Safe Space

By Sally Fitzharris

Campaigners for  ‘Rhodes Must Fall’  who have demanded the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from an Oxford College, as being an offensive symbol of colonialism, have recently lost their fight. 

Should universities maintain the right to freedom of speech on campus,  or is the psychological safety zone of the student paramount?  The National Union of Students is committed to the idea of ‘safe spaces’ and wants to reserve the right to ban speakers whose ideas are deemed distressing or offensive.

The right not to be offended or upset, often invoked to silence criticism of Israeli government policy,  is unlikely to be a concern of  students in the occupied  West Bank.  At Birzeit University in Ramallah, as at other Palestinian universities, students are fighting for the right to education, the right to non-violent protest and ultimately the right to freedom from Israeli occupation.  But  political activism  carries a high price. 

Mohammed Zeyadeh a 19 year old student, joined the demonstration against Israel's occupation, organised by the Birzeit Students’ Union on 7 October at Beit El - the checkpoint which stands between the university and many students’ homes in Ramallah.  He was arrested and severely beaten by special unit forces, from which he suffered a head injury. “He is currently receiving medical care, as he reportedly has memory loss as a result of the physical assault, and has difficulty speaking well,”  according to Addameer, the Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association in Israel. “He is not good, he cannot walk,” said his brother, at home in Ramallah. 

Two Birzeit students were arrested also. Abdul-Rahman Abu Dahab, was held for 10 days in Masqoubieh Interrogation Centre.  In January he was sentenced to seven months in prison and a fine. Ahmed Walid Hamid, was arrested, badly beaten and shot in the thigh at close range while he was restrained. After one week in hospital he was sent to Ofer prison, where he remains, facing charges, according to Addameer.

Ninety Birzeit students, both male and female, including the head of the student union and his secretary, and two lecturers,  are currently under arrest, according to a university spokesman.  Many are being held without charge, on administrative detention, renewable every six months.

The University Council offices were raided in the early hours of 11 January when Israeli military stormed the campus.  They confiscated all the computers from the Student Union offices, and detained university security personnel, before breaking into the Faculty of Science Building.

During the last four weeks Birzeit students have been sitting first year exams, which determine whether they carry their studies on to the next year. “If you miss exams you must repeat the year, which is why they lock up so many,” explains the Director of our partner organisation Ahdaf.  “During the first intifada, I was asked by an agent of Shin Bet [Israel's internal security force] to act as a collaborator. When I refused, I was sent to prison. I was released, repeated the academic year,  continued to refuse, so was re-arrested, again just before exams.”   

Palestinian detainees who are transferred, contrary to international law, to Israeli prisons are denied the chance to continue their education, for example by correspondence. 

’Stolen Youth’ a study of Israel’s detention policies, shows that those imprisoned, most of whom suffer harsh treatment and may be placed for long periods in solitary confinement, have both psychological and physical difficulties which make it hard to readjust to academic work.

“The main aim of these tactics is to break us, break our will and reinforce this understanding that no matter what we do they will creep up on us and lock us up because they have the power to do so, ”  said a Birzeit student who withheld his name.

Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham, writing on the control Israel must exert to preserve its occupation of Palestinian land, agrees: “Put very bluntly, there are three options: kill the native population, deport them or intimidate the population into submission. From what I have witnessed, I believe the Israeli military strategy is to get inside the Palestinians’ heads and break their spirit.”

A safe space?   For Palestinian students both on and off campus, more than feelings get hurt. Protest is a dangerous front line.