone who’s spent time in prison.”