Palestinian students were 'trapped' in a college dorm as Israeli mobs chanted ‘death to Arabs’
An attack by hundreds of far-right Israelis on Palestinian students at the dorms of Netanya Academic College in central Israel on Saturday has left Arab students in Israel feeling profoundly unsafe on campus.
"One cannot overstate the fear we experienced," one student recounted to Middle East Eye. "I genuinely believed my life was in jeopardy. We were trapped in our dormitory rooms for over three hours with a hostile crowd outside, chanting 'death to Arabs,' while the police seemed unable to intervene."
The recent Hamas-led incursion into Israel, resulting in the deaths of 1300 Israelis on 7 October, and the Israeli military response, which has thus far killed nearly 9000 Palestinians in Gaza, have sparked serious tensions between Jewish and Arab students at Israeli academic institutions.
Throughout these hostilities, many Palestinian students have reported facing suspensions, typically receiving notifications via email accusing them of "support for terrorism" due to their social media posts expressing their condemnation of the Israeli military's attacks on civilians in Gaza.
However, the attack in Netanya has been especially shocking for Palestinian students.
The incident began on Saturday morning when dormitory residents overheard commotion outside their building. A group of Jewish worshipers from an adjacent synagogue claimed that Arab students had thrown an egg at them during a Shabbat prayer service.
This information was shared through a student's testimony to MEE, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.
'Death to Arabs'
In the evening, several hundred Jewish protesters from the neighbourhood gathered outside the Netanya Academic College's dorms, with many of them chanting "Death to Arabs". Some even attempted to breach the building, as evidenced in video footage of the event.
Several students documented these events from their dorm balconies.
'I had never felt such fear before. I didn't even wait for the elevator; I sprinted up the stairs while fellow Arab students peered out from within'
- student, Netanya Academic College
"It appears that the worshippers waited until Motza'ei Shabbat [the evening following the Shabbat religious festival], as they are generally not permitted to use their phones during the day on Shabbat," the student added.
"I'm convinced this is a fabricated allegation because it seems their aim is simply to drive us away."
Later, the police conducted a search of the dorms in an attempt to determine who had thrown the egg but found no evidence to support the accusation.
The student recounted her experience, saying that she arrived at the dorms around 8pm by car. As soon as she reached the campus, she noticed an unusual gathering and heard arguments between some Arab students and Israeli police regarding an incident involving the throwing of an egg.
Upon entering the parking area, she recognised a security officer and attempted to engage with him to inquire about the situation. "I called him several times, but he didn't respond. He kept walking as if he couldn't hear anyone calling for him," she added.
This situation felt unsettling because security forces weren't a common presence on campus. However, she persisted in her efforts to identify the officer, feeling a growing sense of unease.
"After about five to six meters, he finally stopped and spoke to me while avoiding eye contact, looking at the ground. I asked why he seemed afraid and urged him to talk to me, assuring him of my respect. In English, not in Hebrew, he replied, 'Don't make trouble, you will be okay.'"
Approximately 20 minutes later, she stepped outside to dispose of rubbish within the campus area. Upon her return, she noticed that dozens of Israeli individuals were attempting to enter the dorms, while only one police officer was trying to prevent their entry.
"I had never felt such fear before. I didn't even wait for the elevator; I sprinted up the stairs while fellow Arab students peered out from within. We felt like prey being hunted."
During this time, a barrage of messages inundated the student WhatsApp group. "We were uncertain about what to do and how to protect ourselves. Meanwhile, the 'Death to Arabs' chants grew louder. We escaped to the rooftops and witnessed from there hundreds of Israelis attempting to enter the building, while police forces tried to block them."
Several police officers came to the rooftop and advised the students that it was not safe to remain there, as the protesters could see them. Consequently, they asked the students to descend to the lobby on the first floor.
"We contested with the police, as it didn't seem safe to go downstairs while protesters were also attempting to gain access to the building. Honestly, we didn't trust them either, even if the speaking officer was an Arab."
