Freed Palestinian prisoners connected with UTM students via live Skype calls and prerecorded videos at Students Against Israeli Apartheid UTM’s “Hungry for Freedom” event last Friday.
The speakers included Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak, the recently freed Samer Issawi, and the woman behind the Free Palestinian Prisoners campaign, Malaka Mohammed.
“This event taught me about the importance of creating a space where an open and positive dialogue can exist,” said York student Samah Al-Nachawati, an equity and culture major. “I was inspired by the strength of the speakers, and their advocacy for peace and love despite the injustice they faced.”
Approximately 100 students, staff, and community members attended. Among them were UTM’s Deep Saini (vice-president and principal), Nythalah Baker (equity and diversity officer), and Mark Overton (dean of student affairs).
At the event, the SAIA executives described examples of what they considered to be Israel’s violations of international law , emphasizing the “failure of the peace negotiations” and promoting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as an effective non-violent strategy to pressure Israel to conform to international law.
The featured speaker of the night, Samer Issawi, was a former political prisoner held in an Israeli prison for 17 months without trial or charge for entering his hometown, Jerusalem. He was also a hunger striker who refused food for a total of 266 days and was freed as a result of international awareness and pressure on Israeli authorities.
Farah Saeed, a SAIA executive and political science specialist, said, “The mistreatment of Palestinians prisoners in Israeli jails is an aspect of Israeli apartheid that we as a club felt was important to address, and we felt that it was our responsibility to raise awareness [of] the issue and to give students a chance to know what it’s like to be a political prisoner in a state that operates on apartheid policies.”
Due to the controversial nature of the event, SAIA met with Ulife, Student Affairs, and the equity and diversity officer to assess the program and the speakers, and to ensure that the event maintained a safe environment. Concerns surrounding the nature of the material presented by the speakers were brought up; when reviewing the prerecorded video, disclaimers were inserted stating that the speakers’ views don’t necessarily reflect those of student group.
SAIA has been the subject of criticism by multiple media outlets and other groups who disagree with its position. This event, too, received opposition, with allegations that SAIA was allowing a “convicted terrorist” to speak. Members of the police and the administration in attendance addressed these concerns.
Last year, SAIA successfully petitioned UTMSU to officially endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to cut off economic interaction with Israel but which has faced international criticism, including by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.