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Since January 2008, 16 Birzeit University students and one employee have been arrested by the Israeli army. This comes amongst a wave of arrests all over the West Bank under the pretext of the person belonging to what the Israeli military law deems to be an ‘illegal organisation’, usually meaning the student society affiliated to a political party.
Between January and March 2008 alone, some eight arrests were made, three of whom were held under Administrative Detention: a system of incarceration without trial based on ‘secret’ evidence. Administrative Detention is detention authorized by administrative order rather than by judicial decree under the pretext that there is ‘secret’ evidence which merits the incarceration of the student. Prisoners can spend many years in prison without knowledge of the reason for their arrest and without being able to forsee an end to the ordeal.
The mental suffering caused by not knowing the grounds for detention can amount to torture as defined under the UN Convention Against Torture, and the longer the detainee is incarcerated the higher the chances of physical torture also being inflicted upon him or her. Birzeit University currently has a student who has been under administrative detention for 2.5 years.
The recent arrests included the acting head of the Student Council, Abdullah Owais, arrested in February, who had replaced Fadi Hamad after he was detained in December 2007 and charged with belonging to an illegal organization and holding a position of responsibility while belonging to this organization. Fadi was arrested on Sunday 25 November 2007 by Israeli military Special Forces while on the road linking the Al-Jalazoon refugee camp with the West Bank city of Ramallah. On Thursday 6 December he was sentenced to a year imprisonment on the grounds that he belongs to the Islamic Bloc student group, which under Israeli military law is an illegal organization like any other student group affiliated to a political party.
The sentencing came as a result of an earlier probation order which required Fadi to give up membership to any political party for three years. In December 2004, Fadi had been arrested for being a member of the Islamic Bloc and sentenced to 10 months in prison. Since he had never been connected with any armed activity, he was released on probation early, in September 2005, on the condition that he did not engage with a student group for the next three years.
Birzeit’s Right to Education Campaign lawyer explained that Fadi had fallen victim to a wave of politically motivated arrests which rest on flimsy legal proceedings, “His charge this time was based on a prisoner’s confession obtained by Shin Bet [an Israeli intelligence agency], stating that Fadi was a member of ‘Al Qutleh Islamieh’ [Islamic Bloc] in 2006, but the army only chose to make a case of it now.”
Israeli military law criminalises membership to student councils which are politically affiliated to the major parties, but focus on the welfare and support for students. The continual arrest of student members is a means of crippling Palestinian political resistance. In Fadi’s case, he was arrested for his political ideas alone because there were no charges of connection to an armed movement. It serves as a warning to all Palestinian students: ‘today it is Fadi, but tomorrow it could be you.’
Administrative detentions and arrests of student council activists are a legalistic means to punish young Palestinians engaged in political activity. In March 2008, Birzeit University had 15 students held under administrative detention, and 95 students and employees in prison – 38 of whom had not yet been charged.
This was not the first time that the Israeli army had targeted Birzeit’s Student Council. Since 2004, the army has arrested 6 elected representatives of the Council, 3 of whom were presidents of the Council at the time of arrest. Earlier in 2007, Fadi Hamad commented on these arrests – “The arrested students who worked for the Student Council focused solely on providing local academic support for students and nothing else. In reality, these arrests serve to discredit and obstruct the work of the Student Council as an institution and are not about providing security for Israel.”
Moreover, the Campaign highlights that 60% of all arrests were made since 2004 when Israel also stopped all Gazans from studying in the West Bank and deported 4 Birzeit students back to Gaza. Since then, the army has also escalated its practice of arbitrary ‘interviewing’ where students with no political affiliation are taken for questioning about their friends and family for no particular reason.
The Student Council states that at least 30% of the 2,200 students living in Birzeit village are subjected to such ‘interviews’. The psychological pressure and anxiety generated from such interviews can amount to inhumane and degrading treatment under International Law. Students who object to such questioning are then harassed at checkpoints, denied work permits and subjected to house invasions.