The 2015 victory of Hamas over Fatah in student government elections at Ramallah's Birzeit University is just the most recent reminder that higher education in Palestinian life is fundamentally a political arena. Zelkovitz, a research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, documents just how important student politics have long been in both Palestinian higher education and Palestinian nationalism.
From the creation of the Palestinian Student Association at the University of Cairo in 1944 to that of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) in 1959, student organizations have been at the forefront of political activism and have provided cadres of leadership to various Palestinian factions. As successive waves of political fervor washed over Arab society, student politics followed suit: revolutionary leftism, pan-Arabism, and Islamism have been prominent themes. Zelkovitz details how Palestinian students, particularly those living far from the Middle East, tended to be more radical and routinely pushed against compromises that could bring peace. GUPS, for example, not only reached out to leftists in Europe throughout the 1960s but provided support to Palestinian terrorists there and in the Middle East.
Zelkovitz provides a wealth of detail regarding student movements, their constant in-fighting, and the ways they were both vied over and, in turn, influenced by political movements. Universities were not only an arena for activism against Israel but also a place for each faction to demonstrate its ability to lead Palestinians.
Universities have also been vital for nationalizing Palestinian society, especially after 1967, when the first such institutions were established in the West Bank and Gaza. According to Zelkovitz, inept Israeli efforts to control them, their staff, and curricula, backfired badly. This helped bolster various nationalist visions on campus, first Fatah's and then Hamas's.
Zelkovitz notes that Palestinian student radicalism now propels North American universities too: Uncompromising opposition to Israel, the baseline of Arab and Muslim student politics, has also become the touchstone there for leftist university politics.