Detentions Leave Palestinian Students in Limbo

November 8, 2009

By Matthew Kalman
Birzeit, West Bank

Ashraf Abuiram should have graduated from college long ago, but his life took an unexpected turn.

In late 2005, when he was a second-year student pursuing a degree in sociology at Birzeit University, 20 jeeps carrying 100 Israeli soldiers showed up at his home in the dead of night. He was arrested, detained without a trial, and spent a year in a prison camp in the south of Israel before being released and allowed to return to college.

Mr. Abuiram was suspected of aiding terrorist organizations but never charged with any crime. His story is not an uncommon one.

Anan Quzmar, director of the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit U., tries to keep updated on the cycle of arrests and releases. Former prisoners “are weakened on the inside,” he says. “I can see them defeated.”

Sahar Francis, director of Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, in Ramallah, says the broad use of administrative detention orders makes it nearly impossible for detainees to enjoy legal protection.

Ashraf Abuiram, a Palestinian student who was detained by the Israelis for a year without trial, says that he has never engaged in terrorist activities but that his empathy for Palestinian militants has grown.

Interviews conducted by The Chronicle with students, former prisoners, activists, and faculty members at universities in the West Bank suggest that a number of Palestinian students have been held for long periods of time without trial and with no evidence provided that they committed any crime. A senior Israeli military prosecutor interviewed for this article adamantly rejects this argument, saying that all detainees are held based on solid evidence and are provided multiple reviews and protections during their imprisonment.

Palestinian-student involvement in terrorist activities has been well documented. Still, the continuous threat of arrest by Israeli security forces in the West Bank, who frequently detain Palestinian students and faculty members for questioning, has led some students to switch majors and has persuaded many students and professors to stay away from even the most innocent political involvement.

Mr. Abuiram is one of 411 Birzeit students who have been detained by Israeli security forces since the university began keeping detailed records in November 2003. Right now, 85 Birzeit students are sitting in Israeli jails. Of those, 44 have been convicted of various terrorism-related charges; 26 are awaiting trial; nine are in “administrative detention,” which allows a local military commander to detain prisoners without trial; and six are undergoing interrogation following their arrests. The most recent arrest was on November 3.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Information, some 720 Palestinian students have been detained by Israel in the nine years since the outbreak of the second intifada, in September 2000. Birzeit appears to have been a particular target. Its students account for more than half of all student detentions, and its past three student-council heads were all arrested and held for months on end.

The Israeli Security Agency, more commonly known by its Hebrew initials, Shin Bet, says it has good reason to focus on students in its efforts to prevent Palestinian terrorism. Contrary to the perception of Palestinian suicide bombers as desperate refugees, a study of 87 attackers from 2000 to 2004, published by the U.S.-based research group Economists for Peace and Security, found that 38 percent were university students or graduates at the time of the attacks.

The Shin Bet also believes that students and universities provide the leadership-and-planning infrastructure for terrorist operations–most notably through the Hamas student organization Kutla al-Islamiya.

“Terrorist organizations perceive the universities in the territories and their students as an attractive target for spotting and recruiting of activists, since the students are intellectual, politically aware, motivated young people who possess leadership skills,” says a 2009 Shin Bet report.

A Pattern of Involvement

Many of the Palestinian students arrested by the Israelis were clearly involved in murderous attacks. They include Ahlam Tamimi, a communications student from Ramallah sentenced to 16 life sentences for escorting a suicide bomber to a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem in August 2001. The bomber detonated a guitar case filled with explosives, killing 15 and injuring more than 100. Five weeks earlier, Ms. Tamimi had planted a bomb concealed in a can of beer at a Jerusalem supermarket.

At the height of the intifada, when An-Najah National University, another West Bank institution, produced eight suicide bombers in less than a year, the Hamas student society’s Web site hailed them as “heroes,” describing them as “leaders who spread the light with their blood and chart with their lives the annals of glory.”

The Shin Bet says it has arrested at least 12 students since the start of 2009 who are actively engaged in terrorist activity.

But the students, activists, and faculty members who spoke to The Chronicle say that Israeli security forces regularly detain students and professors on the thinnest of evidence, and that administrative detention offers few rights for the accused.

Asked specific questions by The Chronicle about individual prisoners and cases, the Shin Bet refused to comment on most cases, and so it is impossible to corroborate the students’ stories in detail. But the patterns of arrest and detention were reflected across more than a dozen interviews with students, faculty members, human-rights experts, and lawyers familiar with the issues.

