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Pro-Palestinian campus protests spread to UK universities

Riot police, protesters clash at Amsterdam Gaza demo


May 9, 2024 11:18 AM

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The grass outside SOAS University of London has been dotted with a handful of tents since the start of this week, with Palestinian flags and slogans calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

There are similar sites at universities across Britain, and so far the protests have been peaceful and left alone by the police, unlike in the United States, France and other countries.

Students, many of whom were masked, sat in a circle on a blue tarpaulin to take part in what they called a "teach-in" while others took stock of groceries and supplies piled up inside the shelters.

At SOAS, former student Yara, 23, estimated that more than 20 students were taking part -- with about a dozen other encampments at universities elsewhere in the UK, following protests on US campuses in April.

The aim, she told AFP, was to "apply pressure on the SOAS administration to adhere to the demands of the students".

That includes disclosing links to and divesting from all companies complicit in what she said was "Israel's illegal settlement economy and arms trade".

- Solidarity -

Warwick University in Coventry, central England, kicked off first with a "Gaza solidarity encampment" on April 26.

Tents then sprang up outside universities in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, Cambridge and Oxford.

At Edinburgh, a group of students began a hunger strike to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. In Cambridge, orange tents were lined up neatly outside King's College, which dates back to 1441.

Cambridge said in a statement that it respected the freedom of speech and right to protest, adding that it would "not tolerate anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and any other form of racial or religious hatred".

Jewish students have voiced concerns for their safety and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is mindful of similar problems in the UK as protests in other countries turn violent.

He has called university vice-chancellors for a meeting to discuss the safety of Jewish students in universities, and denounced an "unacceptable rise in anti-Semitism" on campus.

British charity the Community Security Trust, which tracks anti-Jewish hate crime, says there have been "unprecedented levels of anti-Semitism" since Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel and Israel's military response.

The attack resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages. Israel estimates 128 of them remain in Gaza including 36 who officials say are dead.

Israel's military campaign has killed at least 34,844 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The SOAS students were given support on Wednesday by Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran left-winger who led the main opposition Labour party from 2015 to 2020.

Corbyn said the university should "recognise that students have strong, legitimate, valid opinions".

"They shouldn't be closing down protests. They should be recognising the very strong humanitarian views of young people all across this country," he said while attending a rally at the camp.

Corbyn, now suspended from the Labour party, was accused of allowing anti-Semitism to flourish during his tenure, and once called Hamas and their Iran-backed allies Hezbollah "friends" -- comments he later said he regretted.

- 'As long as it takes' -

Yara, who has been at the camp since it sprung up three days ago, said the student protesters were planning to "stay for as long as it takes" for SOAS, which specialises in Africa, Asia and Middle East studies, to accept their demands.

"The first night was really rainy and wet and muddy," she said.

"But honestly, no matter how much discomfort students may feel camping out, it's actually just a fraction of the conditions in which the Palestinians in Gaza have been experiencing."

Having previously only attended the protests, where dozens more students gathered, one 19-year-old SOAS student who studies global development and law said they planned to join the camp this weekend.

"I don't think I can wait until my degree's over because people are dying. So being in encampments is as useful as I can be," said the student, who did not wish to be named.

"I just said I'd be here because they need people. And I am people."

Riot police, protesters clash in Amsterdam

Dutch riot police clashed on Wednesday with pro-Palestinian protesters as officers moved in to clear barricades at the University of Amsterdam, scene of upheaval since Monday.

Police said around midnight (2200 GMT) that they had arrested 32 people for "violence, destruction, assault and incitement" at the university and on a major thoroughfare in the centre of the Dutch capital.

Local television images showed dozens of police dressed in riot gear exchanging blows with a group of protesters as officers cleared out an area in front of the Binnengasthuis building in Amsterdam's city centre.

Police said the protesters then blocked a major local road called the Rokin where violence also broke out, adding demonstrators "threw ammonia at riot police".

Students are demanding that the University of Amsterdam (UvA) sever ties with Israel over the war in Gaza and are inspired by ongoing demonstrations at US campuses.

A little before midnight, Amsterdam police said on X that the situation was "calm" and most of the protesters had left the area.

They had previously said the clearance "operation has been authorised by the mayor" after the UvA laid charges including disturbing the peace and destruction of property.

Images on the local AT5 channel showed police arresting several demonstrators, numbering a few hundred, roughly pulling one off a front-end loader.

Another protester tried to stop a loader before jumping into a canal to evade arrest.

Images also showed police surrounding and dragging away a small but vocal group of protesters remaining on the campus, while a front-end loader was pushing material used to put up the barricades into a canal.

Protesters waved placards saying "Free Palestine" and shouting "Shame on you" at police.

Police say the protesters were not just students, but also included people "who were not affiliated to the university and were deliberately seeking conflict with the police".

