Ramallah, occupied West Bank – After the victory of a Hamas-aligned group over Fatah-aligned rivals in student council elections at Birzeit University last month, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces have begun detaining and questioning student leaders of the group.
“Everyone knew that this was going to happen,” Nagham Yassin, a Birzeit student who is a member of a leftist student group aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Al Jazeera. “It happened last time the Islamic bloc won in 2007. Everyone assumed it would happen this time. Anyone who goes into student politics – especially Hamas supporters – knows they risk arrest.”
Birzeit is Palestine’s oldest and arguably most prestigious university. The results of its student council elections, regarded as a bellwether for the region’s politics, are scrutinised by politicians, pundits and analysts alike – particularly as general elections have not been held in the West Bank since 2006. Until last month, the student group aligned with Fatah had won a majority in the university’s elections since 2008.
Since the April elections, two representatives of the winning Hamas-aligned group have been detained by PA security forces, and more than a dozen others summoned for interrogation.
Jihad Saleem says he was stopped by plainclothes officers in an unmarked car when he left the campus two days after the vote. He alleges that he was blindfolded, deprived of sleep, held in stress positions and denied communication with his lawyer during a 24-hour interrogation, after which he was released without charge.
“They wanted to know how the Islamic bloc won the elections. They wanted to know how Hamas’ supporters had funded the election campaign on the campus. They wanted me to describe the structure of the student organisation, and whether I had connections to leadership in Gaza,” Saleem told Al Jazeera. “I told my interrogators that it was my right to be politically active and that it was beyond their mandate to detain me. I told them that if they wanted to discuss politics generally, I would be happy to speak with them – that they didn’t need to detain me to hear my analysis of the elections and why I believed Fatah supporters lost.”
PA security forces have confirmed that “students were detained”, but have not commented on the specific allegations.
At a news conference in Ramallah last Thursday, spokesperson Major General Adnan al-Damiri said PA security forces have acted in accordance with the law.
“We do not, have not, and we will not detain anyone – student or otherwise – for their political affiliation. We respect freedom of expression. Arrests are made strictly according to the law,” Damiri said. “We detain individuals if we believe they are engaged in criminal activity, whether it is planning or executing armed operations, managing illegal financial networks, possession of harmful materials – weapons, drugs – or incitement of hatred or violence.”
A report from Human Rights Watch found that 25 students have been arrested, detained or summoned for interrogation from West Bank universities since the April 22 student council elections.
Students from groups that oppose Fatah at Birzeit say these cases appear to have been politically motivated. Of the four student parties to participate in Birzeit’s student council elections, only members of the Hamas-aligned bloc have been detained.
security establishment that ended up costing Fatah the elections. They have only themselves to blame. PA security forces are more repressive than democratic in how they confront political opposition.”]
Some students being sought for questioning by the PA were waiting to respond until after the exam period, Omar Kiswani, a member of the Hamas-aligned bloc, told Al Jazeera. While “many have responded to the summons,” he said, others were fearful that it could lead to prolonged detention and interfere with exams.
More than a dozen core members of the Hamas-aligned group have evaded detention by taking up temporary residence with “friends or relatives” or simply “disappearing”, said Ghadeer Safadi, a student volunteer with Right 2 Education, an on-campus organisation that monitors student arrests.
“Instead, PA security personnel have been delivering summonses to students’ parents at home, sometimes repeatedly, when they can’t find the students or when students fail to attend the appointments,” Safadi told Al Jazeera.
Mohammad Saqer, an electrical engineering student from Ramallah and a member of the Hamas-aligned bloc, was arrested by PA security on April 30 and remains in detention. Saqer, who says he will likely have to repeat this academic year if he is not released in time for exams, has been on a hunger strike to protest his detention, according to Kiswani.
“After the elections, Fatah’s students said, ‘the Islamic bloc won the elections fair and square – this is democracy’, but they didn’t issue any statement, any condemnation, when their fellow students in the Islamic bloc were arrested by the PA,” Yassin said.
However, Faris Zawahreh, a student representative of the Birzeit group that supports Fatah, told Al Jazeera that the group “denounces all politically motivated arrests in Palestine, whether it is Israel’s [army] arresting Palestinians for political activities, Hamas arresting Fatah supporters in Gaza, or the PA’s recent arrests of Islamic bloc supporters at Birzeit”.
According to Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch: “It is deeply worrying that students are being held by Palestinian forces for no apparent reason other than their connection to Hamas or their opinions. Palestinians should be able to express critical political opinions without being arrested or beaten.”
Samir Awad, who teaches international relations at Birzeit, said the victory of the Hamas-aligned group is intertwined with the PA security establishment’s repressive attitude towards political opposition.
The Hamas-aligned group’s success was “a vote, not necessarily for Hamas, but against Fatah,” Awad told Al Jazeera. “[It was the practise of the] security establishment that ended up costing Fatah the elections. They have only themselves to blame. PA security forces are more repressive than democratic in how they confront political opposition, [which is] doubly problematic for politically expressive Birzeit students, who are also subject to Israel’s occupation too.”
Right 2 Education’s most recent figures suggest that 35 students are currently being detained by Israeli security forces for “political activities”. The group estimates that 500 Birzeit students have been detained in Israel in the last five years.
Kiswani believes the PA’s “repressive” response to the latest student vote will “influence the result of next year’s elections too”, but will not intimidate students into voting for Fatah.
“The Islamic bloc – Hamas – is not a student organisation, it’s not a group of people. It’s an ideology. You can’t intimidate an ideology,” Kiswani said. “Of course there’s a danger to my future; everyone in the Islamic bloc knows the risks. But it’s an ideal, I believe, worth sacrificing for.”