Hamas’ landslide student election win marks major shift in Palestinian politics

Palestinian student supporters of the Hamas movement wave the movement's flag during a rally at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2022. (Flash90)

Basil al-Adraa

+972 Magazine  /  May 31, 2022

The Islamist movement’s stunning victory in Birzeit University’s student union vote reflects growing discontent with the West Bank’s ruling Fatah party.

In the courtyard at Birzeit University, during the break between classes, a group of friends carrying laptop bags stood in a circle and laughed, while two students drank ice coffee on the stairs. At the literature department, a student with a red ponytail and headphones checked out the Arabic book sale. On the wall next to her was a sticker of a rifle with the caption “Give voice to the resistance.” At her feet, dozens of green balloons were sprawled across the ground — the remains from last week’s celebration, following the dramatic landslide victory of the Hamas-affiliated student group in the university’s student union elections.

The annual elections at Birzeit are widely regarded as a reflection of the broader political mood in the Palestinian street in the occupied West Bank. The university did not hold elections for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making this the first round since 2019. Out of around 12,500 students at the university, four out of five voted in the latest elections, held on May 18, with the voter turnout similar to the rounds in previous years.

Last week’s results, however, were unprecedented. More than half of the cast ballots, with 5,068 students, voted for Al-Kutla al-Wafa al-Islamiyya (“the Islamic Bloc”), the student group associated with the Hamas movement, versus only 3,379 who voted for the Martyr Yasser Arafat’s Bloc (also known as “Shabiba”), the Fatah-affiliated group.

Until this year, such a large gap between the two parties — a 10-seat margin out of 51 seats in the union — had never been reached. In 2019, the Islamic Bloc and Shabiba secured an equal number of seats; in 2018, the bloc won by a single seat; in 2017, it led with three. Out of all the elections since 2012, this year the Islamic Bloc won with the biggest gap ever.

The results clearly show that something has shifted in Palestinian politics over the past three years. But what exactly has changed? How did Hamas garner so much popular support? And what does it tell us about the political atmosphere in the West Bank today?

‘What is the difference between you and Israel?’

“We are paying the price for the actions of the Palestinian Authority,” said Rafat al-Sweiti, a member of the Fatah-tied Shabiba, to explain their election loss at Birzeit. He cited several sources of public discontent, including “the strike of teachers and doctors against the PA government [over reduced salaries and budgets], the killing of activist Nizar Banat, the PA detention operations against Hamas activists, and the PA persecution against Hamas flags.”

A number of Birzeit students who spoke to +972 affirmed this observation, saying that they had supported the Hamas-linked student group as a way to punish the PA, the body created by the Oslo Accords and which has been controlled by Fatah since. “I oppose [the PA’s] oppression,” al-Sweiti added, “but a student here does not differentiate between us as a Fatah group and the PA.”

A debate between the student groups was held in the university’s main hall ahead of the union elections in front of hundreds of students. The Islamic Bloc’s spokesperson Mu’tasim Zaloom, was widely seen as the winner.

During the debate, Zaloom told his opponent from Shabiba: “Who wrote your speech? An officer from the PA security service? Those who chase and arrest us?” He also praised the armed resistance against the Israeli occupation, including Fatah’s military wings. “In Jenin, they united all the Palestinian factions,” he said, referring to armed confrontations between Palestinian militias in the city and the Israeli army in recent weeks, after the latter began carrying out a series of incursions in April. Zaloom further slammed Fatah supporters, saying, “It is your PA that is chasing them,” to which the crowd applauded.

Zaloom then presented the students with two photos: one showed Israeli police assaulting mourners and pallbearers at the funeral of the murdered journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and the other showed Palestinian police beating women protesters at a demonstration against the killing of activist Nizar Banat in Ramallah. “What is the difference between you [and Israel]?” he asked the Fatah representatives.

Most of the students interviewed cited the killing of Banat, a prominent critic of the PA who was violently arrested by PA security forces and died in their custody in June last year, as a major reason for electing the Hamas-tied group.

Other students mentioned Hamas’ military actions against Israel last May, and lately in Jenin, as a reason for the party’s strengthening both on Birzeit’s campus and in the wider West Bank. The gap between Hamas and the PA is obvious, they said: while Israel prevents the PA from having any influence in Jerusalem, and President Mahmoud Abbas can do little more than helplessly condemn the occupation, Hamas is actively putting forward some form of political resistance.

According to the students, the Islamist group — which fired missiles at Israel in response to police aggressions in Jerusalem last year — is viewed by many in the West Bank as the winner of the Gaza war that ensued. At minimum, many see Hamas as having at least tried to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque from Israeli provocations, as well as defending the Palestinian residents of the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, who were being threatened with expulsion.

“Everything that happened recently, especially in Jenin and Jerusalem, made us understand that those who protect the people are Hamas. Therefore, the nation is gathering behind that party,” said one Birzeit student about why she voted for the Islamic Bloc in the elections. Another student said that the joint arrests carried out by the PA and the Israeli army also encouraged many students to vote for Hamas.

