JERUSALEM — One of the first academic papers Rami Hamdallah published was about the myriad origins of Palestinian nicknames: he listed 12 categories, among them animals, food, instruments, occupations, natural phenomena and personal characteristics.
Mr. Hamdallah, the university president who is the Palestinian Authority’s new prime minister, himself is known mainly as Abu Walid — the father of Walid — one of his three children, all of whom were killed in a car wreck in 2000. But a few years ago, Munib al-Masri, the Palestinian billionaire, crowned Mr. Hamdallah with a new moniker: “Dameer,” Arabic for “conscience.”
“I gave him the nickname because he worries about his country, he worries about his people, he worries about the university,” Mr. Masri explained in an interview Monday. “You need somebody who does things right, the correct man, the judge — dameer.”
Mr. Hamdallah, 54, a respected academician who lacks political experience and an international profile, was selected on Sunday night to replace Salam Fayyad, who suffered withering criticism from Palestinians in large part because of his strong backing from Washington and European donors. He is expected to lead a temporary, technocratic government for several months as President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority tries to reconcile differences between his own Fatah Party and the militant Hamas faction in the hope of scheduling overdue elections.
The new prime minister declined an interview request on Monday. In a brief statement to Voice of Palestine radio, he said that he planned to serve until mid-August, and that “the new government will be a continuation of the last government,” with most ministers remaining in their positions.
In 15 years as president of An-Najah National University, Mr. Hamdallah tripled the student population to 20,000 on four campuses, making it the West Bank’s largest institution of higher education. He raised more than $300 million, mostly from Palestinian expatriates and other Arabs, building a new campus of modern white-stone buildings on a hill in Nablus from which you can see Tel Aviv 30 miles away, and a 400-bed teaching hospital that just opened. He added schools of medicine, engineering, optometry and nursing as well as a radio station and polling center.
“He always said, and I quote him, Palestinians, they only have one investment they should invest in — higher education,” said Kerie Rassas, An-Najah’s deputy president for international affairs. “We don’t have natural resources. We don’t have oil or petrol. All we have is our brains, and the only way is through higher education. We should educate as many as possible.”
Like Mr. Fayyad, who resigned in April after six years, Mr. Hamdallah was educated in the West — his Ph.D. in linguistics is from the University of Lancaster — and is not officially tied to any political party. But unlike Mr. Fayyad, he is considered sympathetic to Fatah, and is expected to have as deputy prime ministers two men close to Mr. Abbas, Mohammed Mustafa, currently chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund, and Ziad Abu Amr, a legislator and former foreign minister.
“It’s all the president’s men. That’s it,” griped one senior Palestinian official, insisting on anonymity to speak openly about the choice. “The post is nonpolitical, supposedly, but for a person to have standing, and respect, you do need to be known as having been within the political arena. He’s not going to inspire or excite public opinion. He is lackluster.”
Even some admirers acknowledged it would be a big leap. “I don’t know how he will fare on the political level. That’s something to see,” said Hanna Nasser, chairman of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, where Mr. Hamdallah has been secretary general since 2002. “A university is a big complex project, but the government is something else.”
Part of a wealthy family that owned large swaths of land in the northern West Bank, Mr. Hamdallah grew up in the village of Anabta, where an uncle later served as mayor. (Another uncle was in the Jordanian Parliament before 1967.) He has spent his entire career at An-Najah, starting as an English instructor in 1982, and he met his wife when she was a student there.
Thirteen years ago, she was driving on the Nablus Highway when a collision with an Israeli vehicle killed their 11-year-old twins and another son, age 9, landing her in a coma for six months. The couple has since had a daughter.
Twitter List: Reporters and Editors
“This is the biggest test of a man,” Mr. Masri said. “He said this is the fate from God and we just have to take it.” Ever since, Mr. Masri added, “nobody dies in Nablus or around Nablus that he doesn’t say condolences — you always see him there in the sad times.”
Besides the elections commission, Mr. Hamdallah is a member of more than a dozen boards, most related to higher education, but also the Yasser Arafat Foundation and the Palestinian Stock Exchange, where he has been chairman since 2008. The exchange’s chief executive, Ahmad Awaida, said Mr. Hamdallah has a dry sense of humor and is “smart enough to understand what you’re telling him even though he’s never been a banker.”
“He is very firm,” Mr. Awaida said. “Meetings in the Arab world tend to drag on for hours and hours and hours,” he said, but with Mr. Hamdallah, “I don’t recall a meeting that took more than the required time.”
Ms. Rassas, the deputy university president, said that in decision making, Mr. Hamdallah “knows in advance what he wants,” then “makes people feel that they need to take that position.”
Mr. Awaida said Mr. Hamdallah often approached him or other businessmen for money to support poor students at An-Najah; Maher Abu Zant, one of his senior university aides, said Mr. Hamdallah paid some student fees from his own pocket.
Magjeh Awadallah, who has worked as a campus security guard for 20 years, said that when he once told Mr. Hamdallah he was short of money, the president arranged for him to get an extra month’s salary. When Mr. Awadallah had heart surgery, he awoke to find Mr. Hamdallah at his bedside. And when his newly married son had a car accident, Mr. Hamdallah visited the son, too, in the hospital — twice.
“He is full of humanity,” Mr. Awadallah said. “He makes us feel we are one family.”
Khaled Abu Aker contributed reporting from Nablus, West Bank