Israeli Security Personnel Detain 55 Harvard Students in West Bank

UPDATED: March 16, 2012, at 4:05 p.m.

Israeli border security personnel placed 55 Harvard students in police custody Tuesday during a trip to al-Walaja, a Palestinian town in the West Bank, which was organized by students at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Shireen Al-Araj, the students’ guide and a coordinator of al-Walaja’s local Popular Committee Against the Wall, was arrested by police and released after the incident, according to a trip participant, an organizer, and a photographer who witnessed the arrest.

No charges were levied against anyone involved in the Harvard trip.

The students’ bus was boarded by armed Israeli military personnel and the riders were told that the road they were traveling on was a military zone, according to one of the trip’s organizers.

The organizer, a Palestinian teaching fellow at Harvard, is not traveling on the trip and asked to remain anonymous to avoid trouble with authorities when he returns home to Palestine.

Associate Dean of the College John “Jay” L. Ellison wrote in a statement that the students were detained because “some of the participants in the program took pictures of areas they weren't supposed to photograph (military installations, etc.).

The organizer said that the IDs of the Palestinians on the bus, including the bus driver and a Harvard tour organizer, were confiscated by the police.

The trip through Israel and Palestine, organized annually by the Palestine Caucus at the Kennedy School, is led by Kennedy School students. About 30 Kennedy School students and several Harvard undergraduates are on the trip, according to Kennedy School Dean of Students Chris Fortunato.

“Harvard has been in touch with the U.S. State Department in regards to this matter to express its concern for the students’ safety,” Fortunato said in a statement.

The Palestinian organizer complained about the Israeli security officers’ behavior during the incident.

“There was very little communication from the security officials, and [the students] didn’t know where they were going,” he said. “The students and organizers were peaceful and cooperative—they didn’t break any laws, but they were treated in this way.”

An English website of the Palestinian News Network reported about an hour after the incident that the 55 students had been arrested. In fact, the students were redirected to a nearby Israeli checkpoint with at least two armored vehicles escorting them but were not charged.

However, rumors circulated online that trip participants were under arrest. Upon learning about those rumors, one participant told The Crimson by text message, “This isn’t true. Our tour guide got arrested and our bus was redirected after it was boarded by Israeli soldiers.”

Al-Araj, whose organization protests the security wall that the Israeli government is constructing in the West Bank, has led visits to al-Walaja to show international travelers the wall’s impact on Palestinians in the past, without incident.

“I think this is the first time that Shireen and the group were taken by the Israeli army,” said Anne Paq, a friend of Al-Araj and a French photographer living in Palestine who published photographs of the incident on Activestills.org. “[Al-Araj] is very active in trying to raise awareness of al-Walaja village, so I’m not surprised that they are trying to put pressure on her, to intimidate her—to prevent internationals from coming to the village.”

“They said that she would be fined 5000 shekels [about $1325.52] if she does it again—but we are not sure what they mean by ‘do it again,’” Paq said, adding that she did not think Al-Araj did anything illegal to warrant interrogation. “For me, it’s a sign that the Israeli authorities are trying to prevent people from coming, from knowing what is happening [in al-Walaja].”

Israeli authorities could not be reached for comment.

—Amy Q. Friedman, Nathalie R. Miraval, and Rebecca D. Robbins contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer David Song can be reached at davidsong@college.harvard.edu.

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