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Birzeit: How Palestinian students became the next generation of resistance

The West Bank university has survived closures, arrests and Israeli military orders during its four decades
University students throw stones at Israeli soldiers at the Atara checkpoint in November 2012 (AFP)

RAMALLAH, Occupied West Bank - It sits atop a hill north of Ramallah, its white buildings and pine trees catching the spring-time light. Students sit on benches, their chatter ringing out between the libraries and observatory.

For much of the time, life at Birzeit University is like many educational institutes in the Middle East, as the near-14,000 students walk between classes or mill about talking.

But during the past four decades, one of Palestine's most prominent seats of learning has become a focus for resistance for many living in the West Bank.

Its stature has not gone unnoticed by the Israeli authorities. In March, a unit of five Israeli secret operatives disguised as TV journalists and Palestinian students entered Birzeit to abduct Omar Kiswani, the head of the university's student council.

Kiswani was asked by one of the Mistaravim - as the undercover operatives are known - to be interviewed, on camera, in front of the campus's council building.

But then, according to witnesses, he was pinned to the ground by his assailants, who produced firearms from their backpacks, aimed their weapons at students to keep them at bay and fired into the air. Two students and a university employee were wounded in the incident, according to university staff who spoke to Middle East Eye.

Waleed Sayej, a Birzeit security guard, told the media that once the Mistaravim had detained Kiswani, Israeli soldiers entered the campus from its western gate to support the operation.

This is not the first violent intrusion by Israeli army forces, who systematically invade the university's campus

- Birzeit University

"They locked the guards in the reception room," he said. "We could not interfere to defend the students." Social media posts of the incident soon went viral.

In a statement, the university said: "This is not the first violent intrusion by Israeli army forces, who systematically invade the university's campus – even though it is specifically protected under international humanitarian law –  and constantly harass students, faculty members, and staff at Birzeit University and other Palestinian educational institutions."

An Israeli army spokesperson told the Times of Israel that Kiswani was arrested because of "suspected involvement in terror activity".

'A message from them to put fear in our hearts'

The arrest of Kiswani, while alarming for those on campus, was not unusual for Birzeit, the second-largest university in the West Bank and a centre of Palestinian cultural, political and academic life.

Sundus Hammad is a coordinator at the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit, a movement launched in 1988 to raise awareness of how the Israeli occupation has barred access to education for Palestinians.

The campus at Birzeit University overlooks the surrounding region (BU)
She said it was the fifth Israeli army raid on Birzeit campus in two years and that while Israeli forces' raids were a regular occurence, the one on 7 March differed in that it happened during school hours while students were present.

"It was an abduction, the way they entered the university, infiltrated undercover soldiers to abduct Omar like this," she said. "It was a message from them to put fear in our hearts. We were really shocked by this barbarian way to raid our campus."

Kiswani is now being held in the Russian Compound interrogation centre in west Jerusalem, infamous for its harsh incarceration conditions, Hammad says.

The student leader has gone on hunger strike for two weeks in protest at his prison conditions, which include being interrogated for up to 18 hours a day.

Kiswani's activism and political focus are not atypical of the Birzeit students who came before him.

Yahya Ayyash during his study at Birzeit (screengrab)
Alumni include the Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh, who studied and then taught at the university. Her novels depict life under Israeli occupation, mainly in Nablus, where she grew up.

Yahya Abd-al-Latif Ayyash, an electrical engineering student, graduated from Birzeit in 1991, then became the chief bombmaker for Hamas and the leader of the West Bank battalion of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. 

He was assassinated by Mossad in 1996 with an explosive-laden phone in the Gaza town of Beit Lahia.

Marwan Al-Barghouti, another alumni, is regarded as one of the leaders of the Second Intifada during the early 2000s. He graduated in history and political science, and led Birzeit's student council from 1983 to 1986, when he represented Al-Shabiba, the student branch of Fatah.

Accused of killing an Israeli, Barghouti was jailed by the Israeli army in 2002 and is now one of the most prominent Palestinian political figures in detention.

Majed Abdulfattah served as acting president of the university's student union during the First Intifada, which began in December 1987.

"I had heard of Birzeit because academically it was the strongest, and it was known as a national university, where you will put your nationalism in practice there," he said.

"It's a real education. It's not only a curriculum, it's also a life education. When I joined Birzeit, I felt that every day."

The university on top of a hill

Birzeit, like the rest of Palestinian society during the past 70 years, has always been shaped by politics.

Its name is derived from the village in which it was built, itself known as the "well of olive oil" during the Roman occupation two millennia ago. Olive trees, which are the university's emblem, are still a common feature across campus and the surrounding hills.

