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Palestinian students fear torture, abuse as PA, Israeli arrests spike

In recent months, an apparent increase in student arrests across the West Bank have targeted activists from the student wings of Islamic and left-wing parties
Security officials have stressed the importance of eliminating armed cells in the West Bank, but arrestees say security is rarely addressed during interrogation (AFP)

Birzeit University, on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah, has the reputation as one of the best universities in Palestine. An elegant complex of white stone that, in the sunshine, always looks brand new, it’s constantly thronged with students clustered and chatting, gathered around political stalls or rushing between classes.

Last month, however, the campus became a prison for six of its students. For nearly three months, they camped out on campus, ate in the cafeteria, studied in the library, and slept in a small storeroom. Out of protest and fear, they refused to step off the campus until their safety was guaranteed.

Activists of the Islamic Bloc, Hamas’ student wing had received summons for arrest or interrogation by the Palestinian Authority. For these young men, that’s nothing new. Most are well-acquainted with Palestinian or Israeli incarceration, and knew that remaining at the university was the only means to avoid the brutality both entail. 

After lengthy negotiations by international human rights organisations to guarantee their safety, the students were finally able to go home last week. But this freedom is a small victory. Ordeals similar to that of the last few months have happened several times in the past, and the activists believe it’s only a matter of time before more arrests and interrogations. They believe, too, that their targeting is as a political act. 

“The Palestinian Authority wants to stay in power. Their biggest rival is Hamas, and their popularity is growing,” Abdel Rahman Hamdan, an engineering student among those staying at the university, told Middle East Eye. “They are afraid that if they let Hamas work, and the Islamic Bloc work, the people will trust them more and maybe will go against the authority.”

Like most of his colleagues, Hamdan set up camp at Birzeit late last year, when members of Islamic Bloc received a flurry of summons and arrests. The escalation coincided with the December anniversary of Hamas’ founding: an important date that members hoped to commemorate with a celebratory event.

Hamdan was arrested just before the scheduled celebration. He was released without charge after 24 hours of interrogation, which he says focused on the activities of the Islamic Bloc and involved torture.

“They asked me about the activities inside the university, and told me that we must call off the celebration,” he said. “They didn’t give any charge but this was before the celebration at the university: It was like a message, that you must stop and we won’t let you do it.”

The experience of the students at Birzeit is not unique. Over the past four months, there has been an apparent spike in student arrests across the West Bank, targeting activists from the student wings of Islamic parties and left-wing parties. Between November and January 41 students were reportedly arrested from universities across the West Bank, and in December the student blocs of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine demonstrated at Birzeit and Al Quds universities to protest the arrests of their members.

Hamdan – and leftist activists who declined to be named due to concern for their safety – told MEE that arrests disproportionately affect Islamist groups, but that the dissenting left wing is hit too.When political arrests happen, they stand together, they refuse it,” Hamdan said of cooperation between different sides of the political spectrum. “They work together in a good way against it.”

A Palestinian Authority spokesperson did not respond to MEE’s request for comment on the issue. Security officials have stressed the importance of eliminating armed cells in the West Bank, but arrestees say security is rarely addressed during interrogation, which focuses instead on the group’s university activities. Hamdan insists that these present little threat: groups like the Islamic Bloc function as representatives in student unions, concerned with primarily with welfare, financial assistance, sports, and on-campus political demonstrations.

In the 2014 Birzeit election, the Islamic Bloc narrowly lost to Fatah’s affiliates with 20 seats to 23. But during the summer, there were indications that Hamas’ popularity was rising. For a Fatah-dominated PA, explained Birzeit professor Sameeh Hammoudeh, concern over that perceived threat might make itself felt on student politics – a field seen as an indication of how the rest of the population feel.

“They want to minimise the power of Hamas: it’s a threat for the PA, so they have to take into consideration how to contain this,” Hammoudeh said. “I think mostly it's political. I don’t think there are big security reasons [for student arrests] because Hamas in the West Bank is not doing these violent activities against Israel. But maybe for the PA, they want to know if something is going on or not.”

