ONE-TENTH OF OUR UNIVERSITY IS MISSING' MASS ARREST OF 280 BIRZEIT STUDENTS ON 28 MARCH 1996
Just before dawn on Monday, March 28 1996, Israeli troops declared a curfew on three villages north of Ramallah that surround the campus of Birzeit University - Birzeit, Abu Qash and Abu Shekheida - to carry out a mass arrest operation of residents. Hundreds of armed Israeli soldiers, police and undercover units entered the Area B (partial Palestinian autonomy) Palestinian villages, accompanied by several large coaches with which to transport the students. Over 50 apartments were raided. Doors were kicked down by the forces, students were dragged from their beds and made to stand against the walls while soldiers searched their apartments, breaking windows, cupboards and cabinets, throwing their contents around the apartments and scattering academic books and notes on the floor. Around 370 individuals were detained in total, around 280 of which were students studying at Birzeit University. Some staff were included in this number.
[PICTURES CUT IN E-MAIL VERSION] Above: Pictures of the damage to student homes. From left to right: Soldiers kicked down steel doors, scattered academic work on the floor and threw belongings, such as clothes, around the flats. Photograph on left by Manon. Other photographs by Yasser Darweesh.
THE SCALE OF THE OPERATION
Israel's seizure of 280 students, almost 10 percent of the Birzeit University's student body is a grave violation of human rights and the rule of law on a scale unprecedented in the University's bitt er history under Israeli military occupation. The number of students arrested in just one day represents almost one and one-half times the number of students arrested during each of the previous two years, the years following the September 1993 signing of the Oslo accords. Even whole year statistics from the Intifada represent fewer arrests.
The raid touched students from every and no political persuasion and from all areas of the occupied Palestinian territories.
Many students in Birzeit first heard the soldiers around 4.00am, communicating on radios in the streets outside. US student Rami Nashashibi studying at Birzeit commented:
"I was the only one in my house and heard them announcing a curfew at 4am. They seemed to be immediately outside my house. At around 5am they began to bang on my door. I had been expecting this so I ran to open the door before they could smash it down. They immediately put me up against a wall and frisked me. I told them there was no one else in the house but despite this they ordered me to go into the house, open up every door and window and tell anyone in the house to come out with their hands up and that the soldiers were ready to shoot and would kill them if they didn't. Around 15 of them sat around me in the house and questioned me for about 15 minutes, asking me what I thought about the Islamic movement and other things. I told them I was on a US State Department grant and was expected to write a report about my time here. I think this deterred them from mistreating me. They searched the house and took pictures of every room. After a while they left and told me to stay insi de. As I was closing the door, I saw about 5 jeeps in front of the house, with about 50 soldiers. Two students from downstairs were being dragged to the jeeps."
Another student living in Birzeit, Mohammad Bal'awi, recounted:
"Israeli paratroopers broke my door down and forced their way into my house, telling me to put my hands up against the wall and keep my head down. After they had looked round the house briefly, they made me sit on the ground with my head down. They blindfolded me and tied my hands behind my back with plastic cords. They started to kick and punch me, beating my genitals, and shouting, 'You donkey ! You dog!' An officer put his feet on my legs and asked me about my computer and confiscated my discs, saying, 'Did Hamas give it to you?' I told them, "No! I'm from Shabiba (the youth section of Arafat's Fatah faction).' 'In that case you have to collaborate with us,' they said, 'and tell us who the terrorists are.' I told them I did not know anyone."
The students were taken outside their respective homes and taken onto buses. First year Birzeit student Yusef Shaheen had been arrested in Abu Sheikeida village and describe the scenes he witnessed w hen the bus he was being transported on reached Birzeit:
"We saw something that surprised us very much. Every ten meters I saw groups of 15 or 16 students who had been arrested. They were on the street with blindfolds and with their hands tied behind their back. There were many put into the buses here, with 90 students being put into a bus with 60 seats. It was very uncomfortable."
The students were taken to a playground in nearby Jifna and then transferred to a military base in Beitunia. Other residents who had been arrested were separated at this point and taken to Halmeesh, north-west of Birzeit in Area C under total Israeli sovereignty.
THE DETENTION OF THE STUDENTS
The students were kept in the compound of the military base in Betunia, blindfolded and tied up in the sun for up to 10 hours. The students were given one piece of stale bread to eat the whole day. T he students were not aware of where they were and many were frightened. Soldiers told students that they would be deported to Marj al-Zahour, in South Lebanon. The December 1992 deportation of 415 Pa lestinians Marj al-Zahour, Lebanon, started with large-scale raids in which detainees were transported in buses, handcuffed and blindfolded. First year student Yusef Shaheen reported that:
"They told us that we would be sent to Marj al-Zahour. This made us afraid. The truth was that I was very afraid."
Second year student Mohammad Bal'awi talked about the treatment the students were given: "Every time soldiers walked past us, they beat us."
Students were systematically interrogated, being asked many questions about their families and people they knew. Some were beaten. Yusef Shaheen reported that:
One who called himself Captain Jabr came to me and said, 'Yusef', stand up.' He told me that I was a member of Hamas because my brother had been arrested. 'Maybe,' he said, 'you are also a member of Hamas.' He began to beat me. He passed me on to another officer, called Captain Cook, from the Intelligence. After that he sent me to another Captain, called Captain Musleh. Musleh told me that, "I am Captain Musleh and I am responsible in particular for Birzeit students." Each interrogation lasted between half an hour and 45 minutes. Each one of them beat me. Musleh also made me stand up on one leg with my hands in the air. I was sent to another officer, Captain Ade'ef, who continued to beat me. He got all my family's names off the computer and told me things that I didn't know about myself! He began to beat me with a club shouting, 'You are a terrorist. We will torture you." I was very afraid. I was released eventually, one of the last people, onto this road and I didn't know where I was."
