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January 15, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1497

Students Vs Administration: Crisis At Birzeit University In Palestinian Authority Following Ban On Military-Style Activity On Campus

January 15, 2020 | By Z. Harel
Palestine | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1497

Introduction

Students at Birzeit University near Ramallah in the Palestinian Authority (PA), have been on strike for a month following a crisis with the university administration. Among the causes of the crisis was a decision by the university to ban military-style activities and displays on campus. The decision was issued ahead of the anniversaries of the founding of several Palestinian movements: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP) on December 11, the Hamas movement on December 14, and Fatah on January 1. In the past, student organizations have marked these anniversaries with rallies which included marches by masked and uniformed activists, and at which military messages were conveyed and support for armed struggle against Israel was expressed.[1] A notice issued by the university stated that such events "violated [its] by-laws and rules" and that their organizers would be punished.

The decision to ban these events may have been due to pressure on the university, inter alia in response to a video circulated a few days previously by the IDF Spokesman's Office in Arabic, which stated that several members of the Hamas student bloc at Birzeit had been arrested on charges of terrorism and that the university allowed this organization to operate freely on campus and to incite to terrorism there.[2] 

Choosing to disregard the university's ban, students organized on-campus marches of masked and uniformed activists to mark the anniversaries of the PFLP and Hamas. The university administration responded by dispersing the rallies and evacuating the campus. It is this incident, along with other financial and academic issues, that led to the students' strike.

 The student blocs claimed that the rallies, which had become a campus tradition, were symbolic rather than military in character and refused to stop holding them. They noted that dozens of Birzeit students became prisoners and martyrs who left their mark on the history of Palestinian resistance, and that the university should continue to provide a political platform in praise of the Palestinian struggle.  The university authorities replied that, although Birzeit respects all forms of resistance, the ban on military activity on campus has existed for years because such activity has no place at an educational institution.

On January 9, 2020, PA Minister of Higher Education Mahmoud Abu Mouis announced that the crisis at the university had been resolved following a dialogue between the sides mediated by his ministry.[3] The student union listed the achievements of the strike on its Facebook page, without mentioning the ban on military-style activities which had been one of the reasons for the crisis.[4]

Articles in the PA press supported the university's ban. The writers stressed that the role of universities is to expand the students' minds and not to serve as a platform for semi-military rallies, and that whoever wants to flaunt his military prowess was free to do so in the arenas of the conflict with Israel.

 This report reviews the crisis at Birzeit University and the reactions to it.

Birzeit Prohibits Military-Style Activity On Campus, Disperses PFLP, Hamas Rallies

As stated, ahead of the anniversaries of the PFLP, Hamas, and Fatah, which Birzeit student blocs have traditionally marked with military-style rallies on campus, the university issued a notice stating that "displays of militarism," "contravened its by-laws and rules" and that "the university administration will not hesitate to take whatever measures it deems appropriate against the offenders."[5] Several days previously, the university summoned the student blocs and presented them with a charter of honor which included a ban on all displays of militarism, including the wearing of face masks and uniforms and the carrying of signs bearing slogans related to Palestinian resistance. According to reports, the student blocs unanimously refused to sign the charter.[6] It should be noted that ahead of the student union elections in April 2019, the student bloc leaders had signed an agreement stating that they would refrain, inter alia, from incorporating military aspects in their election campaigns.[7]

Despite the university's warnings, the PFLP student bloc marked the movement's anniversary with an on-campus march, in which masked students in military uniforms and vests carried PFLP flags, while some of them gave straight-armed salutes. The event was also attended by activists from other movements and student blocs, and flags of other organizations, including Hamas and Fatah, as well as portraits of their leaders, were in evidence.[8]  The university responded by evacuating the campus due to "the violation of the university's by-laws and rules and the decision of its authorities." It added that there had been some violent incidents and vandalism at the rally, damaging property and endangering students and university employees.[9]


Photos from PFLP student rally (Source: Facebook.com/372675913525991, December 11-12, 2019)