On the eve of the Birzeit election, the Israeli army stormed Ramallah and arrested seven student members of the Islamic Bloc. The young man who participated in the student debate, Mu’tasim Zaloom, was one of those arrested, and he was taken to Israel’s Ofer Prison, where he and the others remain. His family members, who were able to visit him, say that Zaloom was deliberately put into a cell shared by Fatah prisoners, who beat and injured him for his political affiliation.

A source from the Israel Prison Service who was familiar with the incident told +972 that during the procedures to bring the detainees into the prison, Zaloom was asked if he had any disagreements with other prisoners, and he said he didn’t. As such, the source said, he was temporarily put in a transitional section of the prison, where prisoners from Fatah and other factions were also being held. When Zaloom told the guards that he was attacked, he was transferred to a different cell, although no signs of injury were seen on his body, the source said.

‘The people are tired of the Palestinian Authority’

The election indicated that it is hard for much of the public to differentiate between Fatah as a political party, the PA as a pseudo-governmental institution, and President Abbas, whom polls show has plummeting popularity.

“We lost the public because of negotiations and collaborations with Israel. We were not able to end the occupation,” a senior Fatah official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained to +972 as the reason for the election results. “People want to do something to change the situation, and we have nothing to offer them.”

Shabiba, the Fatah group on campus, tried to clarify the differentiation between the party and the PA in the student election campaign but failed because Fatah’s connection with and dependence on the PA are seen as self-evident. When Shabiba’s student coordinator criticized the killing of Banat last year, he was dismissed from his post. I asked Al-Sweiti, the group’s representative, why the coordinator was fired and if the student society is separate from the PA as he claimed; he did not answer.

A series of protests by PA employees in the West Bank, including teachers and doctors, who have been receiving partial salaries for months, was raised as another reason for supporting Hamas at the elections. The PA’s financial situation is worse than ever following the freezing of funds from the European Union and the United States, and the deduction of tax revenues collected by Israel under the terms of the Oslo Accords, as a punitive measure over the PA providing salaries to Palestinian prisoners and their families.

The three student groups which represent Palestinian leftist parties received a low percentage of the votes. Five seats were won by the Progressive Democratic Student Pole, affiliated with the Palestinian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), while the groups associated with the People’s Party and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) did not pass the threshold. Like the Hamas group, these parties also focused on attacking the PA, its passivity, and its collaboration with the occupation.

“The elections in Birzeit are the only elections which are held in a democratic and transparent atmosphere, therefore they are trustworthy,” said Abed al-Hafiz Sharbati, an activist in the student group of the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP), which did not pass the electoral threshold. “They are thus reflective of the situation in the streets and the political leanings of the people.”

I asked Sharbati about his opinion of the students electing the Hamas student society, and he , too, connected it to the events of May 2021. According to him, “the students elected the way of resistance which Hamas represents, because Hamas succeeded to present itself as a force capable of acting in Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem, or fighting the occupation in Jenin. In this vote, there is also an aspect of protesting the PA as a response to its cooperation [with Israel].”

But, he added, “we in the party do not deny that Hamas oppresses the Palestinian people in Gaza. It looks like everyone is choosing out of the reality they live in: in the West Bank, the people are tired of the PA.”

In the debate at the university, Fatah student representatives criticized Hamas’ rule in Gaza, and reminded students that the movement prevents freedom of expression and elections at its universities and municipalities there. “It was hard for you to put a mask on your mouths during the pandemic, but you’ve shut the mouths of Gaza residents for 15 years now,” he said, referring to Hamas.

Amir Harajnah, a student and activist with the DFLP, told me that he is disappointed that the Palestinian public is predominantly focusing on Fatah and Hamas only, ignoring the other parties on the scene. “The results surprised me,” he said. “I expected that we would receive at least two seats and that the People’s Party would receive one seat. But nothing. The majority of the Palestinian street still chooses between Fatah and Hamas.”

Major Fatah losses

Israel officially considers the student groups of Hamas, Fatah, and the PFLP as illegal. In recent years, many students were arrested for their activism in Hamas and PFLP groups, even when the activities were civilian in nature, like participating in a book sale or hanging flags inside the university. The PA has been accused of working together with the Israeli army to arrest these activists.

Despite the collaboration with Israel — or perhaps because of it — Abbas’ Fatah party not only lost in Birzeit this year, but in other institutions too. Indeed, Fatah suffered notable losses in the municipal elections in Al-Bireh and Hebron/Al-Khalil (two prominent localities), in the Palestinian lawyers’ and engineers’ unions, and for the first time, at the University of Bethlehem, where the PFLP won 17 seats and Fatah won 14 (the other student groups did not run in the university’s elections).

Altogether, there appears to be little doubt among Palestinian students that the events of last year, from the May uprising to the killing of Banat, profoundly affected public opinion and greatly strengthened Hamas. The election in Birzeit is a testament of that change, showing how many Palestinians today see Hamas as offering a more successful path to defending Palestinian rights compared to Fatah.

Basil al-Adraa is an activist, journalist, and photographer from the village of a-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills