Three Palestinian students at the College of Engineering in Jerusalem (JCE) have been put under house arrest for a week and instructed not to contact any of their peers for using the social media website Facebook to urge a boycott of a speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
A couple of weeks ago, students received a message from the college authorities, notifying them of a visit by Peres scheduled for 10 January. The message emphasized that attendance during Peres’ speech was “compulsory.”
Three Palestinian students then posted on the college’s Facebook page that they would not attend the speech and asked others to follow suit. In response almost all the Palestinian students of the college boycotted the speech.
Following the event, the three students who urged the boycott were called for an interrogation at an Israeli police station. They were accused of threatening other students, as well as racism. They were then put under house arrest for a week, outside Jerusalem, and were instructed not to contact other students.
Khalil Gharra, one of the three targeted students, told The Electronic Intifada, “There was an intense debate on the Facebook page of the college’s first year students between students who rejected the college’s policy regarding the compulsory attendance of Peres’ speech and others who supported it.”
He added, “The debate revolved around the commitment of the students to the decision of the college, and around how the college should not be forcing students to attend a lecture delivered by a ‘political symbol.’ This act contravened the students’ freedom of expression. Within this context, I expressed my opinion, saying that I wouldn’t attend the lecture. And I advised others to do the same.”
Gharra added that another debate is now taking place on Facebook regarding the punishments that the police imposed on him and his friends. He said that many Palestinian students have protested over the case, and have expressed their support for the targeted students.
Referring to his interrogation, Gharra said: “An officer from a police station in the Talpiot area in Jerusalem contacted me more than once and asked me to go immediately to the police station to be interrogated in a case that I knew nothing about. I refused to do so as these kind of invitations are illegal. The next day I received a printed invitation to my room in the students’ dorms.”
According to Gharra, the letter stated, “If you do not arrive to the station immediately, we will come and arrest you in the late hours of the night.”
At the station he was told that he was accused of threatening behavior and of incitement to racism. Ghara said, “I denied all the charges against me. Later the interrogator consulted other interrogators and officers who are in charge of the case, and he decided that I should be deported from Jerusalem and that I’m not allowed to contact any student till 25 January. Moreover, he decided to put me under house arrest until 21 January.”
Ghara argued that this specific case should not be viewed separately from other restrictions on Palestinian student activism in Israeli universities. He said, “It’s clear to me from the investigation’s course that the case is about political persecution. However, they won’t stop us from our political activism. I won’t bend to the policy of repression that the police and the intelligence are practicing on Arab students. Our activism is legal and it’s our right to organize and express our opinion.”
Alaa Mahajna, the students’ lawyer, also argued that the case is not criminal but political. He said, “The students are suspected of threatening and incitement to racism following Shimon Peres’ speech. However, Peres is a controversial political figure, some consider him to be responsible for murdering more than a hundred innocent people during the Qana massacre [in Lebanon] in 1996, when he was the prime minister of Israel. The argument about whether to attend or boycott the speech was conducted through the public sphere — Facebook — where everyone could express his or her opinion. As a lawyer, I don’t see any legal basis for the suspicions against the students.”
“These legal actions are part of the whole process of political persecution, which aims to shut down the voice of the Palestinian students in Israeli universities,” he added.
Palestinian students in the college are organizing a petition to express their support for the targeted students, emphasizing their right to protest.
Moreover, the Palestinian students association at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem released a statement condemning the violation of the right to free expression. The association also confirmed the importance of boycotting Israelis who are involved in war crimes, referring to Peres’ role in the Qana massacre.
Yara Sa’di is a postgraduate student and activist from Haifa.