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The PA is targeting Hamas’ student body in the West Bank

Students who support Hamas gather to attend the debate held ahead of the student council elections, at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, West Bank on May 09, 2017 [Issam Rimawi / Anadolu Agency]
Students who support Hamas gather to attend the debate held ahead of the student council elections, at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, West Bank on May 09, 2017 [Issam Rimawi / Anadolu Agency]

Over the past few days, there have been several incidents at universities in the West Bank. The first incident is Hamas’ student council list suffered an overwhelming defeat at the University of Hebron. A few days before this, An-Najah University in Nablus banned the Islamic bloc, associated with Hamas, from operating in the university. In addition to this, Al-Quds University administration has been accused of excluding Hamas’ student body from running in the upcoming elections for baseless reasons.

I will discuss the reasons why Hamas is facing problems related to student council elections in West Bank universities and whether the elections are a measure or indicator of public opinion if there are legislative or presidential elections. I will also discuss whether this is related to the PA’s pursuit of Hamas students or the decline of support for the movement, and how Hamas will deal with the pressure on its student body in the West Bank universities.

Palestinians believe the student council elections in their universities are not limited to the union and educational demands within the walls of the universities. They believe they are also an indicator of the strength of Palestinian factions, thus determining their strength on the streets, as the rivalry in elections is heating up between political forces, especially Hamas and Fatah. Recent days have witnessed a series of incidents in West Bank universities linked to the student elections, which confirms the beliefs of the Palestinians.

The Hebron University student council elections held in early April saw the victory of the Fatah list and the decline of its rival, Hamas. Fatah won 30 seats, while Hamas only won 11, causing great disappointment for Hamas.

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The Islamic bloc, Hamas’ student body at the university, announced that it had identified numerous serious violations and serious abuses that flawed the student council elections. This includes the entry of many individuals who are not students of the university and members of the PA security agency to the university courtyards and polling stations.

These elections were accompanied and preceded by campaigns of repression, persecution, intimidation and political detention, as well as threats to a large number of university students and their families. This is a serious indicator of the deterioration of the reality of student freedoms in the West Bank and cast a shadow on the course of the elections and their results. This is due to the violation of its courtyards by PA security officers and members in the days leading up to the elections, as well as election day itself. This confirmed the dangerous security infiltration of universities and students in full view of the university administration, which did nothing in this regard.

However, analysis of the election results and the decline of the Islamic bloc could carry other objective explanations, including the possibility of forging and manipulating the ballots and counting the votes. There are signs of this. However, there are other reasons we must pay attention to, most importantly the fierce war on the Islamic bloc in the West Bank, because the rise of this bloc could mean the rise of Hamas and the resistance in general.

An important part of this weak result is Hamas’ absence from the West Bank, which requires Hamas to find solutions to its unfortunate reality by bypassing traditional organisational methods that have become a burden on the movement, despite the enormous pressure on Hamas and the bloc in the West Bank. Therefore, Hamas and its student body seem required to break the barrier of fear amongst the Palestinians, because as long as there is fear, we will find a large group of people will not elect the bloc, participate in any national activity, or resist the Israeli occupation.

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The complicated reality in which the Islamic bloc in the West Bank has operated is full of obstacles, prosecution, threats and risk, in addition to the militarisation of student competitions, the introduction of weapons into university campuses and the firing of such weapons in the air by Palestinian security forces and Fatah cadres.

In a related context, the Islamic bloc at the University of Jerusalem – Abu Dis, boycotted the student council elections. On the eve of the elections, the preparatory council banned them from the elections after being pressured in the days leading up to the elections by Fatah, which had objected to the movement’s participation and pressured the university.

Furthermore, the PA security services arrested the representative of the Islamic Bloc at An-Najah National University in Nablus, Ibrahim Shalhoub, at dawn yesterday. This arrest came in light of the continued series of targeting the Islamic bloc and attempts to crackdown and eliminate it from the West Bank universities.

Shalhoub’s arrest was preceded by Fatah’s student party, Shabiba, announcing the ban on the Islamic bloc and the closure of its headquarters because it would not allow the university to have an extension of Hamas in it. Meanwhile, the bloc announced it received a notice from the university administration completely banning its activities and operations indefinitely, without any justification. The bloc considered this decision to be in response to external pressure from the PA security services.

The Islamic Bloc in West Bank universities accuses the PA security services of hindering its work by means of pursuing its members. The number of its students arrested by the PA during 2018 reached 400, which indicates that Fatah controls the administrations in the West Bank universities. It is true that the decision made by Fatah’s Shabiba is not legally binding and is not part of its authority, but the language of force makes it seem that it is the decision-maker in the universities, regardless of the actual law.

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Hamas knows very well that the Islamic bloc in the West Bank universities are the platforms it has available at the moment due to the security crackdown on the movement by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This makes the bloc an effective framework through which to spread Hamas’ ideas and attract supporters to its ranks. Therefore, Hamas has worked to increase the bloc’s activities in order to increase its influence in the West Bank, thus making the bloc a systematic target for the PA and its security agencies.

The Islamic bloc considers the actions of the Palestinian Authority against it a stab in the side of the student movement, because it is an indication of action being taken to eliminate its role as a student representative. This is being carried out by means of the PA security services arresting its cadres.

While some university administrations in the West Bank are exercising oppressive policies against the bloc and preventing it from carrying out its activities inside universities, it exercises lenient policies with the Shabiba student movement. Other universities who are not already doing so are being subject to major pressure from the PA and its security agencies to restrict the activity of the Islamic bloc, arrest some and pursue them.

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Hamas circles believe that these policies are paving the way to completely eliminating the bloc and banning its operations and activities in West Bank universities. They also believe that the PA is trying to reproduce electoral systems used in neighbouring Arab countries to repress student movements in universities.

This confirms the PA’s tendency not to allow the Islamic bloc to operate in West Bank universities at any cost. This requires university administrations to stop the bloc’s student activities and cooperate with the PA security agencies to persecute them.

It is worth noting that the Islamic bloc is present in all the West Bank universities and institutions, the most important of which are: An-Najah, Beirzit, Hebron, Al-Quds, Bethlehem, and a number of other university institutions. The Islamist students have managed to influence many of their peers and gain their support, allowing them to compete against the other political forces in the university elections and allow them to control the student unions in many universities.

Researchers recall how Hamas mobilises its members, spends its budget, and uses its propaganda capabilities to influence students, as it views these student elections as mini-rehearsals for any political legislative or presidential elections.

Hamas’ victory in past years in a number of universities and institutions in the West Bank, despite the PA and Israeli security agencies’ crackdown on the movement was something it experienced in Gaza before Israel withdrew from it in 2005 and it took control in mid-2007. The movement has adapted the atmosphere of security pressure and managed to gain popular support, the direct results of which it witnessed in the student body elections there. This may have prompted the PA this year not to give the Islamic bloc a chance to repeat its victory in West Bank universities.

This means that the implications of the results of the student council elections in West Bank universities will be understood and read by the Palestinian Authority as either progress or decline for the PA in the Palestinian public opinion. It will have a direct impact on the issuance of any decrees regarding the legislative or presidential elections, which have been absent for too long, even if it is limited to the West Bank, and does not include the Gaza Strip or Jerusalem.

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

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