How Israel is criminalising Palestinian student life

Palestinian students celebrate during their graduation ceremony at al-Najaf University near the northern West Bank city of Nablus on June 7, 2010. [Getty]
5 min read
Ramallah
26 October, 2021
In-depth: For some Palestinian students, the new semester is being spent inside a jail cell instead of in a classroom, as Israel cracks down on higher education institutions in the West Bank.

Birzeit University students have finally returned to campus after more than a year of online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet for some students, the new semester is being spent inside a jail cell instead of in a classroom.

Five Birzeit University students were arrested just one week into the new school year on 13 September. Zahran Zahran, enrolled in the College of Law and Public Administration, and Ja’far Kayed, Qassam Dar Abed, Nadim Zahra, and Iyad Abu Shamleh from the College of Business and Economics join 80 Birzeit students currently detained in Israeli prisons and detention centres.

The Israeli military did not respond to requests for comment on the five students’ arrests.

"The last school year saw a dramatic escalation in these attacks. Approximately 58 students were arrested from September 2020-July 2021 — with Israeli forces arresting 15 students in July alone"

Birzeit University, the second-largest Palestinian university in the occupied West Bank, is repeatedly targeted by Israeli forces. Violations include arrests of students and staff, campus raids, and visa restrictions on international faculty.

But the last school year saw a dramatic escalation in these attacks. Approximately 58 students were arrested from September 2020-July 2021 — with Israeli forces arresting 15 students in July alone.

Criminalising student life

Layan Nasir, a 21-year-old nutrition student, was one of the students arrested during July’s mass detention campaign. She is on trial for her involvement in the Democratic Progressive Student Pole (DPSP), a leftist bloc at Birzeit University. Nasir was released on bail of 24,000 shekels (about £5,449) in August. Her next court hearing is scheduled for 9 November.

Nasir is unafraid as she awaits her fate. “This is what the Israeli occupation does, they try to put fear in us,” Nasir told The New Arab. “To be scared of doing any student activity.”

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Israel designated the DPSP an “unlawful association” in August 2020 under the Defence (Emergency) Regulations, legislation enacted in 1945 by the British Mandate government that Israel employs today in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The state claims DPSP is the student arm of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an Israeli-designated terrorist organisation. Several DPSP members were arrested months before Israel even declared the movement illegal, including Elyaa Abu Hijleh, arrested in July 2020, and Mais Abu Ghosh, arrested in 2019. The Israeli army did not respond to queries regarding the criminalisation of DPSP.

Milena Ansari, international advocacy officer at Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner rights organisation, explained that Israel outlawing the DPSP has made it easier for the state’s military court to try and prosecute students.

“And this is why we see an increase in arrests,” Ansari said. In the past, Israel would try students for their affiliation to political parties like the PFLP.

Israeli soldiers
Israeli soldiers pictured during a raid in the occupied West Bank. [Getty]

“But now any student who’s photographed with the Student Pole flag behind them is affiliated to the student group and hence, there’s a chance they’ll be arrested,” Ansari said.

But she emphasised Israel’s repeated violations against academia doesn’t stem from politics.

“Palestinian students are systematically targeted because they have an important role to voice opposition against the Israeli occupation. It's not because they are affiliated to a political group. It's just because Israel has seen the role of students in showing the occupation’s violations,” Ansari said.

"This is what the Israeli occupation does, they try to put fear in us. To be scared of doing any student activity"

Students have been charged with participating in DPSP activities like visiting an elderly home, hiking, selling books at the student union, performing the traditional Levantine dance of dabka, and hosting exam preparation.

“We have seen that Israel has criminalised basic rights and aspects of student life,” Ansari said.  

Law student Abu Hijleh, whose charges included contacting the Birzeit University head to discuss students’ demands, called the allegations absurd.

“These accusations have no actual threat to the Israeli security, but they claim that because it holds the PFLP principles and beliefs that it's automatically a terrorist movement,” Abu Hijleh, who was released in May, said.

Layan Kayed was arrested in June 2020 - one month after graduating from Birzeit University. She was released from Damon Prison in September. One of Kayed’s charges included selling falafel on campus simply because she was doing so as a member of DPSP.

“Israeli colonialism is always trying to make it difficult for the Palestinian people to get an education,” Kayed told The New Arab. “But this is a human right.”

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'There is no education'

While Kayed was able to finish her degree, Abu Hijleh and Nasir’s arrests significantly delayed their studies. Nasir was detained while completing a summer class, and Abu Hijleh was supposed to graduate last semester with the rest of her peers.

In 2011, Israel banned higher education for Palestinians inside Israeli prisons as a collective punishment measure when Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas.

“You're not allowed to have academic books. You're not allowed to have academic classes inside prison. There is no education,” Abu Hijleh said. “So, when my mother innocently tried to give me some books from my university for me to continue studying, it was not allowed.”

Abu Hijleh’s imprisonment taught her to be more cautious of what she posts on social media.

"Palestinian students are systematically targeted because they have an important role to voice opposition against the Israeli occupation"

“Israel is detecting everything that you do. They're watching you, but that doesn't mean you change your perspectives,” the 22-year-old student said.

Abu Hijleh said she and her classmates understand being a Palestinian student often means getting arrested, but the possibility of jail hasn’t deterred them. In fact, this fuels student activism.

“It doesn't threaten us. It doesn't make us afraid. It doesn't make us weak. It doesn't hold us back because we know arrest is there,” Abu Hijleh said.

“We know that we might be removed from our families. We know that we might go through difficult interrogation and might be held in harsh conditions, but nevertheless, we continue.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum