Vita Bekker
The National
November 13, 2009 - 1:00am

Two weeks ago, Berlanty Azzam was blindfolded, handcuffed and driven from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip by Israeli soldiers who claimed the Palestinian university student was illegally residing in the occupied territory.

Ms Azzam’s expulsion and rough treatment by the Israeli military have drawn wide international media attention and have threatened to deepen a rift between the country and its US ally, the Jersusalem consul general for which was quoted in Israeli newspapers as saying he was “very concerned” by the incident.

Human rights activists say that the 22-year old senior at Bethlehem University has become a test case for the risk that some 25,000 Palestinians who live, work or study in the West Bank face in their possible removal from the area by Israel.

Yesterday, Israel’s Supreme Court held the first hearing on a petition filed by the Israeli human rights group Gisha on behalf of Ms Azzam, whom the army refused to grant permission to attend the session.

According to Gisha, the court criticised the military for expelling Ms Azzam without allowing her to meet with Gisha’s attorney, as it had promised the group it would do, and ordered the army to conduct another hearing in her presence next week.

Sari Bashi, head of Gisha, which advocates Palestinian freedom of movement, said Ms Azzam’s banishment was part of a growing Israeli campaign to expel Gazans from the West Bank. She added: “We know that Israel has territorial claims on the West Bank, and it is implementing policies that induce or force Palestinians to leave the West Bank for Gaza.”

Ms Bashi said that Gisha and other rights groups have received dozens of phone calls in recent weeks from Palestinians who have been deported or are in danger of such a move, which she said indicates that Israel is stepping up its policies.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, have denied that any such campaign exists. However, some say that Israel has been concerned that Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza and which Israel considers a terrorist organisation, may use access to the West Bank to place its activists in the Israeli-occupied territory’s universities.

Israel, which controls all but one of Gaza’s border crossings, has imposed extremely tight restrictions on Palestinians leaving Gaza ever since Hamas violently took control of the enclave from the secular and more moderate Fatah movement in 2007.

According to Gisha, the thousands of potential deportees are considered illegal residents of the West Bank by Israel, which routinely rejects their requests for permission to register as residing in the area even though some of them have not lived in Gaza for decades. Israel also implements a blanket prohibition on Gazans like Ms Azzam from studying in the West Bank and has not loosened its ban despite a 2007 Israeli court order for the military to consider making some exceptions.

Ms Azzam, who is a practising Christian, said she had sought to study in the West Bank because she worried of encountering discrimination in the universities in Gaza, which she claimed were heavily influenced by Hamas’s Islamist agenda. So in 2005, after her request for a permit to study in the West Bank was denied three times by Israel, she headed to Bethlehem using a five-day travel permit she had managed to obtain in order to participate in a religious conference in the town, and has remained there, saying it was her only way to attend the school.

Ms Azzam said that in the past four years, she lived in fear that Israeli soldiers would stop her to ask for identification documents during her frequent trips to visit friends in the West Bank city of Ramallah, about an hour’s drive from Bethlehem.

On the afternoon of October 28, her fear was realised. On her way back from Ramallah, where she had gone to be interviewed for a possible part-time job as a saleswoman, she was ordered to get out of a taxi at an army checkpoint after soldiers spotted a Gaza home address on her ID. Following a six-hour wait, she was put, handcuffed and blindfolded, into a military jeep and shortly afterwards dumped at Israel’s border crossing with Gaza in an experience she later described as “frightening and dehumanising”.

Speaking by telephone from her parents’ home in Gaza City, she recalled her fear and added: “It was very scary – I felt like a criminal.”

At the time of her expulsion from the West Bank, Ms Azzam was just two months shy of earning her degree in business administration, which she had hoped would help her get a job in the United Arab Emirates, where her two brothers live.

While Ms Azzam’s professors have tried helping her keep up with homework by e-mailing her assignments in the past two weeks, she is worried that may not be enough to conclude her studies.

She said: “The four years will go to waste if I don’t complete this degree. This was my key to start a business career, and in one instant it could be gone.”


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