The Politics of Palestinian Universities

Many have argued that in the absence of a unified Palestinian liberation movement, and even of the ability to participate in the current mechanisms of governance since no Palestinian Authority elections have been held since the early 2000s, Palestinian universities have served to fill in some gaps in national democratic development. For this reason, these institutions and their students have long been targets of direct and structural Israeli violence, and have also been increasingly subject to repression from the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas. The roles of student activism and politics at Palestinian universities are both intertwined with and representative of broader trends in Palestinian society, and may very well be considered true alternatives to the failed policies and practices of established Palestinian political institutions.

As part of the Oslo Accords agreements of the mid-1990s, Israel supposedly recognized that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were to be considered “a single territorial unit,” assuring that “safe passage” between the two areas would be guaranteed. In 2000, this safe passage was completely closed, including by a blanket ban on all students in Gaza who wished to attend universities in the West Bank, even if the Israeli military did not find a given student to be a security risk. The military argued that even students who left Gaza without any intention to commit acts of violence became a security risk once they attended West Bank universities, which it deemed “greenhouses for growing terrorists.”

Two court petitions were brought forth that challenged the ban, one by a group of students from Gaza who wanted to attend a specific program only available at Bethlehem University in the West Bank, and another by Gisha, an Israeli human rights advocacy group. The Israeli court rejected both petitions, accepting the military’s argument that Palestinian universities were uniquely dangerous by providing “fertile ground for the cultivation of the terrorist infrastructure and the recruitment of new people to carry out terrorist and hostile activities.” Although the court did recommend permitting some students from Gaza to study in the West Bank in cases with “positive humane implications,” a 2010 report published by Gisha found that no such permits were granted.

Israel has long treated Palestinian universities with a particularly securitized and militarized approach.

Israel has long treated Palestinian universities with a particularly securitized and militarized approach. Israel infamously closed Palestinian universities for months (and in the case of some universities, for years) during the First Intifada, in a move of collective punishment meant to prevent Palestinian young adults from gathering and organizing. Aside from closures, attacks on Palestinian universities have taken other forms over the years, from imposing curfews to exercising control over curricula, as well as undertaking occasional military strikes and raids, and arresting students and faculty.

Multiple students involved in campus politics have been arrested by Israel for their campus activities. Layan Kayed, for example, a student at Birzeit University, was arrested in 2020 at the Za’tara checkpoint for her campus activities, which included selling sandwiches for a student movement affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). A military court sentenced her to 16 months in prison. After her release in June 2023, her home was raided and she was arrested again, with an order barring her from speaking to her lawyer. In a 2022 interview about her initial arrest, she argued, “The Palestinian student movement has always been a lever for the Palestinian national struggle…The colonizer wants to ensure that this model of resistance is not generalized widely among Palestinians and works to break the current activist students from carrying on the struggle beyond their university years.”

The Development of the Palestinian University as a Quasi-Political Body

For centuries under Ottoman rule, there were no institutes of higher education in Palestine; in fact, there were few schools of any kind, and most were primary schools for boys. Efforts to build Palestinian universities were stifled by the Ottomans, then the British, the Egyptians and Jordanians, and the Israelis. Eventually, however, in the 1960s and 1970s, right around the beginning of the Israeli military occupation, the first Palestinian universities were founded after Israel issued them permits. Birzeit University, An-Najah University, Bethlehem University, Al-Quds University, and Hebron University were established in this period, most converted from primary schools or colleges. Some have argued that Israeli officials believed that allowing universities would help normalize the occupation. Instead, they became sites of much-needed political organizing and resistance.

Participation in student council elections largely reflected broader Palestinian political sensibilities.

Participation in student council elections at universities started shortly after, and largely reflected broader Palestinian political sensibilities. During the rise of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1960s, left-wing groups were more popular. After the establishment of the PA in the 1990s, Fatah-affiliated groups rose in popularity, and Hamas initially lost support prior to and after the beginning of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007. As the promises of the Oslo Accords period faded, the corruption and ineffectiveness of the PA became apparent, the fracture between Hamas and the PA solidified, and Hamas-affiliated parties began to receive more student support. Turnout for these elections is generally high, and campaigns can include rigorous debates about broader issues affecting Palestinian society. These student groups work to organize cultural campus events, lobby on behalf of students on issues like tuition fees, offer financial support to low-income students, and engage in political activities like protests, strikes, and sit-ins.

While these elections are not in any way binding in terms of governance, they are seen as an important measure of Palestinian public sentiment in light of the “near-total absence of democratic life” available to Palestinians. As groups affiliated with Fatah increasingly seem to lose support across Palestinian universities (despite the efforts in some cases by members of the PA actively campaigning to promote Fatah student groups), many see the gains of Hamas-affiliated groups as a “punishment” for the PA. A poll taken shortly after the Fatah-affiliated Al Shabiba student group lost seats in elections at Birzeit University in 2022 showed that 59 percent believed that the success of the Islamic Bloc (the Hamas-affiliated list) was primarily a protest by students against the PA and not necessarily a show of support for Hamas. One student told pollsters outright that Fatah student groups were paying for PA failures. Indeed, with increasing PA repression throughout the West Bank, some see student elections as one of the only public mechanisms left to criticize the PA at all.