Palestinian students work on a small electronic car controlled by a glove they developed at Birzeit (Reuters)
Birzeit opened as a school in 1924, became a college in 1960 and then a university in 1975 when the Nassers, a Palestinian family of intellectuals and national figures, donated some of their family land.

One of the campus buildings bears the name of Kamal Nasser, a poet, writer and political leader. He attended the then-school during the 1930s and '40s, was exiled from the West Bank by Israel in 1967, became a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization and was assassinated by Israeli forces in Beirut in 1973.

In November 1974, as the institution was transforming from a college into a university, Israeli authorities deported Hanna Nasser, its president, and four other Palestinians to Lebanon, saying that they posed a threat to Israeli security.

Nasser retained his position and moved to Amman, where he worked to obtain accreditation and financial support for Birzeit. At home, the university's board of trustees dealt with near-daily military orders and confrontations.

We were at an age when we thought about building our future, and we thought we were the key to building the future of the country

- Majed Abdulfattah, Birzeit alumni

The university was closed 15 times by the Israeli army between 1973 and 1992. The longest of these followed the start of the First Intifada, when students at Birzeit and elsewhere staged mass demonstrations.

On 10 January 1988, the Israeli army shut Birzeit's campus and barred anyone from entering, as part of a broader set of curfews and closures. The shutdown lasted for 51 months and was the longest imposed on any Palestinian university.

Students, teachers and management set up a system they called the "cell of illegal education," holding classes at home, in dormitories and even at the closed gates of the university. Science students, for example, turned their kitchens into laboratories.

Abdulfattah recalled how one day classes might be at the board of trustees' office in Ramallah, the next at a teacher's home. "Some classes were held in other cities like Nablus or Gaza," he said.

"There were some 2,500 students when the university was closed. At first, classes were held just for students who were close to graduating, but by 1990 almost all students who were enrolled before the First Intifada started were taking at least one class."

Classes taking place outside the university gates during the First Intifada (BU)
The university reopened on 29 April 1992 and held a graduation ceremony for 700 students later that year.

"The most beautiful feeling we've ever had was at that time," said Abdulfattah. "We were 22, [which] at that age is normally a revolutionary age. We were at an age when we thought about building our future, and we thought we were the key to building the future of the country." 

Why student elections matter

Palestinians have had no opportunity to vote in presidential elections since 2005. During the past decade, the mood at Birzeit has served as a vital barometer of wider Palestinian politics, especially among the younger population (in the West Bank, almost 58 percent of the population were aged 24 and under in 2016).

Birzeit is also one of the few universities whose students are drawn from beyond the neighbouring areas, making it a more diverse representation of Palestinian sentiment, although the fragmentation of the West Bank with Israeli checkpoints has hindered the ability of many students to attend the university, Hammad said, estimating that 40 percent of students came from outside the Ramallah district.

Hamas supporters celebrate winning the student council election at Birzeit in 2015 (Reuters)
Since 2015 the al-Wafaa Islamic bloc, which is affiliated with Hamas, has won the majority of votes in student elections, ahead of the Fatah-linked Martyr Yasser Arafat faction. Kiswani represented Wafaa when he was elected in May 2017, with the bloc taking 25 out of the 51 seats on the student council.

Kiswani himself has been detained by the Palestinian Authority before, presumably due to his affiliation to Hamas, including just after the student elections in 2015.

While Hamas has hailed Wafaa's victories as proof of the party's popularity in the West Bank, some analysts have interpreted the results as a rejection of the Palestinian Authority on a historically pro-Fatah campus.

The occupation doesn't want educated people who can say no to its regime

- Sundus Hammad, the Right to Education Campaign 

But, students say, it makes little difference to Israeli forces as to which party has the upper hand at Birzeit. Since 2004, the army has arrested 10 student council representatives at the university, regardless of their affiliation to Fatah and Hamas.

According to Hammad, at least 59 Birzeit students and one staff member are currently detained by Israel. The Right to Education campaign keeps a lawyer on retainer for the sole purpose of representing incarcerated students who cannot afford their own legal defence. 

"Education is a tool to resist the occupation, it’s a way for us to develop ourselves as human beings," she said. "The occupation doesn't want educated people who can say no to its regime. 

Stephen Hawking visits Birzeit in 2006 to lecture on the origin of the universe (BU)
"They think Birzeit University is a threat because they don't want a university that has educated people that can make a difference in the status quo."

Abdulfattah said that the Israeli authorities understand that students and labour are the key to any revolution.

"Students are the main key because they are very energetic, they really don't have much to lose," he said. "You just think that you are the future.  

"I think that's why Israelis target students, because when you're in your 20s and you speak politics that means there is a chance that you will act."

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