Several days later, on December 16, the Hamas student bloc held an event on campus marking the anniversary of the movement's founding. This demonstration included a similar march of masked and uniformed activists carrying Hamas flags, pictures of senior Hamas officials, and flags of other Palestinian factions. During the event, the spokesman of the Hamas student bloc praised the movement's resistance from the Intifada of the Stones (the First Intifada, launched in 1987)to "today [when Hamas] manufactures rockets and drones."[10] This time too, towards the demonstration's conclusion, the university administration ordered the campus evacuated due to what it called "disrespect for the decision to freeze student activity and to protect the wellbeing of the students and the university."[11]


Photos from the Hamas students' demonstration (Source: Alkotla.ps, December 17, 2019)

Protesting Students Paralyze University Activity: The University Whose Alumna Include Yahyah Ayyash And Marwan Al-Barghouti "Must Be A Source Of Intifadas"

The various student blocs at Birzeit protested against the university ban on military-style activity and on the dispersion of the demonstrations, and made it clear that they had no intention of stopping it. They also accused the university of surrendering to Israeli pressure.

Hamas student bloc coordinator Abd Al-Rahman Alawi said: "Birzeit University, whose alumni include the martyred 'engineer' Yahyah Ayyash,[12] the imprisoned Marwan Al-Barghouti,[13] and dozens of martyrs and prisoners who left their clear fingerprint on the history of the Palestinian resistance, must be a source of intifadas, and must serve as a political platform, as it does now. But the administration is attempting to use the displays of militarism as a pretext... to marginalize the national role of the Birzeit students... We will continue our revolutionary activity, which may include displays of militarism, as the administration calls them, and we will [hold] events to present the university's history and to remind the students of its revolutionary role throughout the years of the Palestinian struggle."[14]

A post on the PFLP student bloc's Facebook page stated: "We of the student bloc condemn Birzeit University's surrender to the occupation's rumors and its falling into line with it, that prompted the administration to ban activity on campus marking the anniversary of the founding of the PFLP. However, the student union, which constitutes a single united [bloc], has proven that it is the only one that accepts this decision; no one else does. We have successfully held activities despite the university [administration's] oppressive decisions..."[15]

PLFP student bloc member Wissam 'Aweidat said: "The activity held by the blocs is symbolic, not military in the full sense of the word. This is the legacy of the student activity at the university... It is acceptable at the university to allow events that symbolize the activity of the struggle. The student blocs are not bringing in weapons; they are merely holding marches and activities in symbolic garb."[16]

Furthermore, following the dispersion of the two demonstrations, the student union boycotted classes, padlocked the gates of the university, and launched an open-ended sit-in on campus. At a December 16 press conference held by the student union's committee for dealing with the crisis, union chairman and Fatah student bloc chairman Qassam Matour said that the crisis was the result of the university administration's unilateral decision aimed at harming student rights, limiting the student union's role, forcing its policy upon the latter, and freezing all subsequent student union activity. Calling on the administration to clarify what exactly it meant by "displays of militarization," Matour also presented a list of financial and academic demands. PFLP student bloc coordinator Bassel Al-Barghouti underlined: "What the university calls 'displays of militarism' is one of the student blocs' rights, and part of their history. It is the actualization of the adherence of the student blocs, in their [various] frameworks, to displays of the resistance and the armed struggle. There is no backing down from this... As far as the [student] union is concerned, this is not negotiable."[17]

The locked gates of Birzeit University. (Source: Ultrapa.ultrasawt.com, December 25, 2019)

University Administration: "These Activities Have No Place At Educational Institutions"; The Decision Was Intended To Prevent Harm To The University And Its Funding

For its part, the university administration condemned the students' padlocking of the university gates, and defended its decision to ban displays of militarism. For example, Mahdi 'Arar, the dean of the advanced degrees faculty, said: "Years ago, the student blocs signed a charter of honor [under which they] refrained from all types of militarism at the university." He added that any student bloc that wanted to mark an event or hold an activity could express its views in many ways that did not involve people wearing uniforms or masking their faces, and that not everything that was appropriate off campus was appropriate on university grounds.[18]

