Ramallah, occupied West Bank - Moments before he was detained by plainclothes Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces outside the Birzeit University campus last April, Jihad Saleem, a member of a Hamas-affiliated student group, remembered being greeted by a student from a rival Fatah-aligned group.

He believes the Fatah-aligned student greeted him deliberately to identify him to the PA forces, suggesting that the two were working in concert.

"Preventive security took me in an unmarked car to their office in Birzeit, and when we arrived, the student who identified me to the plainclothes security personnel was already at the office waiting for us," Saleem, 21, told Al Jazeera.

Saleem's arrest was detailed in a Human Rights Watch report the following month. Saleem said he was held in stress positions and deprived of sleep and legal counsel during his detention, before being released without charge less than 24 hours later.

As the university year starts again this week, both students and university staff at Birzeit tell Al Jazeera that the PA's alleged practise of paying students to provide information is prevalent at Birzeit and other schools throughout the occupied West Bank. Many say they want the practise to stop.


RELATED: Hamas victory in student vote reflects shifting mood


Alaa Barakeh, the 20-year-old spokesperson for Fatah's student wing at Birzeit, said no members of his group are required to inform on campus activities to the PA, noting the group's leadership has no formal relationship with PA security forces.

"When members of the Fatah Youth work for preventive security, it's for the benefit of Palestine, not necessarily our party," Barakeh, a law student at Birzeit, told Al Jazeeera. "The decision to work [with] the preventive security is an individual and personal decision."

Students choose to report on political activities on campus to PA security forces for a variety of reasons - from believing in the objectives of the security services to financial incentives, he added.

Palestine's Hamas and Fatah sign unity deal

Student members of political parties on Palestinian campuses who inform on campus activities to PA security forces are referred to, both by students and outside observers, as "delegates" - a term that was used to describe British high commissioners of historical Palestine during the British mandate.

Bilal Barghouti, a legal adviser for the Ramallah-based Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (AMAN), a local anti-corruption organisation, told Al Jazeera that Palestine's security forces are subject to minimal financial oversight. It is, therefore, impossible to know exactly how many "delegates" are employed or how much money goes into financing them. 

"You can't know how much delegates are paid or the terms of their employment. You don't know their names. There are no lists of these individuals," Barghouti said. "If an organisation wants to investigate or hold PA security forces accountable for what they spend, they say this information is secret."

One former student of An-Najah National University in Nablus, who was aligned with the student wing of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), told Al Jazeera that students who inform on campus political activities to the PA can either receive a salary, which he pegged at approximately 200 Israeli shekels ($50) a month, or a per-report payment of 50 shekels ($13). The student, who has been politically active at An-Najah, did not want his name published, but other students corroborated the figures.

Despite Al Jazeera's repeated requests for comment, PA security spokesperson Major General Adnan al-Damiri declined to address allegations that student "delegates" are paid to inform on political activity on West Bank campuses.

Ghassan Khatib, the vice president of Birzeit, said the university's administration was aware of links between campus groups and political and security organisations off-campus, as well as reports of the PA paying students for information. 

It's part of [the university's] policy to try to make sure, as much as we can, that there is minimal involvement of PA security in university life, including student life. But that's not an easy task at all.

Ghassan Khatib, Birzeit University vice president

"Policy-wise, it should be clear that there should be no involvement or pressure of security individuals or organs at the university," Khatib told Al Jazeera. "It's part of [the university's] policy to try to make sure, as much as we can, that there is minimal involvement of PA security in university life, including student life. But that's not an easy task at all."

Unlike other West Bank universities, such as An-Najah, whose president is Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, Birzeit has worked to distance itself from the external influence of security forces and political parties, Khatib said. The university does not allow PA security personnel on campus, he said, and the school also aims to engage students in dialogue to emphasise the importance of Birzeit's independence from external political and security influences.


RELATED: Detentions of Hamas-aligned students 'deeply worrying'


Professors and students aligned with Fatah's campus group at Birzeit say Hamas-affiliated students also report on political activities to Hamas leadership, although none have alleged that any payment is exchanged.

Birzeit political science professor, Abdul Rahman Haj Ibrahim, said that Hamas' information network operates through off-campus "mosques and religious societies", a claim also levied last year by the Israeli army, which accused Hamas of exploiting universities "to recruit terrorists and implement its radical Islamic ideology". 

However, Saif al-Islam Daghlas, who heads the student council at Birzeit and is a member of the university's Hamas-affiliated group, denied that Hamas-aligned students report to the party's leadership in the West Bank.

"Even if Hamas-affiliated students reported to leadership outside the university, it would be of little benefit because Hamas has no authority in the West Bank," Daghlas told Al Jazeera.

Although Daghlas and Barakeh estimated that the number of students at Birzeit working with preventive security were minimal compared with the student population, Daghlas said the security service's presence has had a significant impact on university life.

"Students do not express themselves freely, especially in political contexts," he said. "This perceived security presence impacts students' social and academic lives. Students are afraid to engage with the party they want to. Some students, when they come to the university, are afraid they will be detained by preventive security."

Barakeh, whose Fatah-aligned party arguably has the most to gain from maintaining a relationship with preventive security, also condemned the practise.

"Students here should have goals. They come here to study, not to be developing connections with preventive security," he said. "It's not that what the preventive security [does] is wrong, but students should have higher aspirations than working with security outside the university."

Follow Jonathan Brown on Twitter: @jonathaneebrown

Source: Al Jazeera