University students, academics caught between the threat of COVID-19 and Israel’s arbitrary policies

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have issued interim guidance that focuses on persons deprived of their liberty in prisons, and administrative detention centers. Meanwhile, the Israeli occupation forces have continued their systematic, widespread aggression that targets and hampers the functioning of Birzeit University, depriving the institution and its students it of their right to education and academic freedom.  

Arbitrary mass detention, arrests, and other widespread and systematic human rights violations, including violations of our right to education, have continued even during the pandemic. In fact, the number of arrests of Birzeit University students has increased rapidly since the beginning of the academic year 2019–2020.

Around 94 students are currently held in Israeli prisons, 21 of them were arrested during the COVID-19 outbreak, and thirteen students are still being held in Al-Moscobiyyeh interrogation center. One staff member and assistant researcher is also under detention.  

Generally, Palestinian prisoners endure dire detention conditions that include systematic torture and ill-treatment, medical negligence, overcrowding, lack of proper ventilation, and limited or no access to sanitary products. Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association has reported a growing number of cases of severe physical torture during the interrogation of students.

Deprived of their liberty and fundamental human rights, these students are now also more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 than the general population. Under the current exceptional circumstances, the Israeli occupation forces have taken no adequate steps to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in prisons or responded to Palestinian and international demands that request the protection of Palestinians.

Moreover, Israeli occupying forces recently demolished the house of Widad Barghouthi, a media professor at Birzeit University, as heavily-armed troops forced their way into Kobar village to destroy the upper floor of the two-story building of Barghouthi’s family house.

Birzeit University is also worried about the dire condition of its international faculty. The university, Adalah and Al-Haq continue their fight to end escalating discriminatory Israeli policy aimed at preventing international academics from staying in the West Bank and refusing to renew visas for those with teaching contracts.  Up until the closing of international borders in early March, Israel continued to deny entry and extension for several of our faculty. Upon the closing of the borders globally because of the pandemic, this issue remains relevant as travel is uncertain, if not impossible, while visa status issues for our professors who are currently here remain without long term clarity. As this current academic year comes to close, this remains a dire concern for our university.

Birzeit University is deeply concerned with these practices and calls upon all international and human rights organizations to take a stand against these severe human rights violations. We call on the international community to meet its own obligations in ensuring that Israel uphold the standards of academic freedom and the Palestinian right to education.