15 March 1999
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Office of the Prime Minister
3 Kaplan St.
Jerusalem 91919 Israel
Fax: 972/3-691 7915 or 972/2-566 4838
Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,
The Committee on Academic Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (CAFMENA) of the Middle East Studies Association continues to be concerned at restrictions the Israeli government imposes on students in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In particular, we are alarmed in regard to the case of Iyad Habib Muhammad, president of the Bir Zeit University student council. Mr. Habib's recent arrest, subsequent detention, and denial of his right to legal counsel epitomizes a pattern of harassment of Bir Zeit students, which is disconcerting to all who share an interest in protecting academic freedom and the right to education.
The Middle East Studies Association comprises 2700 academics worldwide who teach and conduct research on the Middle East and North Africa. The association publishes the respected International Journal of Middle East Studies and is committed to ensuring respect for principles of academic freedom and human rights throughout the region.
Mr. Habib was arrested by the Israeli General Security Services on January 26th and five prevention orders have since been issued, depriving him of his right to meet with legal counsel. Israeli authorities have not informed Mr. Habib's family or lawyer of the reasons for his arrest. Mr. Habib was, however, arrested while leaving Bir Zeit subsequent to a long period of harassment during which Mr. Habib was often stopped at checkpoints set up by the Israeli authorities on the road to and from the university and interrogated about his campus activities. Mr. Habib's is not an isolated case, but rather exemplifies the treatment to which Bir Zeit student leaders have long been subject. There are currently fifty-five Bir Zeit students in detention in Israeli prisons, including past and present members of the student council, as well as a previous student council president. In just the last nine days, ten students have been detained on the basis of their Bir Zeit activities. Such sanctions on those who presume the right to speak and act freely in an academic context infringe on the fundamental scholarly value of free expression, without which a university cannot properly function.
These sanctions come within the larger context of a number of Israeli actions impinging on the right to education of those Palestinians resident in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Among these actions are the difficulties Gazan students have had in obtaining permits to study at Bir Zeit; the constant closures which have made access to Bir Zeit difficult even for students already in the West Bank; and the sealing of the road to Bir Zeit, making the university inaccessible to students and faculty for months at a time.
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