Several university officials and employees acknowledged that the administration's decision was the result of pressure, from Israel and from international donors – the latter seeking to stop the militarism on campus because it could harm the university's image and eventually lead to a cessation of funding.  Khaled Salim, a university staff member, posted the following on the university Facebook page: "...The [university's] decision to prevent 'militarization' is a last resort, in light of the systematic incitement campaign [against the university] by the occupation's institutions. The ramifications of this could exceed a boycott of the university [by foreigners]... or [a lowering of] its ranking, according to some. They could even result in the university's closure and its hobbling on all levels. It is important for the student union to realize that it is in the same boat as the faculty and the administration, and that there is no discrepancy [between them] when it comes of the lofty goal. The decision to prevent militarism is about a decade old, but this time the waves [of reaction to it] are greater, and Birzeit is facing a difficult choice between ignoring [the incitement against Birzeit] and attempting to enforce the decision in order to save the boat..."[19]  

University employee union secretary Sameh Abu 'Awwad explained, in a similar vein: "The university is subject to pressure from the occupation... and from donors who are yielding to its dictates," alluding to the abovementioned video circulated by the Israeli army. He added that, in recent years, some countries had already stopped funding the university, and others were threatening to do so. Expressing his support for the student union's patriotism, he also underlined his reservations regarding "some of the displays [of militarism] that might not serve the Palestinian issue among the friends of the university in the world – for example, models of weapons or missiles." [20]

University vice president for development and communications Ghassan Al-Khatib said: "The university administration makes efforts to preserve Birzeit's image without shows of militarism... that can divert the focus of the university and the students from [Birzeit's] essential aspects." Noting that "in the past there has been activity simulating military displays with items resembling weapons, even to the point of building models of missiles and of a tank that was then blown up," he added that "we honor all types of resistance, but these activities have no place at educational institutions. There is always an option to engage in resistance that is based in cultural activity." Rejecting the connection between the university decision and the Israeli army video, he also expressed apprehension that "the occupation will leverage these displays [of militarism] in order to harm the university's status, arguing that it is focusing on matters that are not in its jurisdiction." This, he added, is not in Birzeit's interest.[21]

Articles In PA Daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida Side With University

The official PA daily published several articles supporting the university's decision to ban displays of militarism on campus and stating that the university was not the place for muscle-flexing or militarism.

Fatah Member: It Is Possible To Honor The Palestinian Revolution Without Endangering The University

Fatah Revolutionary Council member Muwaffaq Matar argued in his column in the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida that the function of universities is to enrich the cultural world of the students, not to serve as venues for military displays. He wrote: "No reasonable and intelligent patriot would agree to let the university campuses become venues for semi-military displays, even if these [displays] involve no weapons or specific symbols indicating [their military character]. The place for rallies of the various factions, providing they have received a legal permit, is public squares, whereas university campuses should be [dedicated to] enriching the students' cultural [lives] and strengthening the bond between them through programs and activities directly connected to the study material... The order of the hour is to support university administrations which try to restrain the activities [on campus] so as to keep them on the right track that is appropriate for an academic institution...

"Our universities are not the headquarters of any party or political circle, nor are they clubs or ideological institutions... Our young students are entitled to [honor] the revolution, its leaders and the Palestinian liberation movement [on campus]... More importantly, they can hold national events, for the Palestinian universities have produced and continue to produce national leaders representing every political school and ideology. But this must be done in the appropriate manner that preserves the university's [character] as a place of learning that is sacred to everyone, like the homeland [itself]. It is crucial to avoid causing or courting danger , and to avoid giving the imperialist occupiers an excuse [to do harm, for they]  are eager to bury our minds alive and to poison them, and to destroy our education facilities, besiege them or push them to the bottom of the ranking of the world's universities... We do not fear the threats of the Israeli occupation or its incitement against our universities, but our students are too wise to give it an excuse to carry out its plots, whose goals and objectives are long familiar to us. If the intention is to defy [Israel], our patriotic students, regardless of their political affiliation, have endless space [to do so] in the arenas of direct conflict with the settlement-building imperialist occupation, as part of the non-violent popular resistance..."[22]    