Mr. Abuiram, the sociology student, says things started to go wrong about a year into college when fellow students who had been called in for questioning by Israeli intelligence told him they were being asked about his activities.

Feeling hunted, he transferred to a university in Jordan, but Israeli security personnel began to pull him aside for questioning as he traveled across the Allenby Bridge between Jordan and the West Bank. In April 2005, he says, he was summoned for a three-hour interrogation by someone identified to him only as Captain Dudu of the Shin Bet secret service at the Ofer military base near Ramallah.

After a few months, he decided to end his studies in Jordan and return to the West Bank. But in December 2005, hours after he had applied to reregister at Birzeit, Mr. Abuiram says Captain Dudu appeared at his family home at 3 in the morning on a freezing-cold night, accompanied by 20 army jeeps and more than 100 soldiers. The captain called his family out into the street, he says, arrested him, and sent him to a prison camp in southern Israel. He remained in administrative detention for one year.

Lingering Effects

From the moment of his arrest, Mr. Abuiram says, he was never questioned and never charged. He was taken to an Israeli military court several times to extend the detention order but was never allowed to see any evidence against him or to speak to his lawyer except in the court.

He was taken to the Ketziot prison camp in the far south of Israel, where he lived in a tent with 19 other prisoners. Their tent was one of six within a walled compound with six showers and exercise space. He was released exactly one year later, in December 2006, and warned that he was being closely monitored and should not resume his previous activities.

He still has no idea why he was arrested.

“I’m just a normal student at the university like everyone else,” says Mr. Abuiram. His penetrating stare and prematurely graying close-cropped hair are the only possible clues to his harsh experiences as he talks in measured tones about interrogation, arrest, and detention. “I’m involved in a bit of political activity, not anything that’s linked to anything outside the university, but student-union activity to try and achieve student demands from the university.”

He flatly denies any involvement in terrorism or violence or membership in any group outside the university. During the single interrogation with Captain Dudu, he says, it became clear that the Israelis suspected he was involved with underground terrorist cells of the PFLP, the PLO group that assassinated the Israeli tourism minister Rechavam Zeevi in 2001.

Another Birzeit student, who asked that his name not be published, says he was snatched off the street by Israeli soldiers in January 2001 and held for 12 days at the Beit El military base north of Ramallah before being released in the pouring rain miles from his home.

The former engineering student says he had never been remotely involved in any militant activity, but in September 2003 he was arrested again and spent three months in the Ketziot prison camp. On his first night home, he was arrested again and taken to the Russian Compound–a security facility that houses Jerusalem’s police headquarters and the Shin Bet interrogation center–for questioning.

There he was held in a tiny cell and interrogated for 18 hours at a time. After 70 days, he was allowed to see a lawyer for five minutes, and after 125 days he was moved to another prison in southern Israel where he was held for 20 months, until June 2006, when he was put on trial and sentenced to 28 months in jail for being “an active participant in the intifada.”

He was returned to the Ketziot prison camp for three months and then to a jail near Nazareth for one month. He was finally released in January 2007.

The student said the only evidence provided at his trial was his one-time participation in a small demonstration near the university.

“They never found anything to accuse me of. There were no specific accusations that I even knew anyone involved in militant activity,” he says.

“I have been at university for eight years now, while four classes have graduated including all my friends and contemporaries,” he told The Chronicle. “Some teachers in the labs are now younger than me. All my dreams are about jail. I’ve never had a nice dream where I wake up happy.”

Apart from the delay, the continued arrests persuaded him to drop his engineering courses.

“Electrical engineering was my dream and my hobby. I was top of my school in physics,” he says. “But the Israeli interrogators in the Russian Compound said: ‘Electrical engineering is dangerous for us. You will use the knowledge against us.’ So I changed to media studies because I don’t want to be arrested every year. I want them to change their view of me.”

He was willing to speak about his experience, but only on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t want the Israelis to notice me. I don’t want to go back to prison.”

Helpless and Defeated

Faculty members on West Bank campuses say they have seen dramatic changes take place among students who have been targets of questioning or arrests. Some, like the former engineering student, switch majors. Others avoid any group activities that could remotely be perceived as student activism.

Anan Quzmar, director of the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University, tries to keep updated on the cycle of arrests and releases. He says the effects are obvious on the campus.

