A planned walkout at a University of Texas at Austin event earlier this month erupted into a violent confrontation with the college's professor of Israel Studies and another audience member. Now Palestinian activists say they feel unsafe on campus after the professor accused them of having ties to terrorism.
The incident began at a Nov. 13 public lecture on the military culture of the Israeli Defense Forces. Twelve members of UT Austin's Palestine Solidarity Committee planned to stage a short disruption to voice their objections to Israel's occupation of Palestine and apartheid policies, then leave the event. Instead, as the students unfurled a banner and the group's organizer, Mohammed Nabulsi, began to read a brief statement, the event dissolved into chaos and even physical violence.
Nabulsi told MintPress News that he no longer feels safe on campus. "I'm not going to let this prevent me from continuing with my political work, but for now I'm really exhausted. I don't want some vigilante to take the word of a professor," he explained, adding: "People are calling us a 'sleeper cell' [of terrorists] now," referring to some of the threatening comments they've received.
In a video of the initial incident, created from footage shot by multiple members of the PSC, a student gets into a physical confrontation with activists, who repeatedly ask not to be touched. Identified later as James Hasik, a UT graduate student and defense industry contractor, Hasik also attempts to take the group's Palestinian flag, while Ami Pedahzur, director of UT's Institute for Israel Studies, can be heard shouting from across the room. By the end of the footage, Pedahzur is nose-to-nose with Nabulsi and can be seen being restrained by other people present.
In another video shot by a spectator, the group can be heard shouting "Free Palestine" and "Long live the Intifada."
The PSC group left the room and the building rather than continue to escalate the situation only to be detained for 40 minutes by university police. A member of the group who was no longer a student received a criminal trespass warning, meaning he faces arrest if he returns to the UT Austin campus.
Pedahzur issued a statement to his personal website and the Institute for Israel Studies website comparing the activists to the perpetrators of the bloody attacks in Paris. Although the statement has since been deleted, it can still be found in the Internet Archive. It reads, in part:
"I never imagined that my academic research on terrorism and my administrative role as the Director of the Institute for Israel Studies would coincide in such a chilling way.
Less than forty eight hours after the horrific attacks in Paris, I feel that it is my responsibility to ask you to join me in an attempt to confront the radicalization process on campuses and to protect students staff and faculty members from intimidation and violence. ... What I saw was a tight group of young men and women who follow a charismatic leader who admire a notorious murderer. After spending two decades of learning how people turn to terrorism, I fear that what I witnessed on Friday should raise many red flags."
In contrast to the anti-American radical depicted in Pedahzur's speech, Nabulsi, a second-year law student, actually intends to devote his career to upholding democratic ethics, beginning with an upcoming internship at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
And for Nabulsi and the other members of the PSC, the action was protected by their constitutional right to freedom of speech. They say that campus officials they've spoken with agree that they have the right to make these kinds of statements.
Nabulsi also emphasized that this was not the first time the group planned this kind of action — they've successfully carried out several similar walkouts at other campus events, though this was the first this year directly related to Palestinian freedom. The PSC has been heavily supportive of other activist movements on campus and in the city, earning them praise from the University of Texas African and African Diaspora Studies Department after the protest incident:
"The Palestine Solidarity has been a shining example of excellent organizing and peaceful protesting. They have been at the forefront of The Black Lives Matter movement on the 40 acres and in Austin.
We stand with you and we thank you for your outstanding bravery."
Faced with the intimidation and a flood of threats in the wake of Pedahzur's inflammatory statement, the PSC are asking for a full investigation by the university, and they've retained the services of Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Austin Lawyers Guild. He told the Austin Chronicle on Friday:
"Drawing a connection between students' attempt to practice their First Amendment right through expressing their opinion about a political matter, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with what happened in Paris is outrageous and dangerous."
Pressure on Palestinian activists seems to be increasing nationwide — on Nov. 3, MintPress reported on thethreats received by two Midwestern chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, and the group Palestine Legal, which is also now consulting with UT's Palestine Solidarity Committee, documented increasing attacks and threats nationwide in a September report.
But Nabulsi emphasized that Palestinian activism is also growing stronger, and he feels the PSC's rights are being taken more seriously by university officials, who are promising to investigate the incident.
"The battle on campus for Palestinian activists has shifted dramatically. We've become more organized and there's a stronger network, and you can tell in the way the administration is responding," he said.