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Palestinian students no longer a vanguard in anti-Israel protests

Journalism student and Fatah movement activist Zeina Abu Hussein organized yellow flags for a demonstration at an Israeli checkpoint. Although some Birzeit University students are trying to fan the flames of Palestinian unrest, the university is no longer a hotbed of activism.
Journalism student and Fatah movement activist Zeina Abu Hussein organized yellow flags for a demonstration at an Israeli checkpoint. Although some Birzeit University students are trying to fan the flames of Palestinian unrest, the university is no longer a hotbed of activism. McClatchy

Palestinian activist Zeina Abu Hussein spent 10 days getting injections and taking medicine to speed the healing of rubber bullet wounds to her legs so she could persuade her father to let her attend a protest at nearby Beit El junction Tuesday. But when the protest day arrived, Abu Hussein was hunkered down in the library at Birzeit University, cramming for a midterm on Palestinian history.

“It’s not a surprise test, but because I didn’t go to classes last week because of the protests, I didn’t know,” she said. The exam was at 2 p.m. “Maybe if there are still clashes I will go” afterward, she said.

Birzeit University was once a hotbed of political activity and the site of dramatic clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian students. But today, passionate student activists have only a small following and little direction from leading Palestinian politicians. That raises questions about whether the recent wave of attacks on Israelis will be fanned into a full-blown revolt against Israeli military rule.

Since the beginning of the month, Palestinians have killed nine Israelis in stabbing and shooting attacks; Israelis have killed at least 45 Palestinians, including at least 18 suspected assailants.

We’d like to defend our homeland and join the activities, but the teachers are giving homework and tests, and we have to stay home and study.

Bara, law student

Palestinians say they are motivated by Israeli attempts to expand Jewish control over the Al Aqsa mosque grounds, a charge Israel denies. In response to Palestinian attacks, Israel has cracked down, using live fire at West Bank demonstrations, blocking three east Jerusalem neighborhoods with checkpoints, and demolishing the homes of terrorism suspects.

“The sense of the violence and incitement is much higher this year,” said Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner. “But I would say that it doesn’t look as organized as it did in the second Intifada,” a reference to Palestinian violence that wracked Israel, the West Bank and Gaza from 2000 to 2005 after Ariel Sharon, who was the leader of the Likud party, visited the Temple Mount, the name Jews use for the location of Al Aqsa.

Radi Jerai, an alumnus of Birzeit University who served in Israeli jails for his activism in the late 1980s, remembered that the campus buzzed with activity.

“We had political discussions, symposiums, all kinds of different activities,” he said. He visited Birzeit recently to hear a student defend his thesis. “I didn’t feel that the students have political discussions. It’s a small number.”

Today Jerai lectures in political science at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, a campus he said is more active than Birzeit. Al Quds law student Muhannad Halabi, 19, fatally stabbed two Orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem’s Old City in early October. However, Jerai noted that even in Halabi’s case, “it is more individual reactions rather than an organized intifada.”

Palestinian media reported Israeli troops suppressed a demonstration Monday at Tulkarm’s Palestine Technical University; the Israeli army did not respond to requests for confirmation.

At Birzeit on Monday, Abu Hussein counted tattered yellow flags of Fatah, the dominant party in the West Bank, in a closet in preparation for the next day’s protest. She said many more women were present at Beit El demonstrations this year than in the past, mostly collecting stones for their male friends to hurl at soldiers. Yet beyond the near-daily clashes at Beit El, she did not know of a further vision.

“There is no plan,” she said. “It’s just students thinking we wanted to go there because of the martyrs and the people who were killed. The political parties outside the university don’t want to do anything, so we will do it ourselves.”

The university’s Facebook page reflects the balance of academia and activism. Posts advertise a film festival, an engineering lecture and breast cancer awareness alongside notices of arrested students and a tribute to Omar Faqih, a Birzeit alumnus who died Saturday after he allegedly stabbed a border police officer in Hebron in the West Bank.

Deputy dean of student affairs Fadel Eikhaldee said that of 11,000 students, perhaps 300 attended protests regularly and 14 had been arrested since October. He said the university had made limited contingency plans for a more sustained uprising, like arranging alternate housing for commuters who might get stopped at checkpoints.

Eikhaldee said Birzeit had outlawed weapons on campus but stopped short of condemning armed attacks on Israelis.

“The university does not intervene with the politics of factions,” he said.

Next door to the Fatah closet at Birzeit was the Hamas room, piled with green flags and a red drumset but empty of activists.

Mohammed Aruri, a computer science major and a Hamas representative on the student council, recalled Birzeit’s old days. He said he was in his sixth year because serving in jail had interrupted his studies.

“This university has produced the engineer Yehiya Ayyash and Bilal Barghouti,” he said, referring to the chief Hamas bomb maker in the 1990s and a senior Hamas operative. “They performed distinguished acts against the occupation.”

In the current escalation, Aruri said he noticed the Hamas movement was staying quiet.

“The boys and girls of Hamas cannot come out in the open and demonstrate or make operations or lead, because they will get arrested by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel,” he said.

Jerai attributed the reduced role of Palestinian students in part to the distance of Israeli forces. In the first intifada, which began in 1987, Israeli troops directly patrolled Palestinian cities and erected checkpoints at the entrances to Birzeit. Under the Oslo Accords of 1995, which set Israel and Palestinian leaders on a peace process, Palestinian security forces enforce the peace inside Palestinian cities.

“The clash between the people and the Israeli troops then was face to face,” Jerai said. “Now those who want to do anything against Israelis have to go outside the cities.”

Without any clear directives from the top, students said they are organizing on the grassroots level. On Monday Abu Hussein said six buses would transport students to the Beit El checkpoint the following day; in reality, only two buses were needed because attendance was low.

Deputy dean Eikhaldee said the university was relaxing some attendance rules for students, but law student Bara, 20, said she could not skip class for a protest.

“We’d like to defend our homeland and join the activities, but the teachers are giving homework and tests, and we have to stay home and study,” said Bara, who declined to give her last name. “If you miss four classes you will be expelled.”  

 Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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