On September 12, 2000, Abdel Rahim left his home in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp in Gaza and took a taxi to the Erez crossing on the northern Gaza border. He was traveling to the West Bank to start a degree in civil engineering at Birzeit University. When he reached the checkpoint he saw his father who was returning from his job in Israel. Abdel Rahim told him he’d be back to visit the family in a month after he’d settled in at college. His father wished him luck.
Two weeks later the Intifada started. Abdel Rahim hasn’t seen his family since.
In the last four years, Israeli authorities have all but refused to issue permits for students from Gaza to travel to and from the West Bank. They have also made renewing permits increasingly difficult for students who began their degrees before the Intifada started.
In 2000, 370 Gaza students enrolled at Birzeit University. Enrollment of Gaza students in 2005 is down to 39. Those who began their degrees in 2000 have been left with two stark choices: They can either drop out or stay and risk all that this entails.
“We live a different life to students from the West Bank,” explains Abdel Rahim, one of the 35 Gaza students still studying at Birzeit. “The occupation makes university life difficult for everyone here, but Gaza students are especially vulnerable because our permits have expired. We daren’t risk going anywhere.”
Abdel Rahim says Gaza students rarely leave Birzeit and Ramallah for fear of being stopped at checkpoints and arrested. He adds, however, that until recently, even though his permit expired in 2000, he hasn’t had serious problems between Birzeit and Ramallah, and soldiers seem to understand why his permit has expired and usually, after questioning, he was able to pass. “But it’s not like this now,” he says, “not since the arrests of our four colleagues.”
At two in the morning on November 18, Israeli soldiers forcibly entered a student apartment in Birzeit village. The four Gaza students inside were gathered in one room, handcuffed, blindfolded and taken away. After three days during which they said they were repeatedly beaten, interrogated and ritually humiliated by young Israeli soldiers, they were deposited at the Erez crossing. Their blindfolds were removed and they were made to walk back into Gaza. No charges were made against them and no written deportation orders were issued. Bashar Abu Salim, Walid Muhanna, Muhammad Matar and Bashar Abu Salim are all due to graduate this year with degrees in civil and mechanical engineering.
The lack of any clear reason why Israeli army house-to-house checks have recently increased in Birzeit and the arbitrary nature of the arrests have heightened fears among the remaining Gaza students at Birzeit. They are especially anxious because most are due to graduate this year.
Abdel Rahim says that since the arrests he has avoided sleeping at his apartment every night. Instead he prefers to stay with different friends at least three times a week. They call him on his mobile phone to warn him when soldiers come into Birzeit.
He says he lives like a fugitive but has done nothing wrong. “I have never been affiliated with any of the Palestinian factions, I don’t have any interest in the politics of this country, I have never committed a crime, but I am still made to feel like a criminal.”
The feeling of being hunted is shared by all Gaza students at Birzeit, says Abdel Rahim. Two of his colleagues were issued with papers last week demanding they report to Israeli military intelligence, the Shabak, in the Ofer settlement near Ramallah. There was no written explanation why the authorities wanted to see them. “Of course, they haven’t gone,” says Abdel Rahim, “because they are afraid they will also be ‘deported’. Like us all, they only want to finish their degrees.”
While students from the West Bank can go home during the holidays, Gaza students are forced to remain and celebrate together in Birzeit. One of the reasons why the recent arrests have caused such anxiety is because they happened during the Muslim Eid holiday. There were almost no non-Gaza students in the town at the time. ” We don’t know whether we are being specifically targeted,” says Abdel Rahim, “but it’s the not knowing that so breaks our spirit.”
Walid Aql is studying psychology. His family lives in the Jabaliya Refugee Camp in Gaza. He hasn’t seen them since September 16, 2000.
He explains the terrifying ritual that students go through when Israeli soldiers come to Birzeit. “It’s always the same and it happens so often these days. They take our details, our ID numbers, one soldier notes down the number of rooms and all our belongings, whether we have a TV, a video or a phone. They then take photos of us holding a card on which our names and ID number is written in Hebrew and then they leave. No one has any answers.”
Walid stresses that everyone’s studies at Birzeit are affected by the Israeli army. But the academic life of Gaza students is especially disrupted because of their fears for the safety of families back home. He says he often misses lectures and assignments because he finds it hard to cope. The Jabaliya Refugee Camp has suffered countless invasions by the Israeli army over the last four years. In October, more than 130 men, women and children were killed by Israeli soldiers in Jabaliya. Last month five of Walid’s family’s neighbors were killed by Israeli gunfire.
Last week Walid ventured out of Birzeit for the first time in four years. “It had all become too much,” he says. “I had to move, I had to do something.”
He headed towards Bethlehem and miraculously managed to cross the checkpoints without trouble. On the return journey he was stopped and aggressively questioned by the soldiers. He says he doesn’t know how he made it back to Birzeit. “In the current climate there was a 90 percent chance that I would get into serious trouble. Who knows, even arrested,” he says.
Walid had gone to Bethlehem to visit a family he has known all his life. “Yes, there was a big risk, but there is a risk in Birzeit too. I wanted to taste my friend’s mother’s cooking. Even just for one night, I wanted to feel part of a family again.”
Meanwhile, the plight of the four students “deported” to Gaza last month has gained international attention. The Right to Education campaign has launched a campaign demanding the immediate return to Birzeit of the Gaza four.
It has so far gained the support of hundreds of academics around the world including Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the U.K lecturers union NAFTHE, which represents over 60,000 teachers in post school education, as well as the National Tertiary Education Union in Australia that has over 27000 members.
This article was originally published December 22, 2004, by Palestine Report, found at www.palestinereport.org. Also in this week’s edition: PR reports on municipal election campaigning in Nablus area villages and interviews Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery.