Hundreds of Palestinian students from the occupied West Bank have been jailed for their non-violent political activism.
Israel’s use of controversial military courts to sentence students and activists in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) has once again come under focus after Birzeit University’s three students were sent to prison last week.
Ruba Assi, Shatha Taweel and Lyan Kayed — all girls in their early 20s — have been sentenced to serve between 14 and 21 months, the university confirmed to TRT World.
“Students are charged with being active in the student union and are arrested due to their beliefs, or expressing their ideas,” a Birzeit spokesperson said, adding they had not committed any crime.
The detention and sentencing come amidst a wider crackdown in which Israeli security forces and police have arrested hundreds of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, which divides Israel proper from the OPT of West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
Large-scale protests were sparked by the forced evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and the Israeli attack on Gaza, police and rights groups say.
But it's the fate of those who end up in the military courts that perhaps raises the greatest concern of human rights violations by the Israeli occupation force.
“The objective (of the military courts) is not to catch someone for an offence. But it’s a way to silence any popular resistance,” said Neve Gordon, a professor of international law and human rights, at the Queen Mary University of London.
“Any kind of behaviour or vocalisation of resistance to colonial rule becomes a threat and so any student taking part in the resistance is arrested,” he told TRT World.
Ruba Assi (L) was sentenced to 21 months in prison by an Israeli military "court". Shatha Altaweel (center) was sentenced to 14 months and Lyan Kayed (R) to 16. They are all Birzeit university students persecuted for their student activism. #FreePalestine. pic.twitter.com/ABH8n45J5f— Nour Odeh 🇵🇸 #NojusticeNopeace (@nour_odeh) May 31, 2021
Israel regularly arrests students from West Bank universities such as Birzeit and An-Najah National University for participating in political activities. Many of them are imprisoned for months under various military orders that prohibit even expressing a political view or distributing flyers against Israeli occupation.
The crackdown against student activists often takes place during the exam season, which means those who are sent to prison miss their academic year.
“Just like right now when there’s an exam period you will see more arrests. Israel wants to create a terrorising effect on the student body, which plays a major role in resistance. The idea is to instill fear,” said Gordon.
Birzeit University said that Ruba and Lyan who are sociology undergraduates and Shahtha, a computer science student, won’t be able to take lectures and can’t appear in exams from prison.
Israeli forces had arrested 455 Birzeit University students in the past ten years, the spokesperson said. Many of them are detained for months before start of military trials, which almost always ends with a prison sentence.
The Israeli settlers who live in illegal settlements in the West Bank are tried under civilian courts even if they live down the street from a Palestinian who had been sentenced by a military commander.
Israel uses a different set of laws to treat Israelis and Palestinians. If a Palestinian resident steals, he’s tried in the military court while an Israeli has to answer before a civilian judge for the same crime.
The West Bank, which is home to around 2.6 million Palestinians, has been under an Israeli military rule since 1967. Even the Israeli citizens who live in illegal settlements have to technically live by the military rules and codes. But in reality that doesn’t happen.
Israeli lawmakers have extended Israel’s laws such as those that deal with health, taxation and elections to the Jewish settlers on an individual basis while leaving out Palestinians.
“In every stage of the legal proceedings — from the initial detention to the trial to the verdict — Palestinians are discriminated against when compared to Israelis,” the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said in a report.
Even the laws that deal with traffic violations are different for Palestinians and Israelis.
The most blatant manifestation of this shows up when it comes to the right to assembly and protest. Palestinians cannot organise demonstrations or take out rallies as the military commander dubs them illegal. When Palestinians do go out in protest, they are arrested and tried in military courts.
Since the 1980s, all Israeli citizens brought to trial before the military courts were Arab citizens or Palestinian residents of Israel, says ACRI.
In the past five decades, the military courts have tried around 800,000 Palestinians, according to the UK-based charity War on Want.
Israeli military commander-in-charge of the West Bank has discretionary powers to ban any organisation.
Around 400 Palestinian organisations and NGOs including student groups have been prohibited over the years by the military courts, said Professor Gordon. For instance, in October 2020, Israel declared Birzeit’s leftist bloc, the Democratic Progressive Student Pole (DPSP) an “unlawful association”.
Even though Israeli military courts have no real legitimacy, said Professor Gordon, their labelling of Palestinian groups as terrorist organisations has international implications.
The funding and lobbying efforts of Palestinian organisations in the European Union are often hindered by these military court verdicts, he said.
“So these Israeli military courts also play a role in other countries by creating an image of Palestinians as terrorists."