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Sunday, February 13 was a sad day for Walid Muhanna. He was supposed to begin the final semester of his engineering studies at Bir Zeit University, north of Ramallah. Instead, he sat at his parents’ home in Gaza, imagining his fellow students sitting in the lecture halls that have been the center of his life for the past four years. The distance between home and university, Gaza and Bir Zeit – an hour’s drive – turned out to be unbridgeable.
Muhanna rented an apartment in Bir Zeit together with three friends from Gaza, fellow engineering students. All four were awake on the night of November 18, 2004. Bashar Abu Shahala was studying in his room. The other three – Muhanna, Bashar Abu Salim and Mohammad Matar – chatted and watched television. Suddenly, they realized that soldiers were surrounding the house. The soldiers burst into the apartment shortly thereafter. “They treated us like criminals,” Abu Shahala said. “They ordered us to gather our belongings and blindfolded us, handcuffed us. First they took us to [the Israel Defense Forces base at] Beit El. I gather that’s where they took us, because of the distance. Afterward, they moved us to Ofer [prison]. That was Thursday night. Because of Friday-Saturday, they left us locked up until Sunday morning, and then they put us back in the vehicle and dumped us at the Erez checkpoint [outside the Gaza Strip].”
The four began their studies in October 2000. They had a six-month transit permit, and when the intifada erupted, all civil coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was frozen. Israel did not issue or renew permits for transit between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
They had to choose either to stop studying at Bir Zeit and return to Gaza, or to continue at Bir Zeit, perhaps not see their family for years, and live in fear of an Israeli policeman or soldier discovering they had no permit and deporting them to Gaza. Many of the 350 Gazans enrolled at Bir Zeit in 2000 decided to return home when their West Bank permits expired. Many others gave up any idea of attending Bir Zeit, the most prestigious university in the PA.
At the beginning of 2005 there were only 35 Gazans studying at Bir Zeit. They haven’t seen their family and friends in four years. Abu Salim’s father died in the interim, and he couldn’t attend the funeral. Returning home would spell the end of his studies.
When the four were arrested, the IDF legal adviser promised the university’s attorney, Elia Theodory, that the students would not be deported to Gaza before he had a chance to take legal action. But on the morning of Sunday, November 21, Theodory was told that the four were in Gaza.
Bir Zeit initiated an international media campaign against the deportations and asked people to protest to the defense minister and the IDF legal adviser. Union representatives in Australia and Britain, and lecturers at universities in Israel and abroad protested, articles were published. French-Jewish academics and human rights activists sent a protest letter. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “I would like to protest against measures of this kind, both as a Jew and as a member of the international academic community.” Some said that it was measures of this kind that have lead them to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
A fortnight after the deportations an officer in the military legal adviser’s office proposed a compromise to Theodory: The four would be allowed to return on condition they promise in writing to return to Gaza upon graduating. This could be a positive precedent, Theodory said. “In principle, it’s obvious this is an occupation policy that must be resisted. Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are one entity, and we cannot have a single Palestinian needing an Israeli permit to move from place to place in this entity. But you also have to be realistic, to examine existing conditions.”
However, fearing it would set a negative precedent – cooperating with Israel’s interference in Palestinians’ freedom to live where they like – the university announced that if the students signed the guarantee, they would be doing so as individuals. Meanwhile time passed, Theodory’s contact in the IDF legal adviser’s office left the army, and the students weren’t convinced that signing would guarantee them IDF permission to return to school.
The IDF Spokesman said in response that since passage between the Gaza Strip and West Bank has been exploited for terrorism purposes, changes of address are not possible, although “humanitarian and unusual cases are handled on a case by case basis.”