Palestinian Students Keep West Bank Campus Shuttered
Strike follows refusal by Birzeit University to allow military-like rally, yet official demands for reopening are primarily financial
The Student Union at Birzeit University, the flagship Palestinian academic institution located north of Ramallah in the West Bank, says it will keep the campus closed until the administration accepts its demands.
Students shut Birzeit down on Monday evening after administrators denied them permission to mark 52 years since the founding of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine with a rally featuring uniforms and mock weapons.
Nevertheless, the Student Union’s demands for reopening the campus are primarily financial. They concern such issues as tuition hikes, refunds for dropouts, honors scholarships, expanded health insurance and the establishment of additional areas of study.
The Student Union announced the closure before symbolically locking the university gate with chains and beginning a campus sit-in.
Union head Qassam Matur told The Media Line that the demands were fair, and claimed that the administration was citing student militancy as a pretext for denying the strikers’ demands.
“I represent 14,000 students from all sectors of Palestinian society and am responsible for their rights as students,” he said. “The university is exploiting what it calls ‘military scenes’ to manipulate public opinion against us and distort the reality so it can ignore the real demands.”
Matur accused the administration of failing to take into account student opinions before formulating policies.
“I was chosen as head of the Student Union at the end of April,” he noted, “and I have yet to be invited by the university to discuss any of the decisions made by the [administration’s] University Council.”
Ghassan Khatib, a pollster and Birzeit professor of cultural studies, spoke to The Media Line on behalf of the university, saying administrators learned about the students’ demands from the press.
“They closed the university after reading their demands to the media in front of the campus, and since then, their fellow students and professors, as well as other staff members, aren’t being allowed into the university,” he said.
Khatib added that the students’ demands were nothing unusual, although they should have presented them to the administration first, and then negotiated, before rushing to close the school down.
“The students demanded that the university not raise tuition,” he said. “Well, we were not planning to do that in the first place!”
He cited the difficulties the strike was posing for certain members of the university faculty and staff.
“There are professors who need to work on research in their offices, in addition to administrative and financial employees, and other important laboratory research. There are matters that simply can’t be stopped in their tracks,” he said.
Khatib noted that the university had exempted one-third of the student body from having to pay tuition because of their financial situation.
“The Palestinian Authority used to help the universities,” he stated. “Nowadays, it can’t due to its own financial crisis.”
He also denied that the administration had turned its back on student leaders.
“The interactions… are extensive; they have regular meetings, discussions and constant dialogue about relevant matters where they sometimes agree and other times disagree,” he explained.
Saif Rayan, a member of the Student Union, complained about the canceled pro-PFLP rally, accusing the Birzeit administration of muzzling the student body.
“The university has marginalized the student movement and imposed its policies on it, which… limits our ability to act,” he told The Media Line.
“The leaders of this country, whom history will not forget, graduated from Birzeit University: Commander Marwan Barghouti [of Fatah], Yehyia Ayash [of Hamas], Sharaf Al-Tibi and other leaders of whom we are proud,” Rayan said. “We will devote all efforts to keep them engraved in the memory of Birzeit University’s successive generations.”
He complained that students had once been given space and freedom, where they sat down with the administration and discussed matters – and usually came to agreement.
“This table [of dialogue] doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “They change regulations and impose policies as if the Student Union and the students do not have the right to be consulted on any matters that concern them.”
He also claimed that the university had so far rejected all student attempts to present their proposals and discuss them.
“There are no signs of willingness by the university to resolve the crisis,” he said.
Diana Halum, an exchange student from the University of South Florida who is spending a semester at Birzeit, believes the strike was a bad idea, adding that education is the only hope for a free Palestine.
“Standing in solidarity with each other against the occupation should come in all its forms,” she told The Media Line, “except striking against education, especially in the occupied territories.”