Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister’s Office
3 Kaplan Street Hakirya
Jerusalem 91950 Israel
Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked
Minister of the Interior Aryeh Machluf Deri
Minister of Education Naftali Bennett
Chairman, Council for Higher Education of Israel
Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ministers Shaked, Deri, and Bennett,
We write on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) to express our concern regarding the continued detention of Mr. Omar al-Kiswani, whom Israeli Border Police abducted on the campus of Birzeit University on March 7. We also wish to register our alarm about the conditions under which he is being held by Israel. We have written to you about Mr. al-Kiswani before and our last letter of 13 March 2018 letter is available here.
MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. It is the preeminent organization in the field. The Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 2500 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.
Omar al-Kiswani is the elected student council president of Birzeit University. He was abducted by undercover Israeli Border Police and has been held in detention since 7 March. According to a statement issued by Birzeit University’s Right to Education campaign, al-Kiswani is being held in al-Maskobiya interrogation center in Jerusalem. Al-Kiswani’s detention has been renewed by an Israeli military court at Ofer Prison at least seven times, with the last renewal coming on 25 April. Not only was al-Kiswani’s arrest illegal, but to date he has not been charged with a crime; he is being held under the practice of administrative detention, which dates back to the years of British colonial rule of Mandate Palestine.
According to multiple reports in the Palestinian press as well as statements by lawyers from the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, Mr. al-Kiswani was subjected to interrogation sessions that lasted sometimes as long as 18 to 20 hours a day during the first month of his detention, and he was intentionally deprived of sleep. Mr, al-Kiswani began a hunger strike on 19 March in order to insist on his right to see a lawyer. After two weeks, on 3 April, he was finally allowed to see his lawyer for the first time. CAF strongly objects to this deplorable treatment.
Mr. Al-Kiswani’s arrest and mistreatement while under detention is not an isolated incident. Mr. al-Kiswani is the seventh sitting Birzeit student council president to be arrested by the Israeli authorities since 2004; three former student council presidents have also been arrested in the same period. Furthermore, there are more than sixty (60) students from Birzeit University currently in Israeli detention and many more from other universities in the occupied West Bank. Since 2004, some 800 Birzeit students have been arrested by Israel. Not only do these arrests jeopardize the physical well-being of students, they also interrupt the normal conduct of university business and student life.
Israel’s behavior in these matters represents a flagrant disregard of its international humanitarian law obligations, which require that occupation authorities protect universities as spaces of education. Equally alarming is Israel’s continued use of administrative detention, which permits holding those arrested without charge or trial on the grounds that they may commit a crime in the future. Thousands of Palestinians have been held under administrative detention in the nearly 51-year old occupation, and this practice has been condemned on numerous occasions by international bodies such as the UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), which Israel has ratified.
Our committee has written to you numerous times in the past to express our condemnation of arrests of Palestinian students and placing them under administrative detention. These arrests of university students such al-Kiswani without trial or charges, which administrative detention facilitates, are thereby clear violations of the right to education enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). Israel is also a signatory to both of these conventions.
We, therefore, once again call upon the Israeli occupation authorities to release Omar al-Kiswani immediately. We also insist that the Israeli Ministry of Education respect the academic freedom of Palestinian students and all members of the university community by condemning the arrest and holding of Palestinian university students under administrative detention. Further, we call upon the Israel Defense Forces and the Border Police to cease carrying out such arrests.
We look forward to your response.
Judith E. Tucker
Professor, Georgetown University
Amy W. Newhall
MESA Executive Director