Palestine’s Students Must Be Set Free

By Stuart Littlewood

The last thing Israel wants is masses of bright and clever young Palestinians nextdoor in the shredded remains of the Occupied Territories. But that’s exactly what Palestinian youngsters are… bright and clever, given half a chance. So they need repressing. They need humiliating constantly. They need to be discouraged. They need to have their education disrupted big-time, so that they become a broken, dispirited, docile mass without ambition, utterly dependent on a few crumbs of comfort and easy to control.

So the Israelis make spiteful war on students especially, as well as women and children generally.

Last week’s report from Bethlehem University about the brutal attacks by Israeli squatters, in one case under the indulgent eye of Israeli soldiers, on a professor and a student reminds me that I have written on three earlier occasions about intimidation and obstruction by the Israeli authorities. At this moment in the long struggle for decency and freedom it is worth recalling these incidents, which vividly illustrate why Palestinian independence is so vitally important.

To get to Bethlehem University, or any other, many students have to run the gauntlet of Israeli checkpoints. "Sometimes they take our ID cards and they spend ages writing down all the details, just to make us late," said one. Students are often made to remove shoes, belt and bags. "It’s like an airport. Many times we are kept waiting outside for up to an hour, rain or shine, they don’t care." The soldiers attempt to forcibly remove students’ clothes or they swear and shout sexual slurs at female students.

Some tell how they are sexually harassed and spend the rest of the day worrying what the Israelis will do to them on their way home.

The daily abuse undermines student motivation and concentration. Many other obstacles are put in their way by the Occupation. Here are just three cases that are representative of thousands of others. They will, I think, make you angry… spitting-blood furious in fact.


Merna was an honours student in her final year majoring in English. Israeli soldiers frequently rampaged through her Bethlehem refugee camp in the middle of the night, ransacking homes and arbitrarily arresting residents. They took away her family one by one. First her 14-year-old cousin and best friend was shot dead by an Israeli sniper while she sat outside her family home during a curfew.

Next the Israelis arrested her eldest brother, a 22 year-old artist, and imprisoned him for 4 years.  Then they came back for Merna’s 18-year-old brother. Not content with that the military came again, this time to take her youngest brother – the ‘baby’ of the family – just 16. These were the circumstances under which Merna had to study.

"As he was being taken away, he told us to take care of ourselves,” said Merna, her eyes brimming with tears. "He’s my little brother!  He is the one who needs taking care of. What is he doing in an awful prison cell and how are his spirits?"

Israeli military law treats Palestinians as adults as soon as they reach 16, a flagrant violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Israeli youngsters are regarded as children until 18. Palestinians are dealt with by Israeli military courts, even when it’s a civil matter. These courts ignore international laws and conventions, so there’s no legal protection for individuals under Israeli military occupation.

As detention is based on secret information, which neither the detainee nor his lawyer is allowed to see, it is impossible to mount a proper defence. Besides, the Security Service always finds a bogus excuse to keep detainees locked up "in the greater interest of the security of Israel". Although detainees have the right to review and appeal, they are unable to challenge the evidence and check facts as all information presented to the Court is classified.

Faced with this great mental stress Merna nevertheless determined to carry on with her studies. The “most moral army in the world”, as the Israelis call their uniformed thugs, may have robbed her brothers of an education, but she would still fight for hers. Sleepless and tearful, Merna went to university next day as usual.

A fellow student recalls than when chatting to Merna online in the evenings, she often had to leave the computer because the military had barged into her home. But even if she’d been up all night while Israeli soldiers trashed her house and questioned her family, she always came to school the next day.

"Coming to school is a way of getting away from what is happening in the refugee camp," says Merna. "It’s like an oasis here for me."  But her thoughts are never far from her cousin and brothers. "I only wish they were allowed this opportunity."

She became a senior member of the Bethlehem University Student Ambassadors
Programme and an example to fellow classmates. She hopes to pursue post-graduate studies abroad and return to the University to give back to the community some of the support it has offered her.