Student Council member Malik Taha, who possesses a Jerusalem ID, was told when he was released that he was not being investigated. Yet Malik and many other students like him were forced to remain tied up and blindfolded all day. Most students were released in the evening, with 17 remaining in detention by 30 March.
The operation of the University was also paralyzed during this day of arrests. Travel to the University was blocked by the curfew until approximately 11am on the morning of the arrests, leaving students and teachers stranded along the road. The trauma of the raid disrupted everyone in the university community, making classes impossible--a situation that has carried on until the time of this release.
MOTIVATION FOR THE ARRESTS
Israeli media offered a variety of reasons for the arrests. Israeli Channel 1 IBA English News reported in the evening of the arrest that "Israeli forces rounded up 370 suspected Palestinian militants". The report continued by claiming that:
"The security sweep targeted two fugitive Palestinian terrorists which intelligence sources believe to be carrying two backpacks full of explosives for suicide bombings ."
The news report then continued, saying that:
"Most of those were Birzeit students temporarily living in the area. Many of the arrested students are from the Gaza Strip, who illegally remained near Birzeit, despite the closure." The operation, a military source continued, was carried out "against people who are deeply involved in terrorist attacks, financing and supporting people from Hamas an d Islamic Jihad and the military wing of the Popular Front."
In fact, the majority of the arrested students were neither from Gaza nor were they supporters of extremist movements. Only about 40 of the 280 students (less than 17 percent) were Gazan students. The remainder represented a broad cross-section from different areas of the West Bank. Malik Taha, member of the recently dissolved Student Council, estimated that over half of the 280 were members of the campus Shabiba faction, the youth wing of Yasser Arafat's Fateh faction. The release of 95 percent of the students after interrogation after the first day underlines the inaccuracy of the milita ry source quoted on the IBA news. Had the students truly been "militants", this number would not have been so high.
Yusef Tahoon, a student employee of the Computer Centre, may have shed some light on the real motivation for the arrests when he reported what happened when he was arrested and taken outside in the morning:
"It was between 5.30 and 6.00am. As I was being put onto the buses, I heard the news in Hebrew on a radio. They were saying that between 350 and 400 people had been arrested, mostly Birzeit students but the arrests didn't finish until 7.00 or 7.30am. They were not reporting past events. It was obvious that this was a carefully controlled media event and not about arrests. I think all this happpened so the Israeli government could succeed in the elections. They wanted to say, 'We arrested. We put Gaza students in Gaza. We have made Gaza as a prison.' This is why. For broadcasting only."
Catherine Grosso, from the Birzeit Human Rights Action Project, commented that, of the 17 students who have been kept in the prison after the others were released:
"many have been released from Israeli prisons in the last few months. The Israelis know who they are and where they live. This is even more true with respect to Gaza students who are required to register their place of residence with the Israeli military authorities when they arrive in the West Bank. There are no secrets. They could be arrested easily anytime. There was no conceivable danger alleviated by conducting such an ar bitrary arrest campaign."
Dr. Gabi Baramki, from the Palestinian Council for Higher Education, commented that:
"These kinds of actions which so disrupt the university life are counterproductive. Rather, our hope is that the continued operation of the university program will in fact curtail the problem of radicalization."
[PHOTOGRAPHS CUT FROM E-MAIL VERSION] Above: Israeli soldier threatens Palestinian students at a demonstration near Bet El checkpoint after the arrests. Photograph by Yasser Darweesh.
It is a negative and highly counterproductive signal to a whole generation of students and young people that their rights to education, to the due process of law and to freedom from arbitrary arrest are still in grave jeopardy, as well as a signal to Palestinian residents of West Bank villages that their homes are subject to assault at will.
Regarding the accompanying attacks on the University itself in some of the Israeli media, Birzeit once again rejects this kind of editorialised journalism. For example, in it's front page report on t he Israeli army sweep and mass arrests (Jerusalem Post, Friday, March 29, 1996), the Post stated that:
"(Birzeit) University has been a font of Hamas activism".
This statement is totally false and cannot remain unchallenged.
We call the attention of the international community to the fact that it was people associated with Birzeit University (including members of the Board of Trustees, faculty members, office staff and graduates) that formed the bulk of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1991 and who were also prominent in the Washington negotiation which preceded the Oslo accords. Birzeit Univer sity graduates and faculty members on sabbaticals occupy many important positions in the Palestinian National Authority. Seven persons associated with the University, won seats on the Palestinian Leg islative Council elected last January.
During the past two decades, the Student Council at Birzeit University has been mostly identified with what is commonly referred to as "mainstream PLO", although other points of view the "opposition" on both the left and the right, have also been represented.
The only conclusion that can be drawn from these and other facts is, that Birzeit University is a senior academic institution where democracy and pluralism prevail. It has been the font of qualified and dynamic men and women who are contributing significantly towards a modern and prosperous Palestine and, therefore, ultimately a peaceful Middle East. This is a prospect that Israelis with an eye to the to the to the future should welcome. The attempts of the right wing press to portray our institution as one hostile to Israeli interests is a political move that will serve as to prolong the conflict, not solve it.
Birzeit President Hanna Nasir commented that:
"The future of the region will be determined by actions such as these. There can be no hope for the peace process when you wake up one morning to find that one-tenth of our university is missing."
The University believes this is an occasion for all parties interested in the continuance of Palestinian higher education, and the right of education and safety of Palestinian students -as well as th e safety and security of Palestinian towns and villages - to stand together against these hostile, provocative and counterproductive Israeli measures.