‘Political arrest’ of Palestinian academic in Israel marks new civil liberties threat

Emma Graham and Quique Kierszenbaum

The arrest and interrogation of a leading Palestinian legal scholar based at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem marks a new threat to civil liberties in Israel, her legal team and employer have said.

Prof Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian was detained by police on the afternoon of 18 April over comments made on a podcast more than a month earlier and held overnight in conditions her lawyers described as “terrible” and designed to humiliate.

“This case is unique,” said Hassan Jabareen, her lawyer and the director of the human rights organisation Adalah. “This is not only about one professor, it could be a [precedent] for any academic who goes against the consensus in wartime.”

Shalhoub-Kevorkian was released on bail the next day when a magistrate and a district court judge both ruled she did not pose a threat, but has been called for further questioning on Sunday.

Although there have been widespread detentions of Palestinian citizens of Israel who publicly criticised the war in Gaza, this is the first time an academic has been targeted over speech related to their work.

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian flanked by two officers in a courtroom
Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian (centre) at a court in Jerusalem last week. Photograph: Mahmoud Illean/AP

Shalhoub-Kevorkian is a leading feminist scholar whose work focuses on trauma, state crimes, genocide, gender violence and surveillance. She is the Lawrence D Biele chair in law at Hebrew University and the global chair in law at Queen Mary University of London.

All prosecutions relating to freedom of speech have to be approved by the attorney general’s office, so her detention was signed off at the heart of government. Police said they were investigating Shalhoub-Kevorkian on suspicion of incitement to terrorism, violence and racism over comments on a podcast published in early March.

Jabareen said: “They could have asked her to come to the police station for two or three hours to discuss, investigate. To carry out the arrest like that, as if she was a dangerous person, shows the main purpose was to humiliate her. It was illegal, that’s why the magistrates court accepted my argument that she should be released and the district court confirmed it.”

Police had immediately appealed against the decision of the first court, so there were two hearings about Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s release in quick succession.

When police arrested her, they confiscated books and posters from her home and during interrogation she was questioned extensively about her academic work, including articles published years ago, Jabareen said. Academic writing has special legal protections in Israel.

Three women stood behind railings, with the one in the middle holding up a banner with the message ‘free Nadera’ on it
Protester holding up a ‘free Nadera’ banner in Jerusalem. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum/The Guardian

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who is in her 60s, was strip-searched, handcuffed so tightly it caused pain, denied access to food, water and medication for several hours, and held in a cold cell without adequate clothing or blankets. Conditions in Israeli prisons have deteriorated since the start of the war and Shalhoub-Kevorkian is concerned about her health if she is detained again.

More than 100 faculty members from Hebrew University published an open letter backing Shalhoub-Kevorkian and criticised the university for not supporting her.

“Regardless of the content of Nadera’s words, their interpretation and the opinions she expressed, it is clear to everyone that this is a political arrest, the whole purpose of which is to gag mouths and limit freedom of expression,” the letter was quoted in the newspaper Haaretz as saying. “Today it is Nadera who stands on the bench, and tomorrow it is each and every one of us.”

Her lawyers and international academics have condemned Hebrew University for fuelling months of political attacks on one of their faculty in the run-up to her detention. The rector called on her to resign in late 2023 after she signed a letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and describing Israel’s campaign as genocide, and she was briefly suspended over the podcast cited in her interrogation.

Despite that history, her arrest set such a damaging precedent that it drew public condemnation from the university. “We strongly object to many of the things that Prof Shalhoub-Kevorkian said. Nonetheless, as a democratic country, there is no place to arrest a person for such remarks, however infuriating they may be,” it stated, according to Haaretz. The university did not respond to questions from the Guardian.

Queen Mary University of London has not condemned the arrest. A spokesperson said the university was “following the events surrounding Prof Shalhoub-Kevorkian … and remains concerned about her wellbeing”.

More than 250 academics at Queen Mary have published an open letter in support of their colleague and calling on the university to stand by her. “Academic freedom [in Israel] has come under sustained attack,” they said.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s arrest comes against a backdrop of political persecution of critics of the country’s war in Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel have been arrested and jailed, or lost jobs or access to education, because of social media posts or comments condemning the military campaign.

At the same time, authorities had ignored “extensive and blatant” incitement to genocide and ethnic cleansing in Gaza from prominent members of the Israeli establishment, influential public figures said in a letter to judicial authorities.

The arrest of Shalhoub-Kevorkian was designed not only to intimidate her, but to stifle criticism of the war, Jabareen said, and the decision on whether to move forward would be an indicator of the country’s respect for basic freedoms.

“If they indict her, this might have a deeply chilling effect,” Jabareen said. “Its very difficult to prosecute a person for academic work … but the political situation in Israel is starting to not really be based on the rule of law.”

(Source: The Guardian)