Young minds like Merna’s must continue to persevere against the odds. Though greatly distracted by the cruel fate of her close family, the ordeal forged a steely resolve. The purposeful way she lived her university life, say the Brothers, gave her added strength and confidence. Merna managed to turn the tables on adversity. Her loss was actually her gain.

What a remarkable young lady.


This Christian girl, a 4th year Business Administration student,  was originally from Gaza but had lived in the West Bank since 2005 after receiving a travel permit from the military to cross from Gaza to the West Bank. She was snatched by the Israeli military while returning from a job interview in Ramallah. The 21 year-old, due to graduate in a few weeks’ time, was suddenly deported to Gaza "for trying to complete her studies at Bethlehem University".

She too was about to be robbed of her degree at the last minute.  The most moral army in the world blindfolded and handcuffed her, loaded her into a military jeep and drove her from Bethlehem to Gaza, despite assurances by the Israeli Military Legal Advisor’s office that she would not be deported before an attorney from Gisha (an Israeli NGO working to protect Palestinians’ freedom of movement) had the opportunity to petition the Israeli court for her return to classes in Bethlehem.

When they’d crossed the border the world’s most moral army dumped Berlanty in the darkness late at night and told her: “You are in Gaza.”

"Since 2005, I refrained from visiting my family in Gaza for fear that I would not be permitted to return to my studies in the West Bank," she told Gisha on her mobile phone before the soldiers confiscated it. "Now, just two months before graduation, I was arrested and taken to Gaza in the middle of the night, with no way to finish my degree."

The Israeli embassy in London, when asked for an explanation, said that Berlanty held a permit that had expired and she’d been living in the West Bank illegally. “As you probably know, every Gaza resident who stays in the West Bank requires a permit, failing to do so is a breach of the law.”

The embassy spokesperson added that if she wished to complete her studies at Bethlehem she should apply for a permit to the relevant authorities. However, Bethlehem University told me that 12 students from Gaza had applied to attend the University and NOT ONE had received permission from the relevant Israeli authorities.

Her appeal, handled by Gisha, was turned down. It was a classic example of how Israel’s administrative ‘laws’ are framed to ride rough-shod over citizens’ rights enshrined in international law. For example, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are internationally recognized as one integral territory and under international law everyone has the right to freely choose their place of residence within a single territory. The state of Israel also has an obligation under the Oslo Agreements to “respect and preserve without obstacles, normal and smooth movement of people, vehicles and goods within the West Bank, and between the West Bank and Gaza Strip”.

While Israel’s embassy here was issuing its despicable ruling on Berlanty’s fate, the Ambassador was whining about a warrant issued in London for the arrest of ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni for alleged war crimes. Livni had overseen the murderous assault on Gaza the previous December/January, which killed 1400, including a large number of women and children, maimed thousands more and left countless families homeless.

If Berlanty, who has committed no crime, could not come and go as she pleased in her own country – the Holy Land – what made Israel’s Ambassador think that the bloodsoaked Livni, and others like her, should be allowed to come and go as they please in the UK? But that’s another shameful story.


A few months before he was due to graduate, in 2003, the Israeli military arrested Samer and threw him in jail… for 6 long years. Then at 27 he returned to campus to finish what he started.  “I feel like a regular student again," he said with a wide grin. "I have a university notebook and textbooks.  I can ask and answer questions freely.  I can communicate openly with students, professors, and staff.  It’s a real life, an authentic life.”

When imprisoned he was denied access to a lawyer for 55 days then moved from one Israeli prison to another for more than six years. He was tortured on numerous occasions, he says, and regularly interrogated eight hours a day for four to five days, in just a T-shirt, squatting on the cold ground with his hands tied and an air conditioner blowing on his back.  He was held in solitary confinement for more than a year. 

