“I'm talking about the freedom that has no price, freedom that is itself the price.”
Ghassan Kanafani’s quote was the first thing that came to my mind when I learned that my colleagues and friends had been imprisoned.
In Fall of 2019, I began my last semester at Birzeit University, in the Palestinian West Bank, eagerly looking forward to my classes and graduation day. However, circumstances prevented this joy from being completed, and one of these circumstances was the arrest of my friends.
I used to see these colleagues every day on the university campus, and hear their voices, laughter and their name-calling to each other. But the Israeli military forces effectively forbade us from seeing their smiles on the university campus, and they blocked the sunlight from reaching our eyes.
My friends were activists in student elections, but the Israelis gave no clear reason for their arrest, except to infer during interrogations that they were members of a terrorist group.
Is the love of our homeland a crime for which a university student should be imprisoned and prevented from finishing his or her education?
Is our Palestinian nationality a sin for which we deserve to be punished every day?
We resist, love life and shine despite suffering. This is what the life of a Palestinian student is like when he or she is deliberately deprived of academic life.
I have not lived the harsh experience of the prison myself, but I felt its bitterness when I talked to my friends and heard from them the psychological and physical pain they endured in the dark jails.
The spirit of resistance
I used to see my friend Amir Hazboun laughing on the university campus, as solid as steel, a loyal friend of his friends. Hazboun was a university student in his fourth year, majoring in mechanical engineering.
“In the first moments of being arrested, you feel intense fear, especially as it is your first experience,” Ameer told me afterward. “You are not used to having guns pointed at you and being thrown violently to the ground. In these moments, the unknown begins. You start asking yourself questions, such as, Am I dreaming? Where will I go? Will I be beaten? How will I behave if I go to interrogation? A tape of pictures and memories pass through your head.
“After a period of being subjected to beatings and violence, you start trying to not be broken, even though you feel overwhelmed. As for the plastic handcuffs and the blindfold, you start, after a short period, trying to adapt to them. You cannot walk unless there is one of the soldiers to hold you and walk with you, so then you feel a sensation of helplessness and weakness. As for throwing you outside into the cold air for hours: then any prisoner feels that he is losing his strength little by little, but he is also trying to maintain calm, and during the entire process of detention, they attempt to isolate you and weaken you with all the suffering that it contains. The prisoner tries to maintain his steadfastness, by remembering some of the memories and situations that show his strength, and people’s love for him, and this helps in the confrontation stage.”
Does a student of just twenty years of age deserve this kind of torment? Does anyone?
I remember the university elections that semester, and the student activities during it, the democratic atmosphere throughout the university and students expressing their desire to choose their representatives before the university administration. Student participation in decision making is one of their rights within the university, so why does the Israeli occupation pursue students for their legitimate political participation?
I have many friends and colleagues still behind the jail walls, subjected to daily abuses, especially during the interrogation period, in which they can be subjected to brutal forms of physical and psychological torture.
Enduring brutal interrogation
Q.M was a third-year student, majoring in computer science, when he was arrested on September 2, 2019. He spent a year and a half in jail in Israel. He also was subjected to a tough experience from the moment he was arrested.
He asked me not to use his full name because of the threats that the Palestinian university student feels every day because of the occupation.
During my conversation with Q.M, he explained how his brutal arrest happened, suddenly and shockingly, when the door of his house was broken through. He described the violence and shouting, in addition to the psychological pressure and physical beating in front of his family.
“One of the things they said to me that has stayed in my mind,” he says, “was this: ‘You as Palestinians are nothing, and you will never become human beings in your life. You are animals and we like hunting you.’”
Q.M described the fear and anxiety he experienced during the interrogations, as the names of his friends and family were used as a way to pressure him to confess to something he did not do. “During my arrest, while they were putting me in the military jeep, the soldiers deliberately named some people I know who were not detained. They were talking about an operation that they thought I had participated in. They recorded a video of themselves accusing me in Hebrew of taking part in the group who committed this operation”— they were trying to frame him into a confession—“but I was able to understand what they were talking about because I can speak Hebrew. I was waiting for the moment that I could defend myself. I said I did not do anything like that because I was not part of it at all.”
The worst aspects of the Israeli treatment during arrest and imprisonment are the health and psychological problems detained students suffer. “During the investigation several of my teeth were broken and the pain was very strong, so I could not eat the food they gave to me,” Q.M recounts. “Throughout the interrogation period, I suffered from a broken tooth without receiving the necessary treatment. They used to give me only one painkiller pills a day, and when I got out of the interrogation, I was taken to a miserable clinic that lacked the essential health standards, and where my teeth were extracted without giving me any anesthetic.”
Amir and Q.M are just two among many. The number of prisoners and detainees in the Israeli jails, as of the end of March 2021, has reached about 4,450, including 37 female prisoners. Three of them are young university colleagues, while the number of minors is about 140 children.
The Israeli occupation creates obstacles to our life as university students, and we are, at any moment, vulnerable to being arrested without charge.
This requires interventions from human rights organizations. The voices of Palestinian students must be heard. I am a Palestinian student. I have the right to complete my education in a peaceful way, and I have the right to be secure inside the university walls. It is my right to raise my voice and say, “I deserve a decent life, I am not a number that is mentioned in daily news.”