October 28, 2009
By Matthew Kalman
Bethlehem University and human-rights groups are appealing to Israeli authorities not to deport a final-year student back to her home in Gaza after she was arrested on Wednesday at a military checkpoint near Bethlehem, in the West Bank.
Berlanty Azzam, who is 21 and has been studying business administration and translation at Bethlehem since 2005, was stopped at a roadside checkpoint in the West Bank and detained because she is a resident of Gaza.
The Israeli military has banned Palestinian residents of Gaza from studying at Palestinian universities in the West Bank. Two years ago, it began arresting Palestinians with Gaza identity cards and sending them back to the embattled coastal strip.
Ms. Azzam is being held at a detention center inside Israel pending her deportation.
"We need your help," Bethlehem University administrators wrote in a message to supporters on Wednesday, urging them to contact the Israeli military authorities to protest the arrest. "Let them know that you demand that they release Berlanty Azzam immediately so that she can resume and complete her last year of studies," the university said.
Ms. Azzam, who is due to complete her bachelor's degree in December, began her studies in Bethlehem in 2005 after the Israeli authorities granted her a permit to travel across Israel from Gaza to the West Bank. The travel permit has not been renewed, so she has stayed in Bethlehem since then to finish her degree and has been unable to see her family for four years.
In August 2007, Israel's Supreme Court upheld Israeli military policy denying Gaza residents the right to stay in the West Bank but asked the army to consider exceptions. Trying to take advantage of that ruling, Bethlehem University created a scholarship program for 16 students from the Gaza Strip, but in the current academic year, all 16 candidates were refused entry by Israel.
Enforcement of the deportation policy had seemed to halt after protests from human-rights groups, but it has intensified again in the past few weeks, according to Gisha, an Israeli human-rights organization that campaigns for freedom of movement for Palestinians.
"I spoke to her today for about 10 minutes until the army took away her cellphone," Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, told The Chronicle. "She's terrified. She's 21. She has never been in detention and doesn't know what's happening to her."
Ms. Azzam is being detained illegally, Ms. Bashi said. "We asked the army to let her go," she added, but "they said no. They did agree to wait until after our lawyer visits in the morning. They won't deport her pending an opportunity for our lawyer to file a court petition."
In the past, when human-rights groups have interceded before detainees have been deported, Israel's Supreme Court has ruled against the army and allowed Gaza residents to remain in the West Bank. In most cases, however, Palestinians are deported before anyone hears about their arrest, and it has proved almost impossible to get them out of Gaza once they have been returned there.
According to Ms. Bashi, Ms. Azzam's case is the sixth in less than two weeks involving Gazans arrested at the same checkpoint, the only passage permitted to Palestinians between the southern and northern sections of the West Bank.
This policy of deporting people to Gaza because of their identity cards is pending before the Supreme Court, said Ms. Bashi. "We have asked the military to stop doing this at least until the court rules. Instead we end up playing cat and mouse with the military."
Lawyers plan to petition the Supreme Court on behalf of Ms. Azzam on Thursday.
Israeli officials were unavailable for comment on Wednesday.