This article was originally published in The Economist on April 29, 2015.
Birzeit, West Bank — The rally at Birzeit University felt more like a military parade than campus politics. Set in the green hills of the West Bank, north of Ramallah, the Palestinian college has long been affiliated with nationalist movements. But on April 22nd a bloc linked with Hamas, the radical Islamist militant group, won a rare majority in student elections. Dozens of supporters marched through campus the next morning (pictured above), waving green flags and chanting about last summer’s war in Gaza. “We have brought the spirit of resistance to Birzeit,” one campaigner shouted.
Campus politics offers young Palestinians their only chance to vote. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, started a four-year term ten years ago. The legislature has not been re-elected since Hamas’s surprise victory in the 2006 ballot. So student elections are seen as bellwethers for public opinion. Candidates at Birzeit argued over the best way to fight the Israeli occupation: should they fire rockets or pursue Israel at the United Nations? The outcome was discussed for days on Palestinian television.
Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007, while its nationalist rival, Fatah, controls the West Bank. They tried to end the split in June, when they signed a reconciliation agreement and installed a new technocratic government. The deal called for elections within six months, but Mr Abbas is dithering. Last year’s 50-day war against Israel earned Hamas new admirers in the West Bank, where the president’s Fatah movement is seen as corrupt and out-of-touch. A recent poll showed that trend reversing slightly, though his approval rating stands at just 40%; four out of five Palestinians are unhappy with the performance of the consensus government. “The outcome here is a warning to the Palestinian Authority,” said Ghassan Khatib, a vice-president of Birzeit. “The system is losing its legitimacy.”
But Hamas has concerns, too. Its popularity has slipped in Gaza, after repeated wars that have only immiserated the territory. Tens of thousands of civil servants have not been paid in nearly a year, owing to an internecine dispute over who is responsible for their salaries. A delegation of ministers travelled from Ramallah to Gaza last week to resolve the crisis, but they were barred from leaving their hotel. Their week-long visit was cut short to 24 hours.
Mr Abbas turned 80 in March. With no clear successor, he is increasingly worried about threats to his rule, both real and perceived. Security forces arrest dozens of Hamas activists each month, and in August they stormed the offices of an NGO founded by Salam Fayyad, a respected former prime minister. The results at Birzeit have only deepened Mr Abbas's fears. Days after the vote, Palestinian police detained a leader of the Islamic bloc at Birzeit. Hamas claims he was tortured. Other student activists were rounded up last week.
On April 26th Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, tried to downplay the results. They only represented one campus: “They haven’t won An-Najah yet.” Hours later An-Najah university, near Nablus (headed by Rami Hamdallah, the prime minister), delayed its ballot due to an unexplained “scheduling conflict”. Even student elections may be too dangerous for Mr Abbas and his loyalists.