THE PRO-FATAH shabiba (youth branch) emerged victorious from this month's student council elections at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah in the West Bank. The clear endorsement of Fatah and the pro-democratic forces in the university by 22 seats to the Islamic bloc's 20 delivered a seemingly significant rebuff for Hamas and the Islamic groups.
The result gave the Fatah group a majority of the 51 seats in the general assembly, although it would still probably have to form a coalition and only then elect 11 student council members out of that number.
However, according to Albert Aghazarian, the university's director of public relations, the most likely outcome following the poll was a coalition between the three main groups: Fatah, the Islamic bloc and the Progressive Democrats (which won eight seats).
The pro-Fatah victory was a reversal of the past few years, when the Islamic bloc or PFLP (Democratic) groups beat the pro-Fatah groups. Bir Zeit was the first university in the West Bank to switch from "majority rule" to "proportional representation" in 1995, followed by An-Najah University in Nablus, where Hamas beat Fatah in the last elections.
But many political commentators still believe the trend in West Bank university council elections is towards Hamas and Islamic groups. Nabil Abu-Sneid, spokesman for Hebron University, said that in its recent student council elections, Hamas received 53 per cent of the vote.
"With the peace process, you would expect them to be more in favour of peace. However, they took advantage of the problems with the peace process, including the closure of the territories. Hamas is on the move. It is predicted to win in the municipal elections: if elected, it will be in charge of the West Bank. If the Islamics win, it could lead to a religious war with Israel. I don't think it's in Israel's interest."
However, Nabil Kokali, director of the Palestine Centre for Public Opinion, a West Bank think tank based in Bet Sahur, near Bethlehem, was convinced that the balance of power between the Fatah and Hamas groups in West Bank universities has remained the same over the past few years.
He said that while the Hamas groups are powerful in Hebron University, he estimated that Hamas controlled about 35 per cent in most universities.
Bir Zeit University officials claimed the importance of the student council election results lay in the support they indicated for the Palestinian Authority.
Adli Dana, in the university's public relations office, said the results this year were a "big push for Fatah".
After last year's disappointing results, Fatah got organised this year and "knew the rules of the game".