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Important lessons from the Birzeit University elections

The conduct of public opinion polls may not be as well-entrenched in the Middle East as it is in the west but there are no doubt other credible means to gauge the public mood of which, in Palestine, university elections are one. This week the pro-Hamas "Wafa" bloc of candidates swept to success in the polls at Birzeit University in a manner that brings to mind the 2006 parliamentary elections, which Hamas won hands down across the occupied Palestinian territories. The big question now is whether PA President Mahmoud Abbas will go to the polls with presidential and legislative council elections as he has been promising for some time.

Despite being subjected by the Palestinian Authority to a cynical campaign of harassment and detention of their student supporters, the Hamas bloc won 26 seats on the students' council while Abbas's Fatah secured 19.

The elections at Birzeit came just days after those at Hebron's Palestine (Polytechnic) University, in which Hamas and Fatah gained 15 seats each and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) won 1. That result revealed a significant shift in an arena where Fatah-affiliated student groups have always won elections in recent years.

Birzeit, unlike the Islamic University in Gaza is, perhaps, the least likely place to return a resounding victory for Hamas, for it has never had an administration that could be described as Islamist. On the contrary, it has been traditionally more aligned to Fatah and the Ramallah authority. This, therefore, will be a matter of grave concern for President Abbas; if Hamas can win in this "safe" enclave what will prevent the movement from winning elsewhere and, indeed, in the national elections?

On that broader national level, the results have also exposed the failure of the Israeli occupation. Although the blockade of the Gaza Strip was intended to instigate popular anger and hostility against Hamas this has not happened. Support for the movement has remained strong and is in fact growing, obviously even in the most unlikely of quarters; Birzeit is not only the largest Palestinian university in the West Bank but also a historic stronghold of Palestinian nationalism and political activism.

Indeed the result can be seen as a message to Mr Abbas that not only was his stand on Gaza during the last Israeli offensive wholly unacceptable, but also that his current approach towards the reconstruction of the enclave and his handling of the reconciliation process leaves much to be desired. The failure of his national unity government to resolve satisfactorily the issue of public sector workers' salaries, for example, remains a toxic and damaging bone of contention.

As for Fatah and Hamas, their reactions to the Birzeit University poll differed markedly. Jamal Nazal, a member of Fatah's revolutionary council and spokesman in Europe, claimed that the student votes do not in any way reflect the thinking or mood of the Palestinian street.

Of course, he would say that, wouldn't he; had his party won, it would have trumpeted from the rooftops that it was a ringing endorsement of Abbas and his PA and a sign of greater things to come. Fatah, perhaps, might even have dared to go to the polls for the long overdue presidential and parliamentary elections.

Hamas, on the other hand, has taken the victory as an endorsement of its policies. Ezzet Rishq, a member of the political bureau, said that the victory sends an important message that Hamas is now clearly the vanguard movement of the Palestinians; that its programme of resistance is the choice of the people. He added that the results reflect a rejection of Fatah's decision to pursue futile negotiations and damaging security coordination with the Israeli occupation forces.

The other parties with a vested interest in the Palestinian elections are the Israelis, Americans and Europeans who sponsor the PA. Will they make the same mistake that they made in 2006 by pushing Abbas to hold elections? Judging from past experience, they will only do so if they can guarantee a Fatah victory; this is highly unlikely. Having supported the coup in Egypt and betrayed the democratic will of the region's people who voted for Islamist parties, the west will surely not risk another humiliating defeat in Palestine of all places. For Hamas the only possible benefit from such an outcome would be the popular reaffirmation of its resistance agenda. The fact is, however, that the movement would not be allowed to govern even if, yet again, it won a democratically-elected majority.

No matter how the parties may try to spin it, though, the results in Birzeit are significant. The university is seen as the public institution most representative of Palestinian society. In spite of all the attempts to demonise and marginalise Hamas, it evidently remains a popular force to be reckoned with in Palestine. Nevertheless, at this delicate moment in the history of the conflict, the victory must be viewed in its correct context. Khaled Meshaal was right when he pointed out that it was not a victory for Hamas per se but a victory for all the Palestinian people because it consolidates the emergence of a political process based on participation and inclusivity. If nothing else, that's a lesson that Mahmoud Abbas really should learn.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

Commentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestine
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