Detainee testimonies do, indeed, indicate that questioning and information-gathering is important for Palestinian security services. Students tend to view PA detention as short but characterised by brutal interrogations, while Israeli arrest carries the threat of a long sentence.

Arrest by the PA, too, may frequently be followed by detention by Israeli security forces.

Sayed Hashesh, an Islamic Bloc member who, like Hamdan, is currently camped at Birzeit, has been detained by both Israelis and Palestinians. In November 2013, during his second year at university he was arrested and interrogated by PA forces; a month and a half later Israeli authorities detained him too.

Hashesh spent ten months in an Israeli jail, after arriving at a plea bargain. Within a few months of his release, however, the Palestinian preventive security forces detained him again.

“They didn't talk with me all day, and they kept me without food and water. Then they told me to stand by the wall and raise my hands,” he told MEE of his experience. “After an hour of that I felt tired, so I turned around and put my hands down. When I did this they started kicking me and beating me.”

The 21-year-old political science major says he passed out and was bleeding from his head from the beating, and on release his ID was confiscated. Since then, he’s had more summons – from both Israel and the PA – and he’s been staying in the university to escape another detention.

“The Israelis threatened me that they and the PA together would not let me continue my education and would capture me. They said that the PA would capture me first, and that then the Israelis would capture me,” he said. “It's always like this. If you go to jail in the Palestinian Authority you also go to jail in Israel,”

Hashesh believes that he was arrested because he is active with the Islamic Bloc. “The Palestinian Authority have the torture, and the Israelis use another method of investigation. But it’s the same question, the same answers to reach the same point. It’s like a competition to reach the answers first,” he said.                

According to agreements set out in the Oslo Accords, the PA and Israeli authorities share information and coordinate activities on security issues. Precisely what this involves is unclear: Hashesh was keen to stress that his experience did not necessarily demonstrate information sharing or coordination. What seems clear, however, is that students active in such groups as Islamic Bloc or the Progressive Student Action Front are at risk of being targeted by both sides.

It indicates that the PA and Israel are working toward the same purpose, which is to stop political activity of Hamas inside the West Bank. It shows they both want to stop Hamas from growing,” Hashesh said. “I don't know if there was coordination the first time I was arrested. But I think that both of them arrested me for the same reason.”

Mohammed Jamil, the director of the UK-based Arab Organisation for Human Rights, also believes the recent spate of student arrests are the fruit of both security cooperation and self-interested policy. In a recent report, AOHR revealed that more than 1,206 Palestinians were arrested by the PA in 2014, of which 353 were students.

“It’s partly to make the Israelis happy, because sometime they put information to the Israelis about these students,” Jamil told MEE over Skype. “And it’s also for the rival faction Fatah, to help them win the internal election.”

Whatever the motivation for the arrests, he says, the students pay a high price. “Before arrests you have a human being, and after release some of them are ruined. They become weak, pessimistic, have more negative ideas of these agencies. When you take a student and hold him, you destroy him. This is systematic destruction.”

During their time at the University, Hamdan and Hashesh described their situation as being “like a prison”: “The life for us now is just at the university,” Hashesh told MEE from Birzeit’s library last month. “We're bored because we can't go outside, and we miss our parents. We study, and during the day we help the students, and then we go to sleep. That's it.”

On campus, however, arrests and protests like these are no longer shocking and, after several similar strikes and sit-ins, the situation of Islamic Bloc students was hardly surprising news. Speaking from his campus office, Sameeh Hammoudeh, the university professor, said the present context has had a stifling impact on politics: there is fear, he said, “in the heart of the students”, inspired by a real threat of torture and abuse.

The students, however, say they haven’t been put off working with the Islamic Bloc. “The actions of the PA have only make the Islamic Bloc stronger,” Hamdan claims. Suppressing this organisation, he believes, only increases its appeal and legitimacy in the eyes of the general public. “Despite what the authority are doing, the Islamic bloc carries on working. They never give up, and people want people that never give up.”