Bethlehem University has been closed a dozen times by Israeli storm-troopers and shelled by their tanks, but it remains one of those magical places in the Holy Land where you always feels good ‘vibes’.
Meeting the students is a continual source of inspiration, as so many apply themselves to their studies with cheerful determination in spite of difficult family circumstances and almost insurmountable obstacles put in their way by the Occupation. So I enjoy the newsletters the Brothers regularly send me.
Their latest includes the heart-rending story of a young girl, Merna, an honors student in her final year majoring in English. For most people studying for a degree is tough enough, but this youngster also has to battle against armed intruders who invade her home and have systematically destroyed her family life.
Merna is described by the Brothers as “a joyful and engaging person, full of life and love”. The tragedy is that Israeli soldiers frequently rampage through her refugee camp in the middle of the night and have taken away her loved ones, one by one. From childhood Merna remembers the constant night raids and soldiers randomly searching Palestinian homes, ransacking their contents and arbitrarily arresting residents. She remembers, too, her home being bombarded with missiles fired from Gilo, an illegal Israeli settlement outside Bethlehem.
Merna’s family, like thousands of others, became refugees when their village was attacked by Jewish terrorist forces in 1948. The villagers were forced to flee to a camp in Bethlehem where they remain to this day, unable to return to their old homes.
In 2003 her 14-year-old cousin and best friend was shot dead by an Israeli sniper while sitting outside her family home during a curfew.
In 2004, the Israelis arrested her eldest brother, a 22 year-old artist who designed posters and banners for university student groups. They accused him of taking part in student political activities, which can mean anything from running for student council to organizing speaking events, and for this he spent 4 years in prison.
In 2007, they came back for Merna’s 18-year-old brother. He is still incarcerated under ‘administrative detention’, which means he hasn’t been charged or sentenced for any crime because the Israeli military claims to have secret evidence, which only a military judge can see. The Israelis use this device to lock up Palestinians — mostly students — for up to 6 months, to be renewed if the mood takes them. Merna’s 19 year-old cousin is also in prison waiting to be charged with a ‘crime’.
Then a few months ago the military came again, this time to take her youngest brother. Merna was in despair. He had only just turned 16. “As he was being taken away, he told us to take care of ourselves,” said Merna, her eyes brimming with tears. “He’s my little brother! He is the one who needs taking care of. What is he doing in an awful prison cell and how are his spirits?”
Israeli military law treats Palestinians as adults as soon as they reach 16 — a flagrant violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Israeli youngsters of course are regarded as children until 18.
Sleepless and tearful, Merna nevertheless went to university next day as usual, determined not to let this latest blow upset her future plans. Even if her brothers had been robbed of an education, Merna would still fight for hers.
A fellow student recalls than when chatting to Merna online in the evenings, she often had to leave the computer because the military had barged into her home. But she always came to school the next day, even if she’d been up all night while Israeli soldiers trashed her house and questioned her family.
“Coming to school is a way of getting away from what is happening in the refugee camp,” says Merna. “It’s like an oasis here for me.” But her thoughts are never far from her cousin and brothers. “I only wish they were allowed this opportunity.”
She is now a senior member of the Bethlehem University Student Ambassadors Programme and an example to fellow classmates, say the Brothers. She hopes to pursue post-graduate studies abroad and return to the University to give back to the community some of the support it has offered her.
To get to Bethlehem University many students have to cross two or more checkpoints, “Sometimes they take our ID cards and they spend ages writing down all the details, just to make us late,” said one. Students are often made to remove shoes, belt and bags. “It’s like an airport. Many times we are kept waiting outside for up to an hour, rain or shine, they don’t care.” But the worst thing is the humiliation. The soldiers attempt to forcibly remove students’ clothes or they swear and shout sexual slurs at female students.
One of the girls, who has attended university for four years, tells how she’s been sexually harassed on the journey, had tear gas thrown at her near checkpoints and been refused crossing. “Sometimes I can’t concentrate in class because I am worried what the Israelis will do on my way home.” According to one of the professors these are the more insidious consequence of the checkpoints. Over the years they have noticed a dramatic decline in student motivation and concentration. “When you are constantly facing this sort of humiliation, your feelings toward yourself change and you feel worthless.”
Israel brags about its “independent” justice system. Here we see it at work. ‘Administrative detention’ is a particularly vile and unjust practice. In any respectable country detainees are charged with a recognizable offence and tried in a suitable court of law in accordance with internationally accepted standards for fair trial. If there’s insufficient evidence they are immediately released.
But Palestinians are dealt with by Israeli military courts, even when it’s a civil matter. These courts ignore international laws and conventions, so there’s no legal protection for individuals under Israeli military occupation. And as detention is based on secret information, which neither the detainee nor his lawyer is allowed to see, it is impossible to mount a proper defence. Besides, the Security Service always finds a bogus excuse to keep detainees locked up “in the greater interest of the security of Israel”.
They are not informed of the reasons for their arrest, even after release. The detention period of 6 months is renewable indefinitely by a military judge. Although detainees have the right to review and appeal, they are unable to challenge the evidence and check facts as all information presented to the Court is classified. The justice process is therefore a mockery.
Now, I hear, the Israeli cabinet has voted to clamp down on ‘political’ prisoner rights and make life even more miserable, even to the extent of denying them the chance to take high school exams or university correspondence courses. This is to put pressure on Hamas to release their captive, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, a trained killer belonging to the tank corps. In the meantime Israel holds some 11,000 Palestinians captive, including a number of women and children, but there is no orchestrated international chorus of voices pleading for their release.
Israel disregards Geneva Conventions with impunity and violates international law and its agreements with the EU, but is never held to account. The regime even resorts to placing legitimately elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council under administrative detention. One can only conclude that world leaders are not committed to defending human rights and the endless words on the subject are no more than hot air.
So young minds like Merna’s must continue to persevere against the odds. Though greatly distracted by the cruel fate of her close family, the ordeal has forged a steely resolve, and the purposeful way she lives her university life, say the Brothers, has given her added strength and confidence. Merna has managed to turn the tables on adversity. Her loss is actually her gain.
What a remarkable young lady.