Representatives of the protesters and UvA management were in talks on Wednesday, but protesters told the NOS public broadcaster discussions had led to nothing.

The protests started at the university on Monday. At least 169 people have been arrested.

The Amsterdam city council is due to have an emergency debate about the ongoing demonstrations on Friday.

Protesters were also gathering elsewhere in the Netherlands, including at the Utrecht University campus, reports said.

Washington police clear university encampment

Police forcibly cleared an encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters at George Washington University in the US capital on Wednesday, arresting dozens in the latest clash with students demonstrating over the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Republicans in Congress had pressured local authorities to act on the encampment, summoning Washington's mayor and police chief to testify in the House of Representatives later Wednesday.

But just after 4:00 am (0800 GMT), hundreds of officers moved in on a university quad, making arrests and using pepper spray.

Police said 33 people were arrested for "unlawful entry" and "assault on a police officer."

Officers remained on the scene around 10:00 am, an AFP reporter saw, as tents were being dragged toward a garbage truck and a student held a poster reading "Free Palestine."

Congressional Republicans had questioned why it had taken so long for the encampment, which had entered its second week, to be cleared.

But the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee said Wednesday's hearing was canceled now that the encampment had been cleared.

"I am pleased that the potential Oversight hearing led to swift action" by Mayor Muriel Bowser and police chief Pamela Smith, committee chairman James Comer said in a statement.

Democrat Rashida Tlaib criticized the move, however, warning at a press conference that lawmakers "cannot arrest their way out of this growing dissent."

A student speaking at Tlaib's event accused police of sending "multiple" protesters to the hospital.

Late last month, police had declined a request from the university to disband the encampment, the Washington Post reported, citing worries about moving in against peaceful protesters.

The police department said it had tried to "deescalate tensions" without arrests, but that based on "incidents and information, there has been a gradual escalation in the volatility of the protest."

Campus protests have sprung up across the country in recent weeks, with students calling on universities to cut direct or indirect financial ties with US weapons manufacturers and Israeli institutions.

The at-times raucous rallies have rocked colleges. Some Jewish students have reported threats and anti-Semitism, while pro-Israel counter-protesters at the University of California, Los Angeles physically attacked demonstrators at an encampment.

- Free speech versus intimidation -

Both President Joe Biden and universities have tried to walk a fine line between free speech rights and concerns about intimidation.

On Tuesday, Biden condemned a "ferocious surge" in anti-Semitism in a speech at the US Capitol, saying "there's no place on any campus in America -- any place in America -- for anti-Semitism or hate speech or threats of violence of any kind."

Demonstrators, including some Jewish student organizers, have said they denounced acts of anti-Semitism, and accuse their detractors of conflating criticism of Israel with prejudice against Jews.

They've also criticized what they say is a heavy-handed police response, with more than 2,000 students arrested nationwide -- and say harassment of Muslims, Palestinians and Jewish students opposed to the war are being ignored.

"Calling in the police in riot gear immediately, that is what's new this time," American Association of University Professors president Irene Mulvey told AFP of campus responses across the country.

Some universities, she noted, have engaged with protesters and reached some agreements on university investments.

Police have warned that law enforcement will not allow a new encampment to be set up at George Washington University.

A 21-year-old GW student named Hanaan shrugged the warning off.

"They're gonna take down the barricades," she told AFP, declining to give a last name. But "people are gonna come right back."

Dublin campus protest ends after demands met

Students at Ireland's prestigious Trinity College Dublin (TCD) on Wednesday ended a five-day-long protest against Israel's actions in Gaza after they said their demands were met by the university leadership.

In a statement posted on its website, the university said that "an agreement was reached" after "successful talks between the university's senior management and the protestors".

Laszlo Molnarfi, president of the institution's student union, said TCD's statement was a "testament to grassroots student-staff power".

The camp would be brought to an end Wednesday evening, he told public broadcaster RTE.

TCD said that the university "will complete a divestment from investments in Israeli companies that have activities in the occupied Palestinian Territory and appear on the UN blacklist in this regard".

Student activists began the protest on Friday as a "solidarity encampment with Palestine" echoing similar protests on US campuses.

Molnarfi on Saturday said that the protest would continue until the university severs any relationships it has with Israel.

Dozens of students pitched tents on one of the main squares at the university, and piled benches to block the entrance to a library that houses the world-famous ninth century gospel manuscript Book of Kells, one of Dublin's most popular tourist attractions.

Security staff closed the campus gates -- which are usually open to the public -- during the protest.

"With the encampment and blockade of the Book of Kells removed, plans are being put in place to return to normal university business for staff, students, and members of the public," TCD said on Wednesday.

Last week the union was fined 214,000 euros ($230,000) by the university for loss of tourist revenue after disruptive protests this year over student fees, rent and the war in Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian protests have rocked US campuses for weeks, spreading to countries including France and Australia.


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