RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // Thousands of students were on campus at Birzeit University this week, but there were few textbooks or notepads in sight. Instead, students turned up in droves on Wednesday to vote, cheer political affiliates and make last-minute attempts to influence the ballot box at this prestigious West Bank university, near Ramallah. It may have only been the annual elections for the student body council, but Palestinians all over the West Bank and Gaza were keenly following the event.
Unlike on campuses in other parts of the world, Palestinians take student politics very seriously. And what happens at Birzeit University has always been a test of the political temperature in the Palestinian Territories. "We have come to finish the corruption here, to end it," said Haya Totah, 20, a psychology student from Jerusalem. Standing in an orderly line outside one of the polling booths opposite Fatah supporters, Ms Totah cast her vote for the Islamic bloc, the student body of Hamas. "It is not just support for Hamas, it is support for religion," she said.
Tala Salem, 20, a marketing student from Ramallah, said she was voting for Shabiba, the Fatah student party. "They are the only party for Palestine," she said. "They have been talking about Palestinian issues since 1948." The university has been immersed in election fever for days; banners, flags and posters for the competing parties have adorned the campus, while impassioned debates have attracted large crowds and created blazing polemics among the students.
Just like Palestinian society beyond the campus, the student elections have become a heated contest between Fatah, which controls the West Bank in the form of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, the Islamic party that runs the Gaza strip. Fatah, the pioneer of Palestinian resistance, was fighting to keep its five-seat lead over Hamas in the 51-member student council. Fatah still attracts a bedrock of support but faces accusations of corruption and of collusion with the Israeli occupation.
Meanwhile Hamas garners praise for its uncompromising commitment to armed resistance - and criticism for its adherence to a deeply conservative social reading of religion. Ever since Hamas forcibly took over the Gaza strip in June 2007, supporters have faced difficulties amid reprisal actions in the West Bank, which is controlled by the PA. On campus, supporters have complained of being harassed, questioned or arrested.
"I can say that the people who support the Islamic bloc are being followed and threatened," said Naqa, 20, a media and journalism student at the university, wearing the Hamas green scarf. "That is why you see less visible support for Hamas among the students." Much of the campaigning focused on student issues: help with funding, provision of free books, free heaters or free transport. But, inevitably, it was the politics of Palestine that seemed to be the deciding factor.
"Gaza showed people that Hamas is committed to its principles, to resistance," said Ayman Abu Aram, 21, an Islamic bloc representative and public administration student, referring to Israel's three-week assault on the Palestinian enclave earlier this year. "Hamas is not just looking for authority but for resistance and liberation," he said. "Many of our leaders were killed during the war - people appreciate this and trust us now even more. We don't just offer nice words, we are committed." Fatah's student representative and existing council leader, Diaa Qundah, 31, disagreed. "Hamas is good at media propaganda," he said. "It is using what happened in Gaza to gain support.
"But Fatah is able to continue the struggle because it is our heritage and we still have ideas for the future - the others don't." In the aftermath of the Gaza war, politics have centred on who best represents the Palestinian struggle. On campus, opinions are sharply divided. "We think that Gaza was a great victory for the whole Palestinian people," said Naqa, the Hamas supporter, adding that the student elections are "like a questionnaire of what people have to say about Gaza".
Fatah supporters like Lina Jaman Shtiwi, 23, a politics student, said such declarations of victory in Gaza are, "a big lie. They didn't win and only the people lost. Hamas is not leading the resistance or anything else." But polls show that Hamas did gain support following the Israeli assault in Gaza. A survey from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre in January found that 46 per cent of Palestinians thought that Hamas had won that war, while just under 10 per cent deemed it an Israeli victory.
Support for Hamas rose to 28 per cent, from 19 per cent in April last year, while support for Fatah fell from 34 per cent to 28 per cent in the same period. Similarly, support for the peace process declined, while support for military operations against Israeli targets rose, according to the survey. Underneath the main discussion on forms of resistance is another debate: the effect these differing ideologies have on Palestinian society.
Fatah supporters at Birzeit point out that the university celebrated Christmas for the first time last year and that a Fatah-run council is more representative of non-Muslim and female students. Hamas advocates retort that they are bringing valuable religious tenets back to student life, while still respecting individual freedoms. Dr Samir Awad, a political science lecturer at the university, said this tension is what makes the student elections so significant and indicative of wider trends.
"The widespread culture of political Islam is facing what is still a bastion of liberal ideology at Birzeit," he said. "But the concern of many people is that secular practices are disappearing rapidly in our society." Birzeit university has a long-standing heritage among a nation credited as being the most highly educated in the Arab world. The university was a hothouse for the political ideologies that define the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation.
Established in the 1920s as a girls' primary school, by the 1970s it had developed into the territories' first university and today is thought to be the best in the West Bank, with students from all over the region. "Birzeit was always a stronghold of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] during the 1970s and 1980s and used to lead the national struggle in the West Bank and Gaza," said Dr Awad.
The university was often a target of Israel-enforced closures and sieges, while many of its students were routinely arrested or questioned by Israeli forces. In 1988, during the first Palestinian intifada, the university was shut down for almost four years by Israeli decree, but continued to operate in an underground fashion for the entire period. At one point, the Israeli army dug deep trenches around the university campus, blocking access to it.
The university has produced a generation of Palestinian resistance leaders, such as Marwan Barghouti, arrested by Israel in 2002 and a high-profile political prisoner ever since. The institution is sometimes dubbed "Al Ayyash University" by Hamas supporters, after the bomb maker, Yahya Ayyash. An engineering student at Birzeit, Ayyash developed the mechanics of suicide bombing until he was assassinated by Israel - using an exploding mobile phone - in 1996.
This political legacy, of consolidating and defining the Palestinian struggle, explains why student elections at Birzeit are so significant today. The elections were closely followed online, as thousands of people from around the West Bank and Gaza thronged to websites such as Palestine Dialogue Forum and Hamas Forum, posting messages of support. At the end of the day, Fatah supporters piled into Ramallah's Manara square, firing shots into the air to celebrate their win.
But the Islamic bloc gained three seats, narrowing the Fatah lead to just two. In a period marked by political division, infighting and intimidation, many will read this as a significant gain. And all eyes are still on the university, to see how the politics of the campus shape up in the aftermath. * The National