Students Dispute Israel Detainment

Students say detained bus was not on restricted military road

Eliza M. Nguyen

Palestine Trek organizer Diana Buttu and activist Shireen Al-Araj speak with Israeli police before a group of Harvard students were detained while on the student-organized trip.

After 55 Harvard students were briefly placed in custody by Israeli security personnel last week, students involved in the incident and a diplomatic representative disputed the border police’s reported reason for detaining the students’ bus.

The students were detained Tuesday during a trip organized by students at the Harvard Kennedy School to al-Walaja, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. Shireen Al-Araj, the students’ guide and a coordinator of an organization in al-Walaja that protests Israel’s construction of a security wall in the West Bank, was arrested and then released soon afterward, according to several trip participants.

According to travelers, the police who boarded the students’ bus said that their vehicle was on a restricted military road. But many participants said that they did not notice any official signs in the area.

“The road we were on was not a designated military zone, nor was it restricted—yet authorities claimed it was,” said Atul Bhattarai ’14, a traveler on the bus. “When asked, they couldn’t provide proof.”

A representative of the Quartet on the Middle East, an international diplomatic entity that is comprised of the United Nations, European Union, United States, and Russia and is headed by Tony Blair, echoed students’ claims that they were not on a restricted military road.“

I am very surprised that [the Harvard] group had an incident at Al Wallajeh yesterday,” Tim Williams, a Quartet adviser for movement and access, wrote in an email sent to trip participants. “I have taken many visitors there on behalf of this office, and I know of others who take visitors there regularly and I have not heard of an incident like this before.”

Israeli authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

“Right after the incident, trek participants were uncomfortable with what happened and [were] concerned about whether or not we had done anything illegal,” said Eliza M. Nguyen ’14, a Crimson news editor.

A trip organizer claimed that other cars on the road were not removed from the area. The organizer, a Palestinian teaching fellow at Harvard, did not travel 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 said in an email that he understood that the students were detained because they had taken photographs of restricted areas without authorization.

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

Kennedy School students organized the trip to show students a Palestinian perspective—a goal that participants mentioned when speculating about the cause of the incident.

“This just highlights how arbitrary and restrictive the Israeli military can be on no particular grounds,” Bhattarai said. “The place we were at didn’t have any military restrictions, but they imposed an ‘impromptu’ rule just to get us out of an area that has Palestinians that suffered particular injustice.”

—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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