“It Was Like Abu Ghraib”: Israeli Abuse of Birzeit University’s Gazan Students

The Israeli army issued a statement yesterday (Tuesday 14th December 2004) that a decision would be made in the next 48 hrs concerning four Birzeit University students who were illegally ‘deported’ back to Gaza last month. An international letter writing campaign involving hundreds of academics from around the world has been launched demanding they are returned to the university to complete their degrees. All were due to graduate this year. Bashar Abu Salim is one of the four. This is his story about what happened on the night of his arrest.

On Wednesday 17th November, I went to university as normal. Everything was okay. I had been in Ramallah visiting friends. Although my permit to study in the West Bank had expired 4 months after the beginning of the Intifada, I never experienced serious problems with the Israeli army. The Israeli authorities stopped renewing permits for Gaza citizens to travel to and from the West Bank in 2000. When the Intifada started we decided to stay in the West Bank and complete our degrees rather than risk not being able to return. Until our deportation we hadn’t seen our families in four years.

At 9 pm I returned to my home in Birzait, where I live with two other Gaza students. Another Gaza student friend of ours, Mohammad Matar, had come over to eat with us and watch TV. I went to bed at around 10 pm.

At 2.00 am, Bashar abu Shahla woke me and told me to prepare myself as Israeli soldiers had entered the building. I got out of bed and got my I.D ready thinking that this was just another routine check.

Approximately twenty five soldiers came into the flat and told the four of us to gather in one room. They were polite at first, asking us routine questions such as where we are from, what we are studying and how long have we been at Birzeit University. Then we were made to hold a piece of cardboard on which was written our names and I.D. numbers. A soldier took our photographs.

Then we realised this wasn’t a normal check. We were handcuffed and blindfolded. I was wearing my pyjamas so I asked if I could put on my jeans. The captain said okay, but no jacket. We were allowed to take our mobiles and a little money, but nothing else.

We were led outside and pushed into the back of a military vehicle. The soldiers sat swearing at us but we couldn’t see them because of the blindfolds.

After ten minutes, the truck stopped and the doors opened. The soldiers pushed us out onto the ground. Then the beatings started.

They hit us with their rifle butts us as we lay on the ground and swore at us in Arabic, kicking and punching us in the face, chest, and head. We rolled on the floor and could not defend ourselves because of the cuffs and blindfolds.

One soldier had a camera. After this first beating, they took pictures of each other standing by us as we lay on the floor. One soldier posed with his boot on my friends head. It was like the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

We didn’t know where we were. As they pushed us back into the truck, the beatings continued.

As I sat in the truck I felt the plastic cuffs around my wrist suddenly break. I hadn’t done this on purpose. It broke accidentally. One soldier noticed. I tried to explain it had broken itself. One held me from behind as he retied the plastic cuffs while another stood in front and hit me with his rifle butt.

After about half an hour, the truck stopped. We were pushed outside onto the ground and beaten again before being led still blindfolded into an office. Inside the building an officer addressed us in Arabic. From his accent I could tell he was a Druze. He said welcome and then made us all say La Allah Ila Allah (“here is no God but God”). He was making fun of us. He then asked us if we had any medical history or suffered from any medical conditions before saying to the soldiers Ikramouhm (“Be generous with them”). We knew that meant beat us well. We were led back onto the truck.

There were two soldiers with us in the truck. We had to sit with our heads down, blindfolds on, and arms tied behind backs. Every two minutes they asked us if we were awake. We had to answer ‘yes’ in Hebrew. It was like a game but my friend, who doesn’t understand Hebrew, kept getting it wrong. Everytime he didn’t answer Ken (“Yes”), they beat him.

One soldier struck up a conversation with me. He asked me about my family. I told him my father had died in Gaza while I was at Birzeit University but I couldn’t go to the funeral and see my family because I would never be able to return to the West Bank. His voice sounded concerned and sad for me and said Allah Yirhamu (“God have mercy on his soul”). He then beat me with his rifle for five minutes.

After the beating, he asked me about my favourite football team, my favourite player, and whether I played myself. He seemed civil and kind again. He then beat me for another five minutes. It was a game. This went on for three hours.

When the truck stopped, we were pushed out and the cuffs and blindfolds were removed. I looked at my watch. It was 7.30 in the morning. I asked one of the soldiers where we were. He said Tel Aviv but then I saw the mosque minarets. I knew we were still in Ramallah at the Ofer detention centre. They had been driving round in circles.

We were given prisoner numbers. Mine was 042238. Then we were taken to a doctor who asked us again if we suffered any medical conditions before being led to the Binyamin Detention Centre which is part of the Ofer complex. We slept in one of the tents for 6-7 hours before a soldier woke us saying we were going to the Shabak intelligence unit. Our legs and hands were cuffed again before we were pushed onto the bus.

Inside the intelligence unit, a man brought us tea and coffee. We didn’t want to drink it. The man said the price of a bullet was 2 shekels and a bag of poison is 20, so if they wanted to kill us now they would choose the cheaper option. We drank the tea.

We were each taken to a room individually and asked more questions. An man typed my answers into a computer. He said I was a good lad and had a clean file, “as clean as a baby,” he said. I asked him why we were being treated this way. He said a new Israeli law had come out stipulating that all people from Gaza without valid permits to be in the West Bank were to be sent back to Gaza. I said I hadn’t heard this. He told me I didn’t need to hear about Israeli law.

He then said he wanted to help me. He said that he thought it was unfair that I be deported now as I was so close to my graduation. He said he would discuss it with someone upstairs.

We were then sent back to the tents. Three days later, on Sunday at 8.30, an officer came and told us we were to be questioned more and that on the basis of these questions they would decide if we were to be deported. Again the same questions were asked. How long have you been here? How much time do you need to finish your studies? The officer said in two hours we would know.

We were led back to our tents. Two hours later the officer returned. The answer was no. We were to be deported.

The soldiers blindfolded, handcuffed, and bound our legs again. We were led to another bus. There were approximately ten soldiers on the bus. The driver put some Arabic music on the radio. The soldiers gave each of us a number. Each time one of the soldiers called out a number, one of us had to stand up. This went on for about half an hour. They laughed at us jumping to our feet with our blindfolds on, handcuffed, and leg bound. Then they got bored and chatted about their girlfriends for the remainder of the journey.

When we arrived at the Erez crossing into Gaza the soldiers led us off the bus and removed our blindfolds. They gave us back our mobiles and the little money we had. They said ‘Welcome back to Gaza’.

For information, including protest addresses, see the sample letter on Birzeit University’s Right To Education website at right2edu.birzeit.edu. Charles Stratford is a British Arabic speaking journalist based in Ramallah.