Membership of a student group in Palestine is outlawed under Israeli military law, and students who engage in campus politics risk arrest by Israel’s uniformed gangs who barge into Palestinian society and academic life to abduct them. Many western leaders began their political careers making a name for themselves at the Oxford Union and similar student debating groups or taking part in demos. How would they have reacted to being clapped in irons for it?

A good many of them are now firm ‘Friends of Israel’ although the regime stamps on the sort of student activities they enjoyed. Members of the Israeli cabinet presumably went to university. Are we to believe that they never engaged in student politics?

Samer’s experience is similar to that of hundreds of Palestinian students who find themselves political prisoners.  Many are left to rot in jail indefinitely, denied their basic right to due process, a fair trial and legal representation. Some wait up to two years to be charged. Others are charged under Israeli military law, which falls a long way short of the justice standards required under international law.

The Palestinian Prisoner’s Society reckoned that seven Bethlehem University students were at that time in Israeli prisons for taking part in ‘student activities’. In Samer’s case, he was abducted for joining Fatah’s resistance movement after the 2000 Intifada (uprising). It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to resist an illegal occupier.

But coming back to university after prison is no easy thing, as Samer discovered. He was suffering the cruel effects of six years’ incarceration and was often tired, depressed, stressed and jumpy. But he knew that the University was his anchor, the main hope in his young life.

At first he had problems communicating with other students, many of whom were younger than him. But the English professor who taught Samer earlier and received letters and messages from prison, said: “I see him as a success story in the sense that he hasn’t lost hope. He so much wanted to continue his education and he came back. Prison was tough for him but he came through it. He’s doing well, all things considered.”
Another professor remembered him from six years earlier. “There is a definite measure of maturity in Samer now,” she observed.  “He’s proud of being at Bethlehem University and he knows the value of education.  Samer doesn’t miss any classes. A six year gap in his education – and six rather difficult years – is not something that everyone can overcome. But he is doing it because he wants to improve himself, and his classmates see and admire it.”

Samer was determined to make the most of this second chance. Full marks to him for enduring and overcoming the cruelty of the Occupation.

Unpalatable Facts

A UN Human Rights Council report (A/HRC/WG.6/3/ISR/3) of December 2008 highlighted some unpalatable facts…

• DCI/PS (Defence for Children International, Palestine Section) expressed concern about coercive techniques used by Israeli authorities to extract confessions; the provision of typed confessions to Palestinian child detainees; the use of confessional evidence, most of which is obtained illegally, in the Israeli military courts in order to obtain convictions, and the lack of effective mechanisms for investigating complaints of torture.

• Referring to Israel’s policy of administrative detention, ICJ (International Commission of Jurists) said that arrests and detentions are often based on secret evidence to which neither the detainees nor their counsels have access. The Israeli authorities can repeatedly extend the initial detention without evidential justification.

• The International Complaints Commission (ICC) noted that there were about 800 Palestinian administrative detainees at the Israeli detention centres. The Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association reported that all are detained without any charges or any trial procedures. Administrative detention is ordered by a military commander and grounded on ‘security reasons’. Detainees must be brought before a military judge within 8 days but hearings are not open to the public. Addameer further reported that administrative detention has regularly been used against Palestinian children.

• AI (Amnesty International) confirmed that some 800 Palestinians were held without charge or trial in administrative detention and although they have the right to appeal to a military court and ultimately to the Supreme Court, neither they nor their lawyers have the right to see the evidence against them.

• The Mandela Institute reported serious deterioration in all Israeli detention facilities, including over-crowdedness; forbidding family visits; arbitrary transfers; violence against prisoners by prison officials; torture and ill treatment by the Israeli General Security Services (GSS or Shin Bet), Israeli soldiers and prison guards against Palestinians; deterioration of health conditions, and deaths in custody.

So there you have it. The evil of Israel’s ‘snatch squads’ that prey on Palestine’s students and other young people, and the regime’s cynical disregard for their wellbeing while in its clutches, are laid bare for everyone to see.

It is clear that Israel still hasn’t emerged from the swamp, and probably never will.

– Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. He contributed this article to

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