University student who yelled ‘Free Palestine’ reportedly deported as UAE weighs Israel-Hamas war

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AMMAN, Jordan — At the graduation ceremony of New York University Abu Dhabi this May, a student wearing the traditional Palestinian black-and-white keffiyeh scarf shouted “Free Palestine!” as he crossed the stage to receive his diploma, witnesses say. Days later, he reportedly was deported from the United Arab Emirates.

The incident at the graduation comes as the UAE tries to balance its diplomatic recognition of Israel with the ongoing Israel-Hamas war that’s devastated the Gaza Strip. While offering aid to the Palestinians, there have been none of the mass demonstrations that swept the Arab world here in the UAE, a federation of seven emirates that tightly controls speech and where political parties are illegal.

That’s stretched into academic life at NYU Abu Dhabi, where students say activities over the war have been barred, and into cultural events in the country’s capital as well where those wearing the keffiyeh have been stopped from entering.

“I think the government and the laws of the country don’t necessarily align with wanting to create an environment that appeals to the West as well, if we’re talking about freedom of speech and so on,” said one student, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Responding to questions from The Associated Press, NYU Abu Dhabi said it has been “guaranteed academic authority” on campus but that “in none of our locations … are members of the NYU community immune from local law.”

“NYU has no authority over any nation’s immigration or law enforcement actions or decisions,” the school said. It added it advised students “clearly and repeatedly about expectations, obligations, and boundaries, including the protocols for the NYU Abu Dhabi graduation.”

The Emirati government did not respond to a request for comment.

Before the graduation ceremony, students had been told that “displaying the Palestinian flag anywhere on campus is not permitted and this was strictly executed, even in residential buildings,” said another student, who similarly spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

In total, five students speaking on condition of anonymity described similar circumstances leading up to the graduation affecting those who earlier sought to bulk-buy keffiyehs as a fundraiser and organize vigils for the dead in Gaza.

Jacqueline Hennecke, an NYU Abu Dhabi alumni who graduated in May, told the AP that the university sent an email prior to graduation banning all “cultural attire” at the commencement — including scarves. The student who disregarded the order and yelled “Free Palestine!” on stage ultimately found himself in police custody prior to his deportation, according to the American Association of University Professors which supports free speech and academic freedom efforts.

The university “has been unable to protect students, staff and faculty from being taken into custody and interrogated at government security offices and has failed to prevent the deportation of one academic staff member and a graduate student,” a statement from the organization alleged. It also claimed that staff and students from non-Western countries had been “detained, intimidated, and deported based on surveillance.” It did not elaborate.

This is not the first time NYU Abu Dhabi has faced criticism when trying to balance the ideas of an American liberal arts education in the UAE, which has strict rules governing speech despite being a staunch American ally in the Mideast. Human rights groups criticized the school for using migrant workers to build the campus who they say had been subject to a range of violations including being forced to pay recruitment fees to get their jobs that were never reimbursed, living in overcrowded conditions and being forced to work overtime.

Following the report, NYU commissioned an investigation, which found a number of workers hadn’t been protected by the fair labor practices the school had said would be in place. The school promised reimbursement, though some workers later claimed they never received it.

The journalism department at New York University in 2017 told the school it was cutting its ties to NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus over two professors being denied work visas by the UAE, as well as the school’s handling of the situation.

But NYU Abu Dhabi’s actions come as the UAE maintains its diplomatic ties with Israel, which runs both a consulate in Dubai and an embassy out of Abu Dhabi. Daily flights to Israel have also gone on even as Western airlines were slow to resume flights to Ben Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv. Security officials closely monitored pro-Palestinian demonstrations when Dubai hosted the U.N. COP28 climate talks in November, which the UAE had to allow in the U.N.-controlled “Blue Zone” at the event.

The war began Oct. 7 with Hamas’ attack on Israel that killed some 1,200 people and saw 250 others taken hostage. The Israeli offensive has killed over 38,000 Palestinians in Gaza, local health officials say, without delineating between civilians and combatants. Hundreds more have been killed in Israeli raids in the occupied West Bank.

But anger has boiled among the many Arabs living in the UAE, including Emiratis and other nationalities living there, as the war has raged on.

At the recent Abu Dhabi Comedy Festival, an AP journalist saw security guards stop people from entering the event unless they removed their keffiyehs and handed them over. However, one woman shouted “Free Palestine!” during a set by American comedian Dave Chapelle, who called what was happening in Gaza a “genocide.”

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