Repression on All Sides

Despite the vagaries of the internal machinations of Palestinian university politics, there is one constant: Israeli repression and violence. Since 1967, Israel has issued hundreds of military orders targeting Palestinian universities. Such orders have included forcing faculty to apply for permits from Israel to work in Palestinian universities, banning distribution of any document that has “political significance,” and in general barring any action seen as “in sympathy with a hostile organization”—a designation Israel applies to almost all Palestinian political parties. In 1980, students at Birzeit were even told they were not permitted to wear shirts with red, green, and black stripes, the colors of the Palestinian flag. As a recent report said of such restrictions, “Practically, this means that Israel considers any political gathering inside Palestinian universities to be illegal.” It is under these pretenses that Israel justifies its raids of Palestinian campuses and the homes of students and faculty, as well as its detainment and arrest of Palestinian students and faculty who are politically active.

Echoing their sentiments about Palestinian universities in the occupied territories in the 1990s, Israeli officials have extended their repression of Palestinian student political activity even within the state’s own borders. In July 2023, a draft law was approved by the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation banning the political activities of Palestinian students at Israeli universities and calling such activities, including raising the Palestinian flag, support for terrorist organizations, and labeling academic institutions “a central platform for incitement in the State of Israel.” And Israel has ensured that not only Palestinians are restricted by its policies; guidelines released in 2022, known as the “Procedure for Entry and Residence for Foreigners in Judea and Samaria Area,” allows the Israeli military to decide how many foreigners can work or study at Palestinian universities and to restrict their time in the West Bank to as little as one semester.

After Hamas split from the PA, both parties began targeting university students and faculty associated with their respective rival.

It is not just from Israel, however, that Palestinian students face repression and violence. After Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip and split from the PA, both parties began targeting university students, and even faculty, associated with their respective rival. In 2008, supporters of Hamas raided Al-Azhar University—seen as one of the remaining Fatah strongholds in the Gaza Strip—disrupting lectures, destroying property, and attacking students. And in 2015, when a Hamas-affiliated student group won a majority of seats on the Birzeit student council for the first time since 2006, Palestinian security forces arrested the party’s student representative in front of the university. He told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that he was interrogated, beaten, and refused food or water for hours. Within the next few weeks following the elections, an estimated 25 students were arrested or interrogated. HRW has also documented multiple cases where students were arrested for writing Facebook posts critical of the PA. Such students are typically arrested on charges of “incitement.”

The PA’s targeting of student groups that are affiliated with Hamas or critical of the PA has continued, especially as the popularity of the PA has waned and other political parties have gathered public support. As a result, voting has intermittently been delayed, or has excluded certain student groups. Despite these efforts, in 2023 Hamas-affiliated student groups won majorities on student councils at Birzeit University, and also at the Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron and An-Najah University in Nablus, where residents have been subject to constant Israeli raids, and where dissatisfaction with the PA response has led to the rise of militant groups like the Lion’s Den. Stifling these efforts on campuses seems to serve as a means for preventing these movements from spreading, and for suppressing public resentment against the PA. Though Hamas has at times touted these student elections as a show of its own support in the West Bank, it does not permit elections at universities in the Gaza Strip, a reminder of their own control and repression (although Hamas blames Fatah for the lack of elections in Gaza). Recently, some members of Hamas’s leadership indicated they might hold elections at the Islamic University by the end of 2023, but it is unclear what the nature of these elections might be, if they take place at all.

No Alternative for Responsive Democracy

There is no doubt that student council elections at Palestinian universities serve as some sort of measure of Palestinian sentiment, even if they are not representative of all Palestinians. Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which has conducted Palestinian public opinion polls for decades, believes student elections “are the most significant indicator right now that we have available to us, in addition to [opinion] surveys. They are all about politics, and have little to do with student elections.” But ultimately, these elections only emphasize the real issues: seemingly unending political division between Palestinian factions, the lack of genuine representative democracy, and the stifling of Palestinian freedom and liberation by both Palestinian and Israeli actors.

Of course, the emphasis on student elections and what they mean about the back and forth of Palestinian politics supplants the role the Palestinian university used to take in society: a site for alternative imagining, resisting repression, organizing, and tackling the multifaceted challenges of liberation. Even in times of closure, the Palestinian desire for education and connection still continued; faculty would hold classes in homes or administrators would rent out hotels for the same purpose, and informal classes were even held in abandoned movie theaters and other public spaces. Students and faculty would sneak onto campus to take books from the library or to use lab equipment. Birzeit was even able to graduate some students while it was closed. Students played a large role in the First Intifada, and higher education around that period seemed more centered around serving as a tool for collective emancipation instead of merely helping individual social mobility.

Today, in the post-Oslo period, Palestinian universities have seemed to tilt more toward the latter than the former. Yet the persistent engagement of student groups on campuses shows that the appetite for engagement remains, including among the youth who have the greatest number of reasons to be disillusioned with establishment politics. Now, however, the restrictions of the occupation have tightened, Israeli violence increases every year, and Palestinian governing bodies seem more concerned with preserving their own power than advocating for the needs of their people. The Palestinian people are more fragmented, geographically and politically, than ever before. It remains to be seen whether the university can reclaim its role as a center of political and intellectual thought under such conditions.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: WAFA