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Birzeit University Is Roiled by Protests Again, Disrupting Studies

Sit-ins, sometimes violent protests and Israeli police actions have repeatedly disrupted Birzeit University’s current semester, paralyzing the educational process at all levels. The university has suspended classes more than once, leaving students unable to complete their curricula, and professors unable to conduct research.

The latest upset came last week, when Israeli forces raided the campus and arrested five students. In response, a number of student groups launched protests against the university administration for failing to defend the detainees.

The protesters accuse the university of “harassing” student political unions and question its commitment to the Palestinian national cause.

At least six student political groups are active on campus. They include Al Wafaa’ Islamic Bloc, which is affiliated with Hamas, and the Progressive Democratic Student Pole, an arm of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israel classifies both of those blocs as terrorist organizations.

Other student groups and their party affiliations include the Student Unity Bloc (the Democratic Front); the Palestine for All Bloc (the National Struggle Front); the Union Bloc (the People’s Party); and the Fatah Movement-affiliated Student Youth Bloc.

Demands for Dismissals

Walid Hammad, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Birzeit, told Al-Fanar Media that the “attack escalation by the occupation forces on the university aims to freeze student movements’ activities”. He noted that the latest raid came in conjunction with the movements’ coordination to commemorate the founding of Hamas.

“There is an absolute unanimity among Palestinians that Birzeit University is a professional institution that encourages freedoms, but the latest problem raised some doubts about the university’s patriotism

Mustafa Jarrar
A professor of computer science

Hammad, a former coordinator of the Islamic Bloc, added that the strength of the student movement in Birzeit “lies in its ability to impose itself as a political and union force. This issue bothers the authorities.”

For him, what is different this time is “the university administration’s reluctance to support the student movement in political and patriotic issues, and complacency with the arrest of its students on campus and outside the university.”

According to Hammad, the student groups—with the exception of Fatah’s Student Youth Bloc—have presented a list of demands to the administration.

They call for the dismissal of the dean of student affairs and the university’s spokesman. They also want “legal guarantees to ensure the freedom of student activities on campus,” in exchange for ending a sit-in at the university’s gates.

The university’s spokesman, Ghassan Al-Khatib, declined to comment to Al-Fanar Media on students’ accusations against the administration. He stressed, however, that university representatives were taking steps “to contain student anger.”

Worries about the Institution’s Character

Hanada Kharama, a faculty member in the department of philosophy and cultural studies, told Al-Fanar Media that the administration had clamped down on activities of student unions from all political backgrounds.

“The main fear among a large segment of professors and students is that the administration is moving to strip the institution of its political character, which has always been a major feature in the university’s struggle history,” she said.

Kharama wondered: “Does the administration want to make the university a mere academic institution, or an educational institution with a politicized space?”

For his part, Mustafa Jarrar, a professor of computer science, said the university administration “is in a big predicament now,” given the students’ demands.

“The solution to these crises experienced by the university lies in proposing effective mechanisms to rebuild trust among the university’s various components.”

Abdal-Rahman Kittana
An assistant professor in the Faculty of Engineering

“The administration is pained by the students’ accusation that it is no longer a national university, in light of its inaction to meet the student movements’ demands,” he added.

“There is an absolute unanimity among Palestinians that Birzeit University is a professional institution that encourages freedoms,” Jarrar said. “But the latest problem raised some doubts about the university’s patriotism. This was reflected in the students’ strict stance in their sit-in and their declining to enter into dialogue with the university administration.”

A number of are seeking to mediate between the administration and the student groups, Jarrar said. They hope to resolve the current crisis so the educational process can resume.

A Semester Unfinished

Professors had been teaching online after the university suspended classes several times. But online teaching has also stopped now as a result of the students’ strike.

Accordingly, professors have been unable to complete the academic courses this semester, including some important subjects for students of practical colleges. “The large number of disruptions in the university will make many students and professors think about going abroad,” said Jarrar.

Abdal-Rahman Kittana, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, told Al-Fanar Media that the successive crises had also prompted some professors to reconsider their choice to work at Birzeit University.

He added that he and other university professors view Birzeit as more than a job opportunity. They see the institution as an environment through which they can play a greater role in building a healthy and resistant Palestinian society. “If this environment recedes and it becomes a mere working place, I will definitely start to think about looking for a better working place in better and more stable conditions,” he said.

The turmoil has also disrupted professors’ plans to carry out research work or academic projects outside working hours,  Kittana said.

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Kittana thinks the solution lies in “proposing effective mechanisms to rebuild trust among the university’s components.”

He called for expanding the university council to include leaders of the workers’ union and the student council. Those steps “would bridge the trust gap between the student movement and the university council,” he said.

Kittana considers the problems at Birzeit University as a “miniature version” of the crisis facing Palestine, from “continuous skepticism, hidden accusations, and lethal mistrust of the university community”.

“This is not natural,” he said. “It seems to be deliberate and fabricated.”

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