Palestine: The Underappreciated Student Left
By: Terry James
Published Saturday, May 26, 2012
Last month, students at universities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank cast their votes for student governments. Unlike their popularity-contest equivalents at universities throughout the world, Palestinian student elections have long been the subject of national attention. In particular, Birzeit University, located in the town of Birzeit outside Ramallah, is seen as a forerunner of developments within the broader Palestinian political scene. Despite another year of electoral marginality, the student Left at Birzeit is confident that it will overcome the trials that confront it.
The students of Birzeit University are no strangers to activism or politics - 2012 alone has seen a campaign of student strikes and occupations over the rising cost of tuition, solidarity hunger strikes with Khader Adnan and Hana Ash-Shalabi, and frequent demonstrations at the nearby Atara checkpoint, often met with violent force by the Israeli military. Since the 1970s, in the wake of the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the failure of armed revolution, student activism defined the West Bank university colloquially known as either the “Harvard of Palestine”, or “Martyr’s University.” It was in this setting that national leaders like Marwan Barghouti emerged.
However, many see the political role of Birzeit as largely diminished. Like many Palestinians - especially the middle class, which has emerged since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority - Birzeit students have largely been subdued by the multi-tiered system of privileges under occupation that has developed following the Oslo Accords. Blogger and former Birzeit student Linah Alsaafin describes the state of student activism:
“One of my main problems with my time at Birzeit University was the lack of any concrete student activism, overtaken instead by the simulated scenes and atmosphere of a US high school as shown in Hollywood movies... The glory days of Birzeit University were during the first intifada... Students were one of the important driving forces behind the mass protests and civil disobedience in Palestinian society.”
Class division on campus has become far more visible than the expectable divisions of political affiliation, area of study, or religion. The increasing cost of education - reflecting a trend replicated across Europe and the United States - and the use of English as the primary language in many classrooms threaten to force out students of poor or working class origin.
In the face of these circumstances stands a small, divided, but steadfast student Left. Two incidents involving the student party Qutub (which includes student members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine as well as some independent leftists) and both ending after action was taken by the Birzeit administration, illustrate the efforts of the Left to challenge the rising cost of university. In the first instance, Qutub challenged the high prices of textbooks, sold to students by the university, by making photocopies and selling them to students at the cost of production. After recognizing that students were choosing not to eat in the cafeteria because of the cost, Qutub set up a stand on campus offering sandwiches for one shekel (US$0.26) each.
When it came time for students at Birzeit to choose their student council, some expected the actions of Qutub to pay off in increased student support. When that proved not to be the case, it was easy to rely on the old mantra of politically pacified students. A more indepth analysis is due.
Nine lists participated in the April 2012 student elections at Birzeit. The lists corresponded either to national-level parties or ideologies, with one Islamist list, one Fatah list, one centrist list, and six leftist lists (associated with the PFLP, DFLP, PPP, PPSF, FIDA, and the Ba’ath). The division and redundancy of the Left was apparent to students.
Months before the elections, there was talk of the possibility of a broad coalition of the Left, possibly including the PFLP as well as the student blocs associated with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestine People’s Party (formerly the Communist Party). The period beginning in 1979 and ending after 1986, in which the Left was able to dominate the student council, was marked by an alliance of these three parties. After divisions had developed in the wake of Oslo, these parties came together again to form Qutub in 1995, though the DFLP and PPP left the coalition four years later.
When it came time to register lists of candidates, however, no coalition was announced. Instead, media attention was given to the decision by Hamas to participate as the Islamic Relief Bloc (IRB). There had been no Islamist participation in the previous two elections after Hamas candidates were arrested by the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.
Without a clear third choice, the elections developed into a two-way race between the incumbent Martyr Yasser Arafat Bloc (MYAB), representing the pro-business politics of Fatah, and the IRB, representing the religious Right. Qutub hoped to win enough seats to deny either of the stronger blocs a clear majority, making itself the kingmaker. The half dozen other leftist blocs had similar aspirations, though with far less reason to expect success.
The results were announced on April 4: 26 seats for the Martyr Yasser Arafat Bloc; 19 seats for the Islamic Relief Bloc, 5 seats for Qutub; and 1 seat for the Popular Struggle Front (a small “Left” faction funded heavily by Fatah). The MYAB, gained a complete majority in the 51 seat student council, allowing it to dictate without contestation from either leftists or Islamists.
Fatah also claimed victories at Bethlehem University (the historical stronghold of the Left), Al-Quds University in Abu Dis (where the DFLP is strongest), and at Al-Khalil University. An-Najah University, which holds elections in the fall semester, has also been led by Fatah since Hamas began boycotting elections several years ago.
