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Student political groups face crackdown in West Bank

The Palestinian Authority’s security forces have targeted student movements in West Bank universities.
A Palestinian student supporting the Hamas movement holds a Hamas flag as she takes part in an election campaign for the student council at the Birzeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah  May 6, 2014. 
The political parties are competing for the student council's 51 seats in an election that will take place on Wednesday.

The student groups affiliated with Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) at Birzeit University organized a series of events to protest the Dec. 8 arrests of a number of their members. Both movements issued statements Dec. 8 describing the arrests as “a continuation of the security coordination policy and a flagrant violation of our people’s rights.” The next morning, each student group signed the “Honor Document,” in which they announced the formation of a committee to follow up on the situation of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

After the formation of the national consensus government in June, the Palestinian security services have maintained a steady campaign to stifle student political movements in the West Bank, including raids and arrests of members of Hamas and its student wing, the Islamic Bloc. The crackdown also targeted the leftist Progressive Student Action Front, the student wing of the PFLP. The student blocs affiliated with Hamas and the PFLP responded in early December with a protest at Al-Quds University. The Progressive Student Action Front posted Nov. 24 on its Facebook page that the security apparatus extended the detention period of its member Ayman Mahareik by 15 additional days before his trial, and that he is charged with incitement via Facebook.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Alaa Rabii, the Islamic Bloc's coordinator at the University of Jerusalem, said four students from his university had been arrested, while more than 15 had been summoned.

The PFLP issued a statement Dec. 9 denouncing the political arrests by the Palestinian Authority (PA), especially those of students. The statement read that the arrests threaten Palestinian national unity as they are not based on any legal justification. Islamic Jihad leader Khader Habib called the security coordination with Israel “a major mistake and a sin committed by the PA against the cause and the Palestinian people.”

Hamas spokesman Hossam Badran condemned the prosecution of students. In an interview with Al-Monitor, he pointed out that the Islamic Bloc is pursuing cases of political arrest through the university administrations, since they are responsible for protecting students, and through human rights organizations. The Islamic Bloc has also appealed to the media for help. However, Badran said that the PA has not yet responded.

“The security campaigns against the Islamic Bloc will not stop, as the latter will not abandon its national duty toward the student movement,” he added.

While Fatah leader Qadura Fares believes that the security services ought to protect the people, not arrest them, he is not convinced of the need to stop the security coordination with Israel, while members of the Fatah Central Committee and former head of Palestinian intelligence Tawfiq Tirawi see both the security and civil coordination as created to serve and protect the Palestinian people.

Most of the student blocs at An-Najah National University in Nablus condemned the assault on the student activists who participated in the sit-in protesting the visit of a delegation from the US Consulate to the university on Sept. 29. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Nablus also condemned the Sept. 29 attack on Mohammed Abu Awad, a representative of the Student Union Council, during which security forces broke his arm.

However, the situation is different at Birzeit University, where the administration seeks to avoid polarization and political spats. In an interview with Al-Monitor, a leader of the Progressive Student Action Front who wished to remain anonymous demanded that the university’s administration “issue a clear position toward the political arrests and work with the student organizations side by side to put an end to these arrests." He pointed out that the students are being arrested as they are leaving the university, and added that the university's simply assigning a lawyer for the detainee is not enough.

The human rights organization Al-Haq issued a report in January regarding a Palestinian intelligence officer firing live bullets into the air during a sit-in by the family of Birzeit University student Tawfiq Abu Arkoub, who was detained by the security services. The Euro-Mediterranean Observatory for Human Rights also expressed its “great concern about the PA security services’ abuses of freedom of opinion and expression and the citizens’ right to travel.” The group pointed out that during the last 10 days of October, it had received 42 complaints about arbitrary arrests and 27 about the illegal summoning of citizens.

After the 2007 split, the Palestinian security services did not abide by the courts’ orders to free the detainees. When the PA arrested Rabii, the court decided that he should be released, but the security services did not immediately comply and did not release him until later on. However, Birzeit student Omar Bairat had a different experience when he was arrested Nov. 27 on charges of “verbally insulting high-ranking figures.” In an interview with Al-Monitor, Bairat noted that the court decided he should be released and the security services immediately responded for no reason that was clear to him.

The Euro-Mediterranean Observatory for Human Rights reported 49 cases of the security apparatus refusing to comply with court decisions to release arrested students.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, lawyer and legal journalist Rawan Farhat commented, “The arrests are adjusted according to Jordanian Penal Code No. 16 for the year 1960. The code’s texts are known for being rigid and incompatible with international conventions. In law in general, there is nothing called ‘verbally insulting’ high-ranking figures,” she said, noting that such arrests are incompatible with Palestine’s desire to join international conventions.

Historically, Palestinian student activism has not been confined to unions, and never to improving the educational and academic environment. It took place in a political framework that went beyond students to reach the Palestinian masses. Due to the nature of the Palestinian cause, the Palestinian student movement has played central and radical roles in the Palestinian struggle. Universities are considered a rich environment for mobilization and are a focal point of political factions, including the PA.

The majority of the Palestinian factions and their student wings believe the arrests serve security coordination, and the crackdown on the student movements has clearly widened.

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