Rami Hamdallah
Rami Hamdallah, the new Palestinian prime minister. Photo by Reuters
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"I congratulate our president on his appointment as prime minister," said a student at An-Najah National University in Nablus a few days after it was announced that university president Prof. Rami Hamdallah would replace Dr. Salam Fayyad. "But I ask myself why he should leave the successful empire he has built, for a weak and poor entity like the Palestinian government," said the second-year student of liberal arts. Her girlfriends agreed and then signalled that the discussion was over; they were sick of politics and wanted to head off to a birthday party.

The young woman was apparently not exaggerating when she described the university that Hamadallah has headed for the last 15 years as an "empire."

It has four campuses - three in Nablus and one in Tulkarm (the faculties of agriculture and veterinary medicine ) - which together straddle an area of 178 dunams, as well as a university hospital that opened a month ago and a local radio station that permits itself to take a stand in the disputes among various politicians. The largest university on the West Bank, An-Najah has about 22,000 students and 1,800 employees (including 848 teachers as of 2011 ). One of the teachers, a former student and now the father of students, says that this university has tremendous economic and social influence on life in Nablus and the northern West Bank, if not beyond.

An-Najah ("success" ) developed from a high school established in 1918, became a college in 1941, evolved into a teachers' seminary which also granted academic degrees in 1965, and then, in 1977, was declared the national university. In Nablus they say that during Hamdallah's tenure, over the past 15 years, the university has flourished in terms of the number of teachers and students, academic variety, the quantity of faculties and departments, research plans and academic conferences, ties with foreign universities, etc. That's why we can wonder about Hamdallah's consent to enter the sickbed that is the Ramallah government. On the other hand, it's not surprising that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas chose him of all people for the position of PM.

Although Hamdallah was sworn in as prime minister on Thursday evening along with his ministers (seven of them new appointees ), he continues to serve as the university president. As prime minister he has been given two deputies, so that he will be able to continue to take care of university affairs as well. Officially, Hamdallah is to head a transition government until August 14: That is the final date (as of now ) set for establishing a national unity government of Hamas and Fatah. Few people believe that this will actually happen, but in the meantime the university doesn't have to appoint a new president.

It turns out that it was not only Hamdallah's proven administrative abilities that led to his appointment as head of a transitional government. This week, foreign correspondents asked whether he was "a member of Fatah." After all, Fatah members' resentment of outgoing Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was a major factor in his decision to resign. The official answer is no, Hamdallah is not known to be a Fatah member. But observers note that his close relationship with two of the strongmen in Fatah and in the coterie of the late PA Chairman Yasser Arafat played an important role in his appointment both as the university's president and as PM. One is Tayeb Abdul Rahim, the secretary general of the government headed by Arafat, and today the secretary general of Abbas' bureau (and also a native of Anbata, like Hamdallah ). The other is Tawfik Tirawi who, at the time of the establishment of the PA, was the chief of Palestinian intelligence on the West Bank, and who maintains his power in the Fatah movement as Abbas' security adviser.

Despite Hamdallah's close ties with Fatah leaders, faculty say that at the university those identified with Hamas teach without interference. On the contrary, some think that Hamdallah should have reined them in, says a faculty member who is politically opposed to both movements. But at the same time, faculty members admit that they exercise caution during class lessons when speaking about PA politics and certain leading figures. As in all the Palestinian universities, at An-Najah there are students who work for the Palestinian security services, or are informers for them. Just the thought of their presence serves as a censor.

After 2007, when the Palestinian political entity split into the two rival governments of Hamas and Fatah, the PA security services in the West Bank worked without interference to remove and silence students identified with Hamas. That was not a decision of the university president, and it is doubtful whether he could have prevented that development, given the atmosphere of civil war that prevailed at the time.

The security guards who stand today at the entrance of the university and check those who enter, and also mingle among the students, are salaried university employees. Their job is accepted with understanding. Thousands of people wander around the various campuses, and nobody wants to see fights breaking out. But it turns out that the security guards also remark to female students that they are not allowed to wear clothes that are too tight (most of the female students, incidentally, wear a head covering ). The security guards also make comments to male and female students who instead of sitting on the steps or the benches sprawl out on them in a kind of reclining position. The female students who mentioned the security guards' involvement in matters of dress code seemed to think it was normal. The astonishment of one of the students' parents, present in the room, led them to question the policy. This also attests to the way that overt or covert security guards have become part of the social culture.

In the 1980s and even the 1990s An-Najah National University was called "the poor man's university," as recalled this week by two former students, whose daughters are now studying there. The administration and the board of trustees, which is composed of representatives of the city's wealthy and influential families, managed to raise enough money to charge a lower tuition than the other universities (at the time in Bethlehem, Hebron and Birzeit, north of Ramallah ) and to also grant scholarships and loans on convenient terms. Above all, they remember it with pride as the university which in the 1980s and the early 1990s was the starting point for demonstrations against the Israeli occupation, and whose student movement gave rise to leaders of Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization's left-wing organizations and the Hamas movement as well.

One of the veteran faculty members also recalls that "the students of those days were older" than today's student body. They had spent several years in Israeli prisons and, upon their release, registered immediately for the university and made the lessons lively and interesting. In the late 1990s, and continuing into the years of the second intifada during Hamdallah's presidency, the student slate identified with Hamas received a majority in the student council - in a university that was thought to belong to Fatah.

There was no attempt to prevent demonstrations of support for the armed members of the various organizations (and for suicide attacks ). Such protests seemed normal amidst military attacks, bereavement and a desire for revenge. On the other hand, students recall that the siege of Nablus and the stringent restrictions on movement were not considered a valid excuse to be absent from or late for classes. Lessons and exams continued even then, as much as possible.

Elections for the student council in Nablus were held in late April this year. The slate identified with Hamas ran for the first time since 2008. It received 33 seats, while Fatah's slate received 43. A female student who didn't vote says that in contrast to Fatah, Hamas activists ran a well-organized and pragmatic campaign. Nevertheless Fatah won. Hamas' charm seems to be on the wane.

The party division is misleading, say both faculty and students. The disagreements and the rivalry are about power and positions, not about ideology and vision. Most of the students - the product of the PA school system - are apolitical, say faculty and parents. Their knowledge of Palestinian history and geography is deficient. "Twenty and 30 years ago they told us that education is part of our battle against the occupation," complains one faculty member. "But today the studies lack any national identity. They are part of consumption, not of culture, and they are designed to serve the technocratic desire to build institutions for a state that doesn't exist."

That isn't criticism of Hamdallah, but of the conceptions that guide the government that he will be heading.