Al-Hayat Al-Jadida Columnist: Whoever Wants To Display Military Might Can Do So In The Arenas Of Confrontation

Al-Hayat Al-Jadida columnist 'Omar Hilmi Al-Ghoul likewise defended the university's decision and accused the student blocs of taking the law into their own hands. The university, he said, is no place for military displays or shows of force by various factions, or for confrontations with Israel, but must retain its status as a temple of learning. He wrote: "University campuses across the world possess special sanctity emanating from their status as academic [institutions]. The university represents democracy, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of assembly and the liberty to demonstrate and strike. It is a space for holding workshops, conferences, rallies and the like, but [only those that] comply with the university's laws and regulations, which set out the criteria and principles for any activity so that it does not contravene the university's academic status... True, the university is [also] a platform for patriotism and democracy and for  promoting the Arab Palestinian culture, but it is not a place for heroics, military rallies or shows of force by any faction, party or movement – for such activities undermine [its role] as a temple of science...

"The incident that took place three weeks ago, when one of the democratic student unions locked the university gates on a whim and without prior warning, based on a  policy of taking the law into its own hands, violated the university's rules and norms... Anyone who wants to display his military might or heroism is free to do so – for the fronts and arenas of conflict with the Israeli enemy are wide and open – but not in the university, which must remain a beacon of knowledge..." [23]     

 

*Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] For example, on the 2018 anniversary of Fatah's founding, students belonging to the movement's youth organization held a march at which some participants wore uniforms while others were masked and wore shrouds and dummy explosive belts. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7267, 'Fatah Day' At Bir Zeit University: Fatah Youth Activists Wear Dummy Explosive Belts, Threaten Israel With 'Volcano Of Fire' January 5, 2018.

[2] Facebook.com/IDFarabicAvichayAdraee, December 4, 2019.

[3] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), January 10, 2020.

[4] Facebook.com/majlis.bzu, January 9, 2020.

[5] Facebook.com/BirzeitUniversity, December 10, 2019.

[6] Alquds.net, alaraby.co.uk, December 11, 2019.

[7] Facebook.com/BirzeitUniversity, April 10, 2019.

[8] Facebook.com/372675913525991, December 11, 12, 2019. Before the rally, some students reported that the university had tried to prevent them from bringing in signs and uniforms for the event, which resulted in clashes between students and the university security personnel. Quds.net, December 11, 2019.

[9] Facebook.com/BirzeitUniversity, December 11, 2019.

[10] Alkotla.ps, December 17, 2019.

[11] Facebook.com/BirzeitUniversity, December 16, 2019; Qudsn.net, December 16, 2019.

[12] Yahyah Ayyash was one of the founders of Hamas's military wing, the 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, who promoted the use of suicide bombings. He was assassinated by Israel in 1996.

[13] A senior official in Fatah in the West Bank, Marwan Al-Barghouti was in charge of the activity of the Tanzim and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the West Bank and has been imprisoned in Israel for five life sentences for planning attacks during the Second Intifada that killed many Israelis.

[14] Arabi21.com, December 14, 2019.

[15] Facebook.com/372675913525991, December 11, 2019.

[16] Alaraby.co.uk, December 11, 2019.

[17] Alaraby.co.uk, December 16, 2019; Alhadath.ps, December 18, 2019.

[18] Alaraby.co.uk, December 11, 2019.

[19] Facebook.com/BirzeitUniversity, December 11, 2019.

[20] Alaraby.co.uk, December 16, 2019; Alhadath.ps, December 18, 2019.

[21] Arabi21.com, December 14, 2019; Alarby.co.uk, December 16, 2019.

[22] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 19, 2019.

[23] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), January 4, 2020.

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