After nearly two hours, all the students gathered on the first floor, with police forces protecting them and attempting to find a solution for their evacuation.
"In the midst of all this chaos, I had to gather my composure to continue communicating with the local media and reassure my terrified family at home.
'We will remove them [Arab students] and bring residents from settlements around the Gaza Strip; only then will they comprehend'
- Miriam Fierberg, the mayor of Netanya
While students were gathering in the lobby, Miriam Fierberg, the mayor of Netanya, arrived, accompanied by a college administrator, in an attempt to defuse the situation.
She emphasised the importance of the students understanding the sensitivity of the issue, yet simultaneously accused them of instigating the turmoil based on the alleged egg-throwing incident.
Furthermore, she requested that the students refrain from returning to the dorms for at least a week. However, in a viral online video, she was seen addressing Israeli groups outside, seemingly before entering the student dorms, and she stated, "We will remove them and bring residents from settlements around the Gaza Strip; only then will they comprehend."
In the police statement issued after the event concluded, there was no mention of any arrests among the hundreds of individuals who were chanting "Death to Arabs". Moreover, there was no video evidence to substantiate the claim that one of the Arab students had thrown an egg.
The college, in a statement issued after the incident, noted that the police had dismissed claims by far-right Jewish protesters that Arab students had displayed Palestinian flags and played loud music. However, they acknowledged that two eggs had been thrown at worshipers that morning, without specifying the individuals responsible.
The incident was particularly jarring for the students since this campus is typically regarded as a safe haven for Arab students.
"I've resided in the dorms for the past four years, and it's usually quite peaceful. I often felt safer here than in my own town due to organised crime violence," one student explained to MEE.
She went on to mention that Palestinian students have fostered positive relations with the Jewish religious community around the dorms. The campus even houses a synagogue and a bakery, frequented by students without any previous issues.
Additionally, the student stressed that students from various religious backgrounds at Netanya College are generally known to be "very peaceful" and unbiased.
She pointed out that Palestinian students frequently self-censor, refraining from expressing their opinions to avoid backlash. Yet, this silence didn't shield them from the recent attack.
"We've essentially erased 'Freedom of Speech' from our lexicon. We seldom voice our thoughts because we are aware that it would make us the prime targets of Israeli anger. However, in spite of our silence, we were targeted and terrorised merely because we are Arab," she lamented.
Anan Dabbah, a law student who also works in the dorms, echoed similar sentiments. "Typically, we have amicable relations with our neighbours," he told MEE.
Dabbah revealed that the police were present from the inception of the gathering and that the agitated mobs were participating in a protest approved by the Israeli police.
When the crowd attempted to breach the dorms, Dabbah reached out to Arab Knesset members such as Ayman Odeh and Mansour Abbas. In response, Odeh promptly arranged for a bus to evacuate the students, with the bus waiting at the city's entrance.
'What did we do wrong? All the measures resembled forced displacement. Our lives are in jeopardy, including our education, housing, and future'
- Palestinian student
The student who did not wish to be named for safety concerns, conveyed her disappointment at the police's response. "Why should we be the ones forced to leave? Why are we not being adequately protected? What if the situation were reversed, and it was Arabs inciting against Jews?
"What did we do wrong? All the measures resembled forced displacement.
"Our lives are in jeopardy, including our education, housing, and future. Even if we sought to assert our Arab identity through academic achievements, staying apolitical, or refraining from expressing opinions, we're still at risk."
Youssif Taha, a volunteer with the Joint Coalition of Student Blocs, an organisation established to protect students after the outbreak of war, accused Netanya College of failing to safeguard Palestinian students.
"According to international academic norms, the institution has a duty to ensure the safety of its students," he said.
Taha underlined that students at this college are primarily apolitical, unlike other institutions. He also noted that the majority of Palestinian students work to cover their tuition expenses.
"Now, they may be unable to work because there is no one to protect them. This poses a significant economic setback for the students," Taha concluded.