Birzeit, occupied West Bank – Hundreds of women waved Hamas flags, handed out sweets and chanted slogans along the streets of the typically sleepy Birzeit village this week, celebrating the victory of a Hamas-aligned group in student council elections at Birzeit University for the second year in a row.
“We thank the students for their confidence in us, and we will do all we can to help them through their next academic year,” Jihad Arman, a spokesperson for the Hamas student group, promised after the vote. The Hamas leadership in Gaza subsequently released a statement saying the victory “demonstrates people’s support for the Jerusalem [uprising] and their allegiance to the path of resistance”.
Student council elections at Birzeit, Palestine’s oldest university, are widely considered to be a barometer for national politics, considering it has been a decade since the last national election was held in 2006. In this week’s vote, the Hamas-aligned student group claimed 25 of 51 available seats, narrowly edging out the Fatah-aligned group, which won 21 seats – a tighter margin than last year. The remaining seats went to a party aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Analysts say the repeat victory of the Hamas-aligned group reveals continuing public dissatisfaction with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA).
“[As] the last general elections took place over a decade ago, student elections take on extra significance as the only discernible manifestation of democratic participation,” said Grant Rumley, a research fellow focusing on Palestinian politics at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think-tank.
“In the past few years, we’ve seen an increasingly autocratic Palestinian Authority under [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas clamp down on journalists, trade unions, teachers and political rivals,” Rumley told Al Jazeera. “Political debates look few and far between in Palestinian politics, and university elections look to be one last stronghold … Hamas’ second straight victory at the oldest Palestinian university is likely to only further dissuade PA and Fatah officials from preparing for elections in the foreseeable future.”
Despite its repeat win, the Hamas-aligned group lost one seat over the last year, while the Fatah-aligned group gained two, narrowing the gap. A European Union official with close ties to Palestinian policymakers, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said an outright victory for the Fatah-aligned group would have been brushed off as evidence of the party’s ability to exert influence on the political sphere in the West Bank.
“The victory at Birzeit should be of little comfort to Hamas,” the official added. “Polls show that a large proportion of young Palestinians have given up on the two main political parties, Fatah and Hamas.”
A spokesperson for the Fatah-aligned party did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The day before Wednesday’s vote, students held an hours-long public debate in the scorching midday sun on Birzeit’s campus, with dominant issues including women’s political participation and the long-standing rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, the ruling party of Abbas.
“The university administration always hopes that students will pay more attention to student life, students’ needs, requirements [and] achievements during election campaigns,” Birzeit University Vice President Ghassan Khatib told Al Jazeera. “But student leaders tend to address political issues during campaigns, and this comes at the expense of university or student affairs.”
Ahmad Azem Hamad, the chair of Birzeit’s Palestine and Arabic Studies programme, described the elections as a “national event” in which “everyone intervenes”.
“Leaders from different parties outside the university are very interested in the results and intervene by giving students aligned with their parties moral and material support,” Hamad told Al Jazeera.
Similar to last year, turnout in the election was high, with more than three-quarters of the nearly 10,000 eligible students casting a ballot. Among those who did not vote was economics student Dina Elayyam, 19, of Jerusalem.
“The political groups on campus are more concerned with implementing the ideas of their factions and leaders off campus than they are with improving student life,” noted Elayyam, who says she cast a ballot for the Hamas-aligned group last year because they had “worked hard” to make improvements on the university campus, including buying an ambulance car and installing benches. Now, however, it feels like “a political war, a cold war, between the two parties”.
There is also a broader security risk attached to participation in student politics in the West Bank.
After the Hamas-aligned group had swept Birzeit’s student elections last year, 25 students affiliated with opposition student groups were summoned for interrogation or detained by PA security forces, according to Human Rights Watch. Jihad Salem, a member of the Hamas-aligned group, said he was beaten, held in stress positions and denied legal representation during a 24-hour detention that followed the election results. Human Rights Watch called the developments “deeply worrying”.
Samia al-Botmeh, an economics professor at Birzeit who coordinates the Right to Education campaign, a students’ rights group, told Al Jazeera that 77 Birzeit students and two staff were currently in Israeli detention, including the student council’s last elected president, Hamas supporter Seif al-Islam Daghlas. Five Birzeit students are currently being detained by the PA after being arrested in relation to their affiliation with opposition student groups, she added.
“It is hugely concerning for us as administrators and educators that the PA is also detaining students who voice political ideas that are either different or opposing the PA … The fact that a faction wins the election that is not aligned with the PA doesn’t mean the PA will collapse,” Botmeh added. “It’s a very healthy challenge to the status quo, and students should be encouraged to have a multitude of opinions and political practices.”
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