The detention by Israeli authorities of Yehya Rabie, the pro-Hamas president of the Student Council at Birzeit University, represents a continuing policy of aggressively stifling students and professors who support the Islamist group at Palestinian universities, academic and human-rights organizations say.
Recently, the leading organization representing American academics in Middle Eastern studies, the Middle East Studies Association of North America, issued a public letter protesting the arrest of Rabie and others at universities in the occupied Palestinian territories over the past year.
The statement by the Academic Freedom Committee of the Middle East Studies Association of North America was published January 22 and signed by MESA’s president, Judith Tucker, and the committee’s chair, Laurie Brand. It is addressed to Benyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel; several other ministers in his cabinet; and the Israeli officer in charge of the Erez crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
“We write to you … to urge a halt to the Israeli army and security forces conducting arbitrary arrests at and incursions into Palestinian universities, assaulting students, faculty, and staff and obstructing the education of thousands of students,” the letter begins.
The letter focuses on the case of Yehya Rabie, a third-year student of business and economics at Birzeit, which is near Ramallah in the West Bank. He was elected president of the Birzeit University Student Council last spring.
Rabie was arrested at his home on November 19 during an early-morning raid on his village by Israeli forces, according to a Palestinian news report.
He and others were accused of “suspected involvement in terror activity,” the MESA statement says. It adds, “These arbitrary arrests and detentions without trial are not the exception but the rule.”
Rabie represented the al-Wafaa Islamic Bloc, a political group affiliated with the Islamist party Hamas.
Student Council elections at Birzeit and other Palestinian universities are seen as an indicator of political sentiment in the occupied territories. Three political factions are usually in contention in these elections: an Islamist faction supporting the Islamic Resistance Movement known as Hamas, which holds control in the Gaza Strip; a faction representing the Fatah movement, which is dominant in the West Bank; and a faction sympathetic to the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP.
Carmen Keshek, the Birzeit spokeswoman, said that in elections held in the spring of 2018 the al-Wafaa bloc won 25 of the Student Council’s 51 seats, ahead of 23 seats for the Fatah bloc and four for the PFLP bloc.
In the previous year’s elections, the pro-Hamas group also won the most seats, and its leader, Omar Kiswani, became Student Council president. In March 2017, Kiswani was arrested at the Birzeit campus by an undercover unit of the Israeli Defense Forces.
The student leaders were arrested because of their affiliation with Hamas, Keshek said.
The Israeli Defense Forces have described Birzeit University as “a hotbed of incitement and terrorism.”
Keshek said the Student Council represents the interests of students in matters such as tuition fees, accommodation, transportation and the prices at campus cafeterias, but at the same time reflects national political currents.
“Birzeit has many political activists in the student body and people involved in resistance to the occupation,” she said, “and that’s why we are targeted.”
Between 2012 and 2018, according to university estimates, Israeli authorities arrested over 20 members of the Student Council at Birzeit; four of them were the head of the council at the time of arrest.
Faculty members and professors at other Palestinian universities have also been detained, the MESA statement says. It notes that Mahmoud Hammad, the dean of students at Bethlehem University, was arrested in April 2018, and that Ghassan Thouqan, a lecturer at al-Najah National University in Nablus, was arrested in July 2018.
“These arrests follow a pattern of Israeli forces’ aggression on Palestinian campuses,” the letter states, citing several examples of military “incursions” on campuses in the past year.
“On 13 December 2018, for example, the Israeli Army entered Al-Quds University’s Abu Dis campus, raided several faculties and offices, searched student bloc offices, damaged personal belongings, and seized surveillance footage,” the letter says. “On 15 July 2018, Israeli forces raided the Hind Al-Husseini College in Jerusalem and banned a planned conference there. The college remains closed. Israeli forces have also used excessive force on campuses, including firing rubber-coated bullets and tear gas canisters at students at the Palestine Technical University in Hebron on 4 March 2018,” the statement says.
Amit Gilutz, a spokesman for the independent Israeli organization B’Tselem, which monitors human-rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, said the incidents cited in the MESA statement did not represent a conspicuous escalation in Israeli military violations of academic freedom in the occupied territories but could be seen as “business as usual.”