(photo credit: AP)
At least 22 students and journalists were injured, some moderately, when Fatah-controlled security forces raided Hebron University in the West Bank on Sunday to break up a press conference by the Hamas-affiliated student council.
The press conference was called to protest against the university's decision to suspend loans to students.
This is the second time in less than two months that the security forces have raided a West Bank university. One student, Muhammad Raddad, was killed and dozens injured in the first raid on An-Najah University in Nablus.
The incident in Hebron, a traditional Hamas stronghold, is another indication of growing tensions between Fatah and Hamas.
On Sunday, a general strike was observed in some parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in protest against Hamas's use of violence to disperse Fatah supporters.
Most of the students who were injured and arrested on campus belong to major Hebron clans that support Hamas.
In an attempt to defuse the tension and avoid retribution, the Palestinian Authority announced that two policemen who took part in the raid had been arrested.
Eyewitnesses told The Jerusalem Post dozens of policemen belonging to the Presidential Guard and the Preventive Security Force had attacked the participants, firing into the air and beating students and journalists with clubs.
They said the university administration had banned the student council from bringing loudspeakers into the compound. In response, the council decided to hold the press conference at the university's entrance.
"As soon as one of the students started reciting verses from the Koran ahead of the press conference, dozens of policemen came rushing in, firing shots into the air," said one student. "Then they started beating up all the students and journalists with their clubs."
Five students were arrested, including Taher Asafreh, who had recited verses from the Koran.
Journalists who were invited to attend the press conference were also targeted. One of them said he and his friends had initially received permission from Col. Sameeh al-Saifi, the commander of the PA security forces in Hebron, to cover the event.
"But when we arrived there, we were brutally attacked by the police," he said. "They beat us with clubs and rifle butts. They also confiscated our cameras and cellphones before detaining us." Among the journalists who were beaten, he added, were Mamoun Wazwaz and Yasri al-Jamal of Reuters, Nasser Shayoukhi of The Associated Press, Hazem Bader of Agence France Press and Imad Amayreh, who works for the local Al-Amal TV station.
Palestinian journalists have found themselves under increased attacks by both Hamas and Fatah over the past few weeks. Last Friday, several Palestinian journalists complained that they had been beaten and detained by members of Hamas's Executive Force in Gaza City while they were covering an anti-Hamas protest.
The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip announced Sunday it had ordered an investigation into the assaults on journalists, saying those responsible would be severely punished.
"Even Israeli soldiers are treating us better these days," said one of the journalists from his hospital bed. "Both Hamas and Fatah are trying to prevent us from doing our job. This is an intolerable and dangerous situation."
Hamas legislator Hatem Kafisheh accused the PA security forces of using "excessive force" to break up a peaceful protest.
"I saw with my own eyes the police beating journalists, students and passersby" he said. "This is disgraceful and we call on [PA Chairman] Mahmoud Abbas to form a commission of inquiry into the events."
Voicing "regret" over the incident, the university administration decided to suspend studies for three days. It held the students responsible for the attack, saying they had closed a street to hold their press conference.
Hussein al-A'raj, the PA governor of Hebron, accused the students of exploiting the press conference to "stir riots." The student council, he said, had planned to take the students to the streets and clash with the police. He condemned the attack on the journalists as an "individual act" and promised to launch an investigation.