The conflict between the two major Palestinian political groups—Fatah and Hamas—has turned students against each other at Birzeit University.
Whereas Hamas militants hold sway in the Gaza Strip, more moderate Fatah officials who control the Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank. The two sides have long been at loggerheads over who should lead Palestine and what stance they should adopt toward Israel.
Students who belong to the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Wafaa’ Bloc student group suffer harassment and worse at the hands of Fatah agents in Birzeit, according to interviews with numerous students at the school, near Ramallah.
“I have been arrested four times,” said Mohammad Arori, a computer science student at Birzeit. “In the last arrest, I was transferred to the hospital after being tortured. The officers kicked and punished me cruelly. I fell unconscious, only to wake up in the hospital.”
In recent months, the Palestinian Authority’s security service detained at least four students and apprehended and interrogated at least 25 more at Birzeit University for either their affiliation with Hamas or criticism of the authority, according to Human Rights Watch.
The repression grew worse after elections in April in which the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Wafaa’ Bloc won 26 out of 51 seats on the Birzeit University student council versus the Fatah-affiliated Martyr Yasser Arafat Bloc, which won 19 seats.
“It is deeply worrying that students are being held by Palestinian forces for no apparent reason other than their connection to Hamas or their opinions,” said Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Director Sarah Leah Whitson in a statement at the time. “Palestinians should be able to express critical political opinions without being arrested or beaten.”
With around 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students, Birzeit University has long been considered a powerful center of Fatah’s popularity. The victory of the Islamic bloc was a surprise.
In the wake of the elections, students alleged that Fatah has employed students to spy on Hamas sympathizers at Birzeit University, said Arori. “The Palestinian Authority pays students to provide them with information about the students who belong to the Islamic Bloc,” he said.
Indignant students targeted by the surveillance complained that the harassment is hampering their education.
Jihad Salim, an architectural engineering student, said Palestinian Authority agents arrested him 11 times on various trumped-up allegations that stem from his working for the Islamic Bloc.
“I should have graduated a year ago,” Salim said, adding that at one point he went on a hunger strike to protest against the situation. “The authority intelligence service arrested me mostly during examination periods. Security services inspected my dorm for several times and confiscated my stuff, including my laptop. It’s still confiscated. One day they attacked my dorm in the afternoon. They turned everything upside down and searched everything.”
An officer of the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence service who asked to remain anonymous denied that the authority hired students to watch each other or was unfairly targeting students.
“We only arrest people who try to create chaos or threaten the stability of the West Bank, whether he belongs to the Islamic bloc or not,” he said. “The intelligence service watches every Palestinian. That’s part of its job. But they have never arrested any students because of their work with the Islamic Bloc. We believe in democracy and pluralism.”
Arori said the intelligence officer was talking out of both sides of his mouth. When they arrest students, Palestinian Authority interrogators ask questions about Hamas and the Islamic Bloc. In public, however, they don’t mention politics.
“In court, the accusations turned to be about something different—such as stirring up sectarian prejudices,”Arori added.
Ali Barakeh, 20, the spokesperson for Fatah’s student wing at Birzeit, said the student group, the Fatah-affiliated Martyr Yasser Arafat bloc, is separate from the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless, he defended himself and his fellow students who inform on their peers to Authority officials.
“I usually attend the activities of the Islamic Bloc on campus, some other Shebebah students do too,” Barakeh said. “If the Palestinian Authority hires students to work with them, its main goal is to maintain the stability and the safety of the country. They try to collect information about Hamas’s work, supporters and the financial resources of Hamas in the West Bank.”
The university vice president for advancement, Ghassan Al-Khatib said the Palestine Authority never told the university that its operatives might be on campus, and the administration did not countenance students spying on students.
“The administration does not know about this in an official way,” said Al-Khatib, who also teaches cultural studies.“It is not legal from the administration’s view to have students of the university who are employed by the Palestinian Authority at the same time.”
He encouraged students to go through a formal grievance process if they felt like they were being harassed.
“If any student, staff member or faculty member files a formal complaint against a specific student or staff, the disciplinary committee will look at it in accordance with university regulations,” he said.
But students had little confidence in those procedures. Administrators can’t or won’t do anything, they said.
“We always inform the university if any students get arrested,” said Osaid El-Banna, a fourth-year political science student who said authority agents have arrested him five times. “We’ve protested several times on campus against having Palestinian Authority agents in the university.”