“Ex-prisoners face difficulties. It decreases their academic performance, and after being in prison they find it hard to get back into a university atmosphere. All their friends have graduated. They are weakened on the inside. I can see them defeated.”

“One of the main effects is this helplessness,” agrees Saleh Abdel-Jawad, dean of the law faculty at Birzeit. He himself has been arrested three times, most recently in 1986 when he led a sit-down protest of staff members and students at an Israeli checkpoint near the university. He was upset because the checkpoint was delaying students for so long that he would often end up with only half his class.

“I was not affiliated at all to any political movement. But the last detention led me to take a decision that even if there is something, I do not have to be involved,” he says.

Mr. Abdel-Jawad describes himself as “a nonviolent intellectual” and says he avoids doing anything that might get him arrested again. He avoids going to trouble spots even as an observer “because I am afraid that one way or another I will be caught by accident.”

At An-Najah National University, in Nablus, Akram Daoud, dean of the law faculty, is still trying to understand the case of his star commercial-law lecturer, Ghassan Khaled, who was arrested in January 2008, held and interrogated for 20 days before being released, and then re-arrested in March 2008. Mr. Daoud says Mr. Khaled remains in administrative detention, although the Israeli army says they have no record of his being currently in detention.

“There are no charges. This was the first time he was arrested. He is religious. He is someone who prays and sometimes talks in the mosques, but he’s not connected to any kind of political party,” says Mr. Daoud. “They couldn’t prove that he has any link with any political party–this is why they are going to put him in administrative detention, because they don’t have any charges against him. This guy has very close connections to Israelis from the peace movement–they are coming daily to his house. He has many friends in Israel and among the Israeli people.”

‘Activism Is Illegal’

Sahar Francis, director of Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, in Ramallah, says the widespread use of administrative detention orders makes it almost impossible for detainees to enjoy legal protection. Addameer is campaigning on behalf of another Birzeit student, Arafat Daoud, a third-year sociology major who has been in administrative detention since 2006.

Contacted by The Chronicle, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces said in a written statement that Mr. Daoud is in administration detention “due to his involvement in military activity which endangers the security in the area.” The spokesman noted that Mr. Daoud’s case was due for review last week.

Administrative detention was an emergency measure introduced in 1945 under the British Mandate, the League of Nations government established in Palestine after World War I. The Israeli army, which continues to apply British Mandate law to the West Bank, updated the regulations through military orders issued in 1970 and 1988, allowing the local military commander to detain prisoners without trial, based on confidential intelligence from the Shin Bet, if the commander believes the prisoner poses a danger to the security of the state.

“For Israel, activism is illegal,” says Ms. Francis. “They use administrative detention when the evidence comes from collaborators or agents. They have effectively criminalized all student activities.”

Lt. Col. Maurice Hirsch, a senior Israeli military prosecutor, told The Chronicle that the lengthy detention of innocent Palestinians as described by these interviewees was “almost impossible in reality” because of a system of legal checks and balances and an appeals process that allowed access to judicial review all the way to Israel’s high court.

“The legal basis for administrative detention in Judea and Samaria is Article 78 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which specifically states that a conquering army has the right to hold persons who pose a threat to the security of the region in administrative detention,” says Mr. Hirsch.

He says the measure is used only “as a last resort” where exposing the evidence in open court would endanger sources, or where no crime has yet been committed but there is firm intelligence that a terrorist act is being planned.

He rejects accusations that the army is abusing its powers in order to intimidate Palestinians or punish them for nonviolent political activity.

“The very basic requirement before every administrative-detention order is handed down is that it can be proven by the evidence supplied by the security forces that this person poses an immediate and severe danger to the security of the region. It has no connection to that person’s vocation and no connection to that person’s political views in any way, shape, or form,” he says.

Mr. Hirsch says Israeli procedures go far beyond the demands of international law, requiring each administrative-detention order to be reviewed every few months, when statistics show that military judges, military appeals judges, or the Israeli high court change or overturn the orders in nearly half the cases.

As for Mr. Abuiram, he is in his final year of study.

He dropped out several times after his release, and assiduously avoids anything that could be remotely construed as a political activity. But his empathy for Palestinian militants has only increased.

“I used to respect them before getting into prison because they are defending themselves,” he says. “Even before getting to prison I could understand everything about them, even if they kill civilians. And you can write that. I can understand anything that the Palestinians did against the occupation.”

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