The marginalization of the Left on Palestinian campuses is not a new phenomenon. Though there was a time when the Left, despite its internal divisions, could easily expect a majority in student councils, it now represents a small minority among students.
Lack of Unity
There is no golden age of unity for the Palestinian Left to reflect upon. Despite relying on similar political programs (and in the case of the Popular and Democratic Fronts in the late 1960s, a word-for-word identical program), leftist groups have witnessed far more splits than mergers. Campuses have, at times, been the exception to the rule.
Qutub emerged as a coalition of the leading Left student groups to challenge the growth of Islamist groups on campus and to take advantage of the division in Fatah after the initiation of the Oslo Accords. The united Left reached its peak in 1998, capturing ten seats. Since then, the coalition has given way to its separate, constituent parts, with the PFLP maintaining the Qutub name. In the place of unification between diverse tendencies, the PFLP has consolidated itself as the only viable Left group in Birzeit. The effect has been to limit the terrain for debate among leftists to the politics of the dominant party.
The call for unity between leftist students cannot ignore the actions of the various groups on the national level. For those most active in Qutub, the question of unity is not a simple matter of mutual apologies among the factions; the PPP and DFLP both give (qualified) support to the Palestinian Authority while the PFLP firmly opposes it. While the former two parties are assured a small amount of representation, the latter has suffered repression and arrests, like the supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank. It is hard to imagine a full reconciliation of the Left under the current configuration of the Palestinian Authority, but with student branches of the DFLP and the PPP critical of their national leaderships, students may be able to avoid division.
Still, the most unifying environment for leftist activists (and even for those supportive of Fatah or Hamas) is in the battlefield-like streets and fields of Nabi Saleh, Bil’in, and the fifteen other villages which hold weekly demonstrations against the Wall and settlement expansion. The often lethal “crowd control” measures of the Israeli military fail to differentiate between supporters of a one-state solution or two-staters. Students from Birzeit and other universities have played a major role in the demonstrations outside Ofer prison which have recently escalated to include hundreds since the initiation of a mass hunger strike in April. While some of the older village demonstrations have been marred by factional competition - Bil’in, for example, could often be mistaken for two colliding parades of DFLP and Fatah partisans - the rapid development of new spaces of protest forces collaboration between different tendencies.
Hamas and Fatah, though hardly willing to cooperate with each other, have created what is effectively a right-wing duopoly of power both on campuses and in the national political scene. While opposed to both the corruption of Fatah and to the religious conservatism of Hamas, voters choose the lesser evil, rather than supporting a bloc that they genuinely identify with.
One nursing student I spoke with identified himself as a supporter of the PFLP and Qutub but chose to vote for Hamas because they could compete with Fatah and because, despite their religiosity, they have been more effective as a student council in the past. The same student supports banning Islamist parties on the national level. Another student said she had hesitated between supporting Hamas or Qutub, but after hearing rumors of Hamas plans to gender segregate the cafeteria, ended up voting for Fatah. A third student, after I asked her why she supported Hamas, thought for a moment before scribbling across my notebook “I HATE FATAH!” Few students seemed inclined to speak positively about the party they were ostensibly supporting.
The Palestinian Left has often sought to overcome the duopoly by presenting itself as a willing partner in a ruling coalition. When the Left represented a large minority of students, this was a viable strategy, though at the expense of ideological clarity. Now, those leftist groups willing to collaborate with Fatah or Hamas have shrunk – partly because of their collaboration – ending the need for the larger groups to seek partners. Marginality itself is forcing the Left to seek new strategies.
The class-focused guerrilla-activism of Qutub earlier this year - distributing cheap food and books - may be a sign of what’s to come. Efforts to widen boycott initiatives of Israeli products in the West Bank, as well as the Friday demonstrations across the West Bank - where the red kefayas of the Left often outnumber the black and white of Fatah - are also bolstering the appeal of the Left. By focusing on grassroots organizing within those communities most affected by the occupation, the Left can work to reposition itself within the political scene. This does not necessarily mean seeking greater success in student elections.
Islamists at Birzeit, An-Najah University, and elsewhere have boycotted elections for practical reasons - avoiding the arrest of their candidates by the PA. However, the elections themselves, because of outside funding stretching into the tens of thousands of dollars, have reached a point where no bloc can compete with the two leading parties. When either of the two dominant blocs wins the student elections, they rarely live up to any of their campaign promises. The international Left has often had a complicated relationship with the institution of elections, especially when money plays an unregulated role in campaigns. It may be time for the Palestinian Left to reconsider its participation in student elections and to return to its roots in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism, Western imperialism and Israeli settler colonialism.