The crisis of the Palestinian political parties and the phenomenon of decreasing affiliation of the youth with them have been associated with both sides of the political map - on one side, the National Movement for the Liberation of Palestine, Fatah, the Democratic Palestinian Union (Fida) and, to a certain extent, the Palestinian People's Party (PPP); and, on the other, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and others. This situation affected not only the universities but also the Palestinian population at large. This article attempts to analyze the present state of the student movements, exemplified by the state of affairs on the Bir Zeit University campus.

Bir Zeit's Impact

Bir Zeit University (BZU) was established in 1924, and since then has played a major role in Palestinian political life. It is associated with many remarkable politicians and community leaders who left their imprint on the Palestinian political and social landscape. Many such names occupying leadership roles come to mind, such as the founder of the Popular Intifada Committees that led the Intifada, Tayseer Arouri, lecturer at BZU, and later a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace negotiations at the Madrid conference (1991) and Washington, D.C. Many members of that delegation were either graduates of or staff members at BZU, including Hanan Ashrawi, Ghassan Khatib and Nabil Kassis. Also, a large number of the leaders of the Palestinian parties are BZU graduates, for example Marwan Barghouti from Fatah, Bassam Al-Salhi from the PPP, and Yahya Ayyash from Hamas. Others are now leaders of public and non-governmental organizations and institutes, such as Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC); Nabil Kassis, minister of Bethlehem 2000, and Issam Arouri, the financial manager of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC). These names and others are evidence of the great influence and power BZU graduates and faculty have had on the political scene. But what of the current state of affairs?

The Left, Hamas, Fatah

Between 1979-1982, the time of the expansion of the leftist parties, the student council was formed by the left coalition (the former Palestinian Communist Party, now the PPP, the PFLP and the DFLP), which together used to win the majority, sometimes in conjunction with Fatah. The head of the student council was usually from the left, and the leftist movement reached its peak in 1986. With the rise of Fatah, the balance of power inside the university started to shift.
At this stage, Fatah began to gain prominence at the expense of the left until the 1990s, i.e., until the Oslo agreement (1993). Then, in turn, Hamas took control with the support of many who sympathized with the bombings organized by the leaders of its military wing, Ezzedine al-Qassam. One of these activists was Yahya Ayyash who graduated from BZU Electric Engineering Department. As expected, the result was tremendous support for Hamas from the students in all universities and colleges, except Bethlehem University because of its Christian majority.
The Oslo agreement affected everybody, for better or for worse. The Student Youth Movement - the student and youth body of Fatah - was one of the overall losers. The corruption imputed to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the violations of human and civil rights, and the political, economic and social repression, reflected negatively on Fatah, including the Student Youth Movement. Most of the blame for the situation was placed on Fatah as the ruling party and the main element on the Palestinian political scene. And since the Student Youth Movement is a part of Fatah, it was taken to task for the mistakes of the PNA.
This status put the Student Youth Movement in a very precarious position, since it had to disagree with the PNA and act as the loyal opposition in order to maintain support. Not only did it fail to disagree with the PNA and to act as an opposition, but was also drawn towards the different corrupt security factions in Fatah. Financially, tens of thousands of dollars were given to the Student Youth Movement via PNA channels. For these reasons and many others, the Student Youth Movement lost a large part of its supporters and members and faced defeat by the extremely fast-growing Islamic Bloc, the student body of Hamas.
Hamas was, thus, the major party that benefited from the new situation, from the negative image and actions of the PNA, from the imprisonment of Hamas members by both the PNA and Israel, and from the bombings they perpetrated in Israel. In addition to the political aspect, the religious feelings emphasized in their speeches and leaflets attracted many students. Another important reason for their success was the financial support they got, which enabled them to pay the water and electricity bills and rent for the students that voted for them.

The Third Pole

On the other side was the leftist student movement, which is a special case. The Progressive Students Union was involved in a major conflict with its party the, PPP, when the latter entered the PNA, a move which was opposed by the Union. Both the Progressive Students Front - the student body of the PFLP - and the Progressive Students Unity - the student body of the DFLP - faced a huge disparity between what their parties stood for and what these parties really did in practice. All this forced the leftist student movements to find an alternative which happened to be the Progressive Democratic Students Pole (PDSP) - or what was called "The Third Pole" - and which was established in 1995. This new movement represented the alternative to political repression represented by Fatah and to the social repression represented by Hamas.
The real need of the PDSP was to provide an alternative to a very weak and scattered left movement. It was called a "progressive student coalition that comprises student bodies and independent personalities who believe in the democratic option, and who are ready to fight for a free civil society on the basis of democracy, and human and civil rights, as an alternative to social and political repression."
Almost everybody - even left parties - betted against the PDSP and said that it was a matter of time before it fell apart. Also, many of those skeptics did their best in order to force its failure.
At the outset, the PSDP faced major problems, but most of them were solved or forgotten after the elections of 1998 in which the PSDP increased its seats in the student council from 8 to 10. So what really happened after all these successes?
The absence of a clear political program for the PSDP was one of the main factors for its retreat in the 1999 elections from 10 to 9 seats, when it was expected to win some 12 seats. Another was the re-establishment of the relationship between the PSDP and the PPP, as well as the Progressive Students Front after the third conference of the party [PFLP] in October 1998. This resulted in competition inside the PSDP among the three original blocs.
The only way to distance the PSDP from the disputes of the political parties outside the university is to rewrite the platform on the basis of a coalition in order to guarantee pluralism, which is vital for safeguarding independence as well as free thought and political diversity for the original blocs.

A Lack of Content

The Palestinian student movement nowadays is in disarray. It is ineffective in the face of developments on the ground. All it can do is strike for a couple of hours (sometimes weeks), prompting the leaders to make the same superficial and ambiguous speeches. The only losers from the weakness of the student movement - and especially the strikes - are the students themselves, since these strikes accomplish nothing, but force the university to extend the semester for a couple of additional weeks to allow the instructors to complete the material.
A look at the leadership of the student movements shows their only unique characteristic is that they have a vast network of friendships. And in most internal elections voters don't consider experience, excellence or merit; instead political affiliation, personal relationships and good looks take precedence.
The responsibilities of the student movements are now greater than ever, since they have to deal constructively with the economic and financial problems affecting all the universities of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Also, they have to face the harsh decisions made by the administrations of the universities and the different ministries of the PNA.
Further, they have to deal with a new generation of students that belongs to the period of globalization and suffers from extremely shallow minds, devoid of any idea about politics or even social problems. Any political activity is doomed to failure, because the students are no longer interested.
Grappling with these difficulties requires a qualitative change in the work of the student blocs. These should concentrate on the everyday problems of the students - academic, financial and psychological. In order for the student movements to have a better future, they should get closer to the students and try to speak to them in their own language. The student movements should prepare realistic political and social programs, and work credibly on their implementation. Is this possible? Only the student movements can answer this question, and in deeds, not talk.