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Student council elections in Palestine

May 31, 2023 at 11:45 am

Students of Birzeit University in Ramallah, West Bank on May 23, 2023 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

The Islamic Bloc, the student branch of the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas, was victorious in May in the largest Palestinian universities of the West Bank, An-Najah and Birzeit universities. They are also the universities that most embody the indicators reflecting the partisan situation on the ground.

On 16 May 2023, a democratic union took place, one that has been absent for sixteen years at An-Najah University. The participation rate reached 69.8 per cent with results as follows: the Islamic Bloc, which ran in the elections under the name the Muslim Palestine Bloc, won 40 seats. The other blocs that ran in the elections were Fatah’s Shabiba, the student branch of the Fatah movements, which won 38 seats, the Progressive Student Labour Front, the student branch of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which won three seats, and the Democratic Progressive Student Pole, which did not win any.

The second elections were at Birzeit University, with a participation rate reaching 77 per cent. The results were as follows: the Islamic Wafaa Bloc, the student branch of Hamas, won 25 seats with a total of 4,481 votes, and the Martyr Yasser Arafat Bloc, the student branch of Fatah, won 20 seats with a total of 3,539 votes, the Democratic Pole Bloc, the student branch of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine ranked third, winning six seats with a total of 1,076 votes, and the United Left Bloc did not win any.

What are the reasons for the victory of the Islamic Bloc as well as its implications, and why aren’t elections held in the universities of the Gaza Strip?

Reasons behind the victory 

Undoubtedly, the union and student elections reflect the political weight of the Palestinian factions, but not in absolute terms. Some may vote for those who provide better services without regard for partisan and factional ideologies.

It is necessary to look into what happened during the past year in terms of political events that changed the general mood in the West Bank to understand the reasons for the victory, namely:

  • The political horizon, the escalation of resistance in the West Bank and the increase in its popular support are reflected in the voting behaviour of students in both universities.
  • The appearance of armed men and repeated shootings in the air in light of the regular raids in the West Bank, as well as the difficulty in providing weapons and bullets to the resistance fighters of the Lions’ Den, the Jenin Battalion and other battalions and cells, push students to vote against this behaviour.
  • The practices of the security services in the West Bank, especially the political arrests of students, affect the Shabiba movement’s chances of winning most of the time.
  • Despite possessing power and money, the Fatah leadership fell short regarding Shabiba and did not provide it with the necessary support to serve the students.

Its political implications

The victory serves the Hamas movement and its political programme because it has more than one implication and message, as follows:

  • It is a message to the region and the international community portraying the strong presence of Hamas in Palestinian streets and that all the money paid to eliminate the movement has failed. This may affect the Western decision-maker in the near future when it comes to Hamas, as containing Hamas and opening up to it has become less expensive than isolating it.
  • It is a message to the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, and to Fatah and Hamas, that the Palestinian political system will not succeed without the two movements and, therefore, unity and an end to division must be achieved.
  • It is a message to Israel that all attempts to arrest, assassinate and intimidate Hamas in the West Bank have failed.

The democratic option is the shortest path to resolve differences and, therefore, trade union and student elections must be held throughout the country on the basis of complete proportional representation, leading to holding presidential, legislative and national assembly elections as agreed upon in Cairo. This brings us back to the other part of the question: why aren’t elections held in the universities of the Gaza Strip?

I asked this question years ago to a leader of the Hamas movement, Bassem Naim, who informed me that Hamas does not object to holding elections in Gaza universities and that the obstacle was the Fatah movement. However, I found no clearer statement than that of Zakaria Abu Muammar, a member of the Hamas political bureau, followed by statements by political bureau member and head of the Hamas trade unions, Dr Suhail Al-Hindi to Radio Alam of Hebron University. Both suggested convening before the end of 2023 and having the elections begin in the Islamic University based on full proportional representation, the most appropriate electoral system to enhance joint action.

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Fatah spokesperson Monther Al-Hayek responded to the statements of Hamas leaders by affirming that Fatah is ready to work with everyone, to agree on a timetable for holding elections in trade unions, universities and municipalities and practise democracy in all institutions leading to general elections, beginning with Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Palestine.

According to previous statements by the two largest factions, the ball is now in the court of Palestinian universities and their students. Everyone must work to make the democratic union in all parts of the country a success in order to reach comprehensive elections that restore respect for the Palestinian political system.

This article first appeared in Arabic in the Palestinian Inforamtion Centre on 28 May 2023

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