Curtin Gaza solidarity encampment betrayed by student union

30 May 2024
Ella Marchionda

Curtin University students have camped out in front of Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne’s office for Palestine for nearly a month. Our central demand has been that Curtin cut ties with companies connected to Israel.

The camp has played a central role in bringing the fight for Palestine to the fore of campus and mobilised hundreds of students every week in the biggest student protests seen at Curtin in years. Ahmad, a Palestinian student who got involved during the encampment, told Red Flag that the camp had “lit a spark of hope, which had been long gone”.

The encampment was started by a coalition of different groups, including Students for Palestine WA, Socialist Alternative and the Curtin Student Guild. Everyone involved agreed to work together to put as much pressure as possible on the university to cut ties with Israel. So it was a shock to many students at the camp, including myself, when the Guild agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the University in secret last week that ends Guild support for the camp but does not address the campaign’s core demands.

From the beginning, differences of political strategy coexisted within the encampment. Activists from the Socialist Alternative club and Students for Palestine collective argued that we needed to mobilise as many students as possible in protest and other activities that were disruptive enough to force the university to listen.

The Curtin Student Guild had a different political approach. Guild representatives mostly did not participate in protests that the camp organised, especially any that might become disruptive, instead emphasising the importance of private negotiations with the university administration.

Daily meetings were held at the encampment which included Guild representatives, and those meetings collectively discussed and made decisions about what to do. The camp agreed that any negotiations occurring between the Guild and the university had to be reported on and agreed to by the encampment. Despite this, the negotiation and signing of the MOU was never reported to the students at the encampment by the Guild.

This was a slap in the face to the students active within the encampment. Sadie, who was involved from the first day, told Red Flag, “They betrayed the camp for a thinly veiled PR stunt; our democracy, our values, our demands—everything”.

As well as undermining democracy, the MOU gives a free pass to the university to continue business as usual. The agreement does not require Curtin to cut any of its ties to Israel or weapons companies.

Arguably the most significant section of the MOU is an agreement for disclosure, in which Curtin must annually publish a list of weapons or defence companies it has dealings with in relation to research and teaching. But disclosure is not enough without breaking these ties, and it commits Curtin to little more than what is already listed on its website.

The MOU also required Curtin to release a statement on the “war in Palestine”. But the statement released was not an expression of solidarity with Palestine or opposition to Israel’s genocide, but “both-sidesism” nonsense. The suffering of Palestinians was equated with the suffering of Israelis, which only serves to sanitise what is happening in Gaza.

The statement also assures us that the university “does not invest directly or indirectly in entities relating to the manufacture of weapons of war”, but then goes on to repeatedly state its commitment to “Australia’s national resilience and security”. Given military hardware is central to “security”, it’s hard to see how this doesn’t involve relationships with weapons companies. Indeed, Curtin is extremely intertwined with the defence sector in Australia. Curtin is key signatory to the AUKUS workforce alliance, Curtin’s National Resilience and Security Program Office is expanding its connections to the weapons industry, and Curtin is the major sponsor of the Indian Ocean Defence and Security Conference. The weapons companies involved or showcased in these endeavours are the same ones fuelling Israel’s brutal slaughter in Gaza.

It will take a big fight to get Curtin to break its ties to Israel. The Guild claimed the signing of the MOU as a victory and pulled their support for the encampment the next morning. But what this experience really demonstrates is the ineffectiveness of secret negotiations. They achieved nothing from the perspective of the Gaza solidarity movement, but were a propaganda victory for the administration. This is hardly surprising—negotiating behind closed doors with those who preside over million-dollar institutions like Curtin, when your side has little leverage other than the ability to cause some disruption on the campus, are always going to be weighted toward the administration.

The Guild representatives have indicated they will not mobilise for any future Palestine solidarity actions or seriously push for the demands. Students at the camp rejected the MOU and although the camp has now wound up, are determined to grow and build our fight against Curtin’s ties to Israel during the winter break and next semester.

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