Palestinian factions compete in Birzeit elections

Birzeit student council elections are dominated by party divisions that came to define Palestinian politics.

Occupied West Bank – In a crowded auditorium on the Birzeit University campus in the West Bank, students pack the aisles to catch a glimpse of an election campaign launch.

The hall is filled with green flags, while a video shows images of the Islamist group Hamas‘ political and military leaders in Gaza, bringing loud cheers from the onlookers.

This is a campaign day for the Islamic bloc, the Hamas-associated group that hopes to retain control of the 51-seat student council at the university expected to be held on Wednesday.

Last year, the Hamas-aligned student group claimed 25 seats while the Fatah-aligned group won 21 seats. The remaining seats went to a party aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

In the absence of Palestinian parliamentary elections since 2006, the votes held at Palestinian universities have come to be seen as an opportunity to test the political temperature in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Members of the Islamic bloc, the Hamas-affiliated student party, speak at an election event at Birzeit University [Nigel Wilson/Al Jazeera]
Members of the Islamic bloc, the Hamas-affiliated student party, speak at an election event at Birzeit University [Nigel Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Birzeit, the top-ranking university in the West Bank, has allowed all the Palestinian factions, to compete in its student elections. Given the opportunity to participate and the prestige of a potential victory here, the Palestinian political parties have invested heavily to win over the years.

“As a university, we believe that there should not be any [financial] incentives or any expenses,” said Mohammed al-Ahmed, the dean of student affairs at Birzeit. “The work of a student council is about forming a pressure group to make changes for the students. But we know that there is a lot of money going around.”

Some political parties have provided funds for small items such as pens or scarves to be distributed around campus, and also helped with larger sums for campaign props and financial aid to help cover tuition fees.

“Their strategy is to try to work all year long to provide students with help. Maybe with tuition, books, financial aid, during the year, and they build up to this [election] week,” said al-Ahmed, noting that handouts around election week could easily be construed by the students as an attempt to win votes.

You come to Birzeit to learn about the world. It is essential to have national politics on campus because it is the only way to educate students, to make them aware of their surroundings and their environment.

by Tuqa Mohammed, a third-year media student

“We don’t really trace or follow where aid or assistance comes from,” he added. “Bloc X can come and say they have some funds from someone in civil society outside the university and they want to give it to students. We don’t want to stop that, or to go there and start finding, tracing and stopping where money or aid comes from.”

Away from the bombast of the Islamist campaign event, students gathered in small groups in the shade of Birzeit’s tree-lined campus, reading, chatting and drinking coffee.

Before the vote on Wednesday, some students told Al Jazeera that they thought it was normal for the campaigns to be dominated by the party divisions that have come to define Palestinian politics on a national level, rather than issues around student life.

“You come to Birzeit to learn about the world,” said Tuqa Mohammed, a third-year media student. “It is essential to have national politics on campus because it is the only way to educate students, to make them aware of their surroundings and their environment.”

Her classmates agreed that student politics should reflect the wider national debate and welcomed the political parties’ money on campus as a vital source of funding for political activity.

“The university doesn’t even have enough money to spend on the students and on education,” said Khuloud Walid, a media student in her fourth year at Birzeit. “It is essential to have external funds to be able to continue activities on campus.”

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However, Ghaida Allahsa, a third-year language pathology and audiology student, told Al Jazeera that the parties and candidates should focus more on issues surrounding student life.

“I feel uncomfortable that the elections represent the political parties outside the campus,” she said. “In the debates before the elections, it’s more like a fight between political parties. It’s not what we need as students. We need an independent party that will talk about what students need,” she added, citing issues such as transportation to the university and the level at which tuition fees are, as examples.

Moreover, Allahsa recalled her shock and distaste when a political faction offered to pay her tuition in full if she were to work with the group on campus.

“They asked me in my first year to be involved in one party and in return they would pay my tuition fees,” she said. “And they said that again this year – two weeks ago. I said no, because I am not a product that can be bought with money.”

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While the students working with the [political] blocs on campus stressed that they had become involved in student politics to try and improve student life at Birzeit, joining a faction can also bring with it access to a network of alumni contacts that can help with their activities on campus and even after they graduate.

Marwan Taha, an administrative member of the Fatah youth movement and law student, told Al Jazeera that factionalism on campus and its structures ultimately meant that more money would be spent on students and provides a framework for students to continue political activity after university.

“Factionalism is very important,” he said. “If you were just an individual student who ran for elections, won and then graduated, there would not be continuous work. But when this person is part of a faction on campus and is very active, when he leaves university he will be able to continue his work with a bigger faction outside and be able to continue to give to his country through the faction.”

Yasir Abu Rmeileh, a psychology and sociology student and coordinator for Islamic bloc, noted that factionalism can be negative on campus if students become too dogmatic.

“Extremism is the product of factionalism, if you start to only defend your own beliefs and ideas and do not accept the other. But it’s not as bad as it can be in other universities,” he said.

Waseem Ayoub, an engineering student and spokesman for the Fatah youth movement, agreed that factionalism can become a destructive force on campus.

“If people do not understand the concept about freedom of thought, they will become more rigid about their own ideas.”

But the student elections also taught valuable lessons about democratic debate, he added.

“We learn to protect democracy. We learn that it is fine to have different ideas and opinions,” he said. “We are taught the concepts of democracy and to respect other opinions.”

Source: Al Jazeera