Staff and Students of Birzeit University Demonstrate Against Arrest of Students

On Thursday 29 April, students and staff of Birzeit University held a demonstration about student prisoners, freedom of movement and freedom of education. Classes were canceled and staff went on strike from 11 am as student leaders made speeches to a crowd assembled near the student building.

Following the speeches around 250 staff and students travelled on buses to Surda, a village on the road between Ramallah and Birzeit. Surda is located near the Beit El Bypass Road, a frequent location for Israeli military to set up checkpoints, harass and arrest people travelling on the road, and prevent movement between the two areas.

Since 1 January 1999, 33 Birzeit University students have been arrested by the Israeli military authorities. The majority of arrests have occured at almost daily impromptu checkpoints placed on the road from nearby Ramallah to Birzeit University. Since the division of the West Bank into areas A, B and C after the signing of the Oslo Agreement, Palestinian residents have suffered from an inability to move freely from one area to another. 

A journey from Ramallah to Birzeit passes through area A, Ramallah, which is designated Palestinian Authority rule, through Area B, which is under joint Palestinian and Israeli control with security responsibility under the Israeli authority, and near the bypass road which is designated Area C, and finally up to the university, which is in area B. For many students, this journey often holds with it the fear of arrest while traveling.

Following the press conference, students and staff moved past the Israeli soldiers and linked hands, chanting slogans demanding freedom of education and movement. After the march passed the intersection and was beginning to disperse, Israeli troops began firing at the demonstration with rubber-coated metal bullets and tear gas as some students threw stones. No one was injured.The demonstration moved peacefully to within 100m from the intersection where the bypass road and the main road cross. Four Israeli military jeeps and soldiers monitored the demonstrators who sat down in the middle of the road and held a press conference explaining the situation facing students at the university.

Today, there are over 50 Birzeit students in Israeli prisons out of approximately 200 university students arrested in 1999. Frequent arrests are a point of tension within the Birzeit Community and regularly disrupt normal student life. Students are charged with being active in student blocs and are arrested due to their political beliefs. For example, recently, a student was charged with organizing an exhibition of Islamic books on campus. These practices reinforce authoritarian rather than democratic behavior.

Due to the arbitrary nature of the arrests, most students at the University presume that they will be arrested and do not risk traveling while a checkpoint is in place. A common question amongst students before leaving or coming to campus is "How is the road?", ie whether or not there is an Israeli checkpoint. On many occasions, students can be found waiting in Ramallah in the morning, afraid to come up to university because of the checkpoint, while lectures, exams, and academic activities are missed. These arrests target an entire generation of young students and reinforce the climate of fear in which they live.