Saturday, November 07, 2009

The right to study, and the right to know

THIS report appeared in The Independent a week ago:

A Palestinian student has been handcuffed, blindfolded and forcibly expelled to the Gaza Strip by Israeli troops just two months before she was due to graduate from university.

Berlanty Azzam, 21, who was studying for a business degree at Bethlehem University, said she was coming home in a shared taxi from a job interview in Ramallah on Wednesday when soldiers at the "Container" checkpoint took her identity card and that of another passenger with a Gaza address.

After six hours of waiting, soldiers told her she would be taken to a detention centre in the southern West Bank, and she was handcuffed and blindfolded, she said.

"The driving took longer than it should have and I started to think something was wrong. I started to wonder, what are they doing to me?" After the car stopped and the blindfold was lifted, Ms Azzam saw she was at the Erez crossing to Gaza.

It was the sixth known forced return to Gaza of Palestinians stopped at the "Container" checkpoint – which is between Bethlehem and Abu Dis – in 10 days, according to the Israeli human rights group Gisha. Israel has also been preventing family reunifications in the West Bank for Palestinians with relatives living in Gaza, in effect forcing people to relocate to the Strip.

The steps are part of an Israeli policy of treating Gaza and the West Bank as two separate entities, thereby undermining the coherence of Palestinian claims for a state encompassing both territories. The 1993 Oslo agreement stipulates that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are to be treated as one territorial unit.

Major Guy Inbar, an Israeli defense ministry official, said the reason for Ms Azzam's deportation was that she was "staying illegally" in the West Bank.

"We are talking about a Gaza citizen who requested permission to study in the area of Judea and Samaria and received a negative answer," he said.

"In 2005, she was given a permit to visit Jerusalem for four days and she remained afterwards [in the West Bank] without any permit. Her entire period as a student was based on deceit and was against the law."

Sari Bashi, head of the Israeli Gisha human rights group, who tried to intervene on Ms Azzam's behalf, said she was assured by military lawyers on Wednesday that the student would not be deported to Gaza and that the rights group could seek a judicial review in the morning.

"The military misled us," Ms Bashi said. "There is a violation here of the right to access education, the right to freedom of movement and the right to choose one's place of residence within one's own territory."

The army did not respond to a request for comment.

While some people here still talk as though the biggest danger facing Palestinians is the prospect of "two states" in Israel/Palestine, others still seek to persuade us that a peace based on two states would be just around the corner if only it were accepted by those awful Palestinians. Whenever they feel confident of winning on the other hand, many Zionists assure Jewish audiences at least that there are "no such people as Palestinians", just Arabs with no claim to the land who can be 'ethnically cleansed' whenever Israel can get away with it. Meantime the reality experienced by Palestinians is that Israel claims for itself the right to two states - one which it presents as "the only democracy in the Middle East" and the other, its rule over the Palestinians. Only that too is divided into two - so you have one state, Israel, and two reservations, to which access is controlled, and people can be confined or sent back, by Israel.

There have been some protests to the Israeli authorities over Berlanty Azzam's case, by Bethlehem University and by some civil rights campaigners in Israel. It has been taken up by someone as far away as Australia, and by those campaigning within British academia for a boycott of Israel.

But I would hope those who argue that a boycott is not the way to help, and insisting it infringes academic freedom, will also be raising their voices in this case.

While they are at it, they might also consider this news reported last week by Robyn Rosen in the Jewish Chronicle:

Lectures cancelled after Zionist campaign
report by Robyn Rosen, Jewish Chronicle October 29,

Two lectures by Israeli-based charity Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) were cancelled after a Zionist organisation told hospitals holding the talks that they were “anti-Israel”.

Miri Weingarten from PHR-I was due to give a lecture, entitled The Right to Health in a Conflict Zone, to three hospitals in Manchester, Liverpool and Bury last week. But just hours before the lecture, the Manchester Royal Infirmary and Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool cancelled the event.

Karen Solomon, director of the Zionist Central Council in Manchester, sent more than 200 emails to members urging them to contact the hospitals.
Ms Solomon said that the original plan was to send members to the meeting to dispute some of the topics.

She said: “We felt the talk was political and hospitals should not be seen to be political or hold political events. The group is blatantly anti-Israel and so we asked people to write in to say what we felt.”

A spokeswoman from the Manchester Royal Infirmary said that they had received complaints from the Jewish community and that the event was cancelled for security reasons. She said: “It was gaining quite a lot of negative feeling and it was felt that it might attract people turning up that would be against the meeting.”

Louise Shepherd, chief executive at Alder Hey Hospital, said: “It came to our attention that what was intended as a private meeting had in fact become public knowledge and was being trailed on various websites as a political issue. “This was augmented by accompanying display boards which arrived earlier that week and which contained explicit political content. “Alder Hey is, and will continue to be, apolitical and has a proud heritage of actively promoting a culture of equality and diversity. For these reasons a decision was taken to cancel Ms Weingarten’s visit to the Trust.”

Ms Weingarten, PHR-I’s director of advocacy, said she was “shocked” at the decision and surprised to be called anti-Israel. She vehemently denied that PHR-I was anti-Zionist. She said: “My organisation finds it shocking that communities that are so outspoken against the growing calls for a boycott of Israeli bodies could use the same tactics themselves in order to stifle debate.

“If the people behind this had come to the debate and challenged the content of my talk that would have been an important contribution. The decision to silence us — and the debate — completely is incomprehensible to us, and unacceptable.”

A consultant at Fairfield Hospital in Bury, where the lecture went ahead, said: “The whole idea that PHR-I is antisemitic or even anti-Israel is ludicrous given that the organisation is overwhelmingly comprised of Jewish Israelis, of whom Miri is one.”

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