Birzeit, Occupied West Bank – National songs echoed throughout the West Bank’s Birzeit University campus as students met during a demonstration on December 21 in solidarity with the students and faculty members detained by Israel.
The music abruptly stopped, and a young man with a microphone cried out to observers: “We come to you today, united in the name of Palestine, to defy Israel’s strategy of arresting us, which it is enforcing without discrimination, regardless of political affiliation.”
About 90 students and two faculty members at University have been arrested in the past few months amid an Israeli crackdown.
On Monday, Israeli occupation forces raided the university campus and destroyed the offices of the students blocs, according to a post on the university’s facebook page.
The arrests have taken place amid an escalation in violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem since last October. An outbreak of mass demonstrations took place across Israel and the occupied territories by Palestinians in protest at Israeli raids into the al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the continued settlement expansion. In 2015, Israeli soldiers or settlers shot and killed 179 Palestinians, including unarmed protesters, bystanders and alleged attackers.
Since October 1, lone Palestinian assailants have killed 23 Israelis, including soldiers and civilians. Israel has also used the developments in the past several months to impose severe restrictions on Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem.
Although some students were arrested during confrontations, in recent weeks many have also been arrested at checkpoints or during police raids carried out in the middle of the night.
Israel is fixating on arresting politically active students as a form of breaking this revolutionary thought and reminding them that any activity will be met with a form of suppression such as arrests.
“[Israeli forces] are specifically targeting students because we are the ones who are able to reach different sections of Palestinian society,” said Amir, who requested that his full name not be used for fear of arrest.
According to Amir, the “main aim of these tactics is to break us, break our will, and reinforce this internalisation that no matter what we do, they will creep up on us and lock us up, because they have the power to do so”.
Birzeit University has long been a hotbed of political activity, and this has held true during the current unrest. Two of its best known alumni are leading Palestinian political prisoner Marwan Barghouti, who serves a life sentence in Israeli jail, and hunger striker Khader Adnan.
Students have organised actions and seminars, in defiance of what they say is Israeli aggression and settler-colonialism, coordinated transportation to clash points between Palestinians and Israeli forces, and distributed brochures on how to deal with Israeli dispersal tactics.
Activists at Birzeit believe that the wave of arrests is part of an Israeli strategy to suppress this mobilisation. “Everything happening is being done by the youth, and it’s not being controlled by factions. Instead, it’s a collective national endeavour,” said Sondos Hamad, the coordinator of the Right to Education Campaign, that aims to raise awareness of the obstacles facing Palestinian students, at Birzeit university.
“Israel is fixating on arresting politically active students as a form of breaking this revolutionary thought and reminding them that any activity will be met with a form of suppression such as arrests.”
In early October Abdul Latif abu-Hijleh, the acting president of Birzeit University, called for the release of students. “Israel is responsible for the well being of the students who are demonstrating peacefully against the occupation,” abu-Hijleh told Al Jazeera, adding that both human rights organisations as well the international community should take action against Israeli tactics impeding the right to education for Palestinian students.
Several Birzeit students have been arrested for Facebook posts or private messages shared with friends where students speak of their support for the ongoing escalations.
Nineteen-year-old Jureen Omar Qadah, who majors in media studies, was arrested on October 28 when Israeli forces raided her home in Shukba.
Her sister, Sabrin, recalled the night of the arrest. “They took her at around two o’clock in the morning. There were ten soldiers in the house, and they placed us all in a room without Jureen. While Jureen was being taken away, I told one of the soldiers who spoke Arabic, ‘Where are you taking her? I have the right to know where you’re taking her!’ To which the soldier mockingly retorts, ‘There are no rights – there is violence. You want violence?’ and they left.”
Qadah is currently being held under administrative detention, and has not yet been charged with any crime. “Her arrest has placed a large emotional toll on us,” said Sabrin.
“We haven’t even been able to visit her. We still can’t visit her because Israel is the one that issues permission for visitation.”
Asmaa’ Qadah, who is not related to Jureen, is the only other female Birzeit student to have been arrested by Israeli forces. The English literature and language student, who is also an active member of the student council’s cultural committee, was arrested on December 18 while taking a taxi from Nablus to the university.
Similar to Jureen’s case, Asma’a has not been officially charged as of yet.
Qadah’s arrest came after two other members of Birzeit’s student council were held, including its president, Saif Daghlas. Many of the arrested students are being held under administrative detention, with no charges made by the Israeli court.
Hamad told Al Jazeera that “this strategy of Israel arresting [students and faculty members] is a way to purposely hinder their education, especially since many of the arrests are coinciding with finals”. According to Hamad, some interrogators have threatened detained students with prolonged incarceration if they do not halt their political activity.
Jureen Qadah missed much of her autumn semester due to her incarceration, and could fall even further behind in her studies if her detention is extended.
At the Birzeit demonstration, Amir listened to the speeches and commented, “We have every right to protest … to share and express our political opinion.”
He added: “This is why we call for the academic boycott of Israel. Why support a power which attacks students for voicing their disgruntlement in the occupation? A power which, as we see, is shamelessly attacking students and academics because they are not ignorant sheep.”
A young student began shouting through the microphone: “We will not stop, despite the arrests.” The crowd erupted in applause, and the music began to blast across campus once more.