Palestinians concerned about growing violence on campuses

There have been recurring violent incident on university campuses between rival Palestinian factions.

Bir Zeit University near Ramallah (photo credit: FLICKR)
Bir Zeit University near Ramallah
(photo credit: FLICKR)

The administration of Bir Zeit University near Ramallah has expressed deep concern over the recurrence of violent incidents on campus between students belonging to rival Palestinian factions.

The violence at Bir Zeit University, which describes itself as “the most prestigious Palestinian university,” is the latest in a series of incidents that hit other leading academic institutions in the West Bank in recent weeks.

Palestinian Authority security forces arrested several Bir Zeit University students on suspicion of involvement in the violence. A Palestinian academic described the tensions on campus as “dangerous and intolerable.”

“We can’t allow our academic institutions to turn into battlefields for settling scores between rival factions and gangs,” the academic told The Jerusalem Post. “We call on the Palestinian Authority to assume its responsibilities and take tough measures to enforce law and order.”

The latest tensions at Bir Zeit University began earlier this month when a fight erupted between students affiliated with Fatah and others belonging to Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

THE PALESTINIAN flag flies at a Palestinian Authority diplomatic post. (credit: REUTERS)THE PALESTINIAN flag flies at a Palestinian Authority diplomatic post. (credit: REUTERS)

The Fatah supporters on campus were reportedly outraged by a statement, signed by Hamas and PFLP students, condemning security coordination between the PA and Israel.

The statement also condemned the PA security forces for raiding and searching the nearby dormitories.

The PA is dominated by the Fatah faction headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

According to sources on campus, Fatah supporters beat up a number of students affiliated with Hamas and PFLP because of the statement.

Earlier, another fight erupted on campus, this time between rival Fatah factions. The sources said that some of the Fatah-affiliated students were carrying guns, but did not use them.

Tensions on campus escalated last week when Hamas and PFLP held separate paramilitary parades to celebrate the anniversary of each group.

Hamas recently marked the 34th anniversary of its founding, while the PFLP celebrated its 54th anniversary.

The tensions reached their peak when hundreds of students participated in the Hamas parade on campus. The university administration had banned all student activities in closed areas because of concerns related to coronavirus.

According to the university administration, masked Hamas supporters nevertheless forced their way into the Martyr Kamal Nasser Hall on campus and beat a number of university security guards.

The hall is named after Kamal Nasser, a Palestinian Christian poet, author and political activist from the Gaza Strip who grew up in the town of Bir Zeit.

“Violations were committed against the university guards by masked men, and unauthorized tools and equipment were brought into the hall, which was generally closed to any activities due to public health considerations,” the administration said. “Unfortunately, instead of respecting the regulations and instructions, a number of masked men who were wearing the banner of the [Hamas-affiliated] Islamic Bloc broke the windows and doors, and forcibly entered the hall and gathered inside.”

THE ADMINISTRATION stressed that it was determined to make all possible efforts to address the phenomenon of violence on campus “due to its devastating effects on the university’s progress and its ability to achieve its goals.”

The incident came hours after IDF soldiers raided the campus and searched the faculties of Graduate Studies; Science; and Pharmacy, Nursing and Health Professions. The soldiers are also reported to have removed a large Palestinian flag from the center of campus.

It was not clear whether the IDF raid was linked to the Hamas and PFLP celebrations.

After the violence at the Martyr Kamal Nasser Hall, the university administration announced that it had temporarily suspended one of the students involved in the incident.

“The manifestations of violence, which have increased in the recent period, contradict the spirit of the university, which is keen on providing the widest space for freedom of opinion and expression and mutual respect,” the administration emphasized.

But just when the tensions appeared to wind down, another crisis erupted after Bir Zeit University vice president Ghassan al-Khatib reportedly likened the incident at the Martyr Kamal Nasser Hall to the IDF raid on campus.

Khatib said in an interview with the Palestinian Al-Quds Network that the current tension between student blocs “has to do with issues that are not related to the university, but rather to political or behavioral and external differences.”

In response, five student blocs called on Khatib to apologize for his alleged remarks.

The blocs also demanded that the administration rescind punitive and disciplinary measures against a number of students.

On Monday, hundreds of students staged a sit-in strike in front of the university administration  building to express their rejection of a decision to limit the activities of student blocs on campus.

The protesters gave the administration until Tuesday evening to backtrack on its measures, saying they will close down the administration offices when the deadline expires.

Walid al-Awad, a senior official with the Palestinian People’s Party (formerly the Palestinian Communist Party), said the crisis at Birzeit University “requires urgent national action at the highest levels.”

The crisis, he added, calls for urgent action, especially since most of the leaders of the Palestinian factions and important national institutions have graduated from Bir Zeit University.

Three other Palestinian universities also witnessed violent incidents in recent weeks, prompting their administrations to close them down temporarily.

Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, near Jerusalem, was shut after masked gunmen threatened students and faculty members because of a dispute over a parking lot.

Days later, Hebron University was shut following clashes on campus between rival clans in the city.

More recently, a student was fatally stabbed during a brawl at Arab American University in Jenin, the first private Palestinian university. The victim was identified as Mahran Khaliliyeh, a nursing student from a village near Jenin. PA security forces arrested 10 Fatah-affiliated students on suspicion of involvement in the murder.