Palestine solidarity encampments spread across Australia

1 May 2024
Louise O'Shea
Gaza solidarity encampment at Sydney University PHOTO: Lauren Finlayson

Israel’s war on Gaza has, up until recently, had a negligible impact on Australian campuses. Students have attended the regular protest marches that have been taking place in most capital cities, but the campuses themselves have remained relatively quiet. At Melbourne University, an institution with a long history of student activism, the student union shamefully even rescinded a motion it had adopted in support of Palestine under pressure from Zionists.

On 23 April, all this changed. Inspired by the stand of US students at Columbia University who were brutally attacked by the NYPD on the orders of the university administration, students at Sydney University established their own Gaza solidarity encampment. Like the US students, their demands included that the university divest from weapons research, that the university and government break links with Israel and for an immediate end to Israel’s assault on Gaza.

The students set up their camp at the heart of the campus, and it quickly became a hub of activity, with hundreds of students getting involved with painting banners, writing press releases, holding discussion groups and making announcements in lectures. The idea, as Students for Palestine convenor Jasmine Alrawi told Red Flag, is to “raise awareness and draw attention to the ways in which Israel’s genocide is being aided and supported by our own university, as well as to involve more students in activism and standing up for the cause of the Palestinians. Our government, the opposition, our university, our media and a lot of civil society in Australia support and defend Israel. Others are intimidated out of showing their support for Palestine lest they be slandered as anti-semitic. We’re here to show that intimidation no longer works. We are seeing the heartbreaking images of genocide, starvation and displacement with our own eyes, every day. And we refuse to be silent about it.”

The Australian National University in Canberra and Melbourne University were the next campuses to join the movement, with activists establishing similar camps a few days later. According to Students for Palestine member and ANU camp participant Carter Chryse, the camp has played host to “daily speak-outs and has attracted massive community support. We have had donations of all sorts of things and lots of words of encouragement. Dozens of students are staying out overnight and the numbers are growing.”

Encampments have since been established at the University of Queensland, Adelaide University, Curtin University, Monash University and more are planned. This represents the most serious explosion of national student protest since the movement against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.

Like in the US, university staff have thrown their weight behind the students. Branches of the National Tertiary Education Union have passed motions in support of the camps, have sent speakers to rallies and speak-outs at the camps, and some staff at the University of Melbourne have even brought their classes to the camps to both show solidarity and teach students about social justice activism. NTEU activist at Sydney University, Alma Torlakovic, who supports the campus protest camp, told Red Flag “Staff here support the right of students to protest, of course. But it’s more than that. Union members have watched what has happened to universities in Gaza—every single university in Gaza had been destroyed by January this year. That’s according to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor. Nearly 100 professors have been killed along with thousands of students. But when we speak out against this, we are treated like criminals or bigots. The level of repression and attacks on academic freedom in the US and Europe is shocking—professors have been sacked, investigated and disciplined for quite reasonably expressing concern about Israel’s war and sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. We have a duty to stand up to this—to defend the right to criticise the powerful and to act on that criticism through protest.”

Unlike in the US, the campus administrators have so far opted to tolerate the encampments rather than repress them. Police have not been called, and students have been able to organise fairly freely. This has angered supporters of Israel, who see opposition to the current genocide as offensive and a form of bigotry. Australasian Union of Jewish Students president Noah Loven told the Australian that Jewish student are “not safe” on campus because of the protests. But protesters object to the assumption that all Jews support Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians, and that Jewish students are therefore offended by protests against it. “We’ve had Jewish students involved in the camp, they have spoken at rallies and have an organised presence here”, University of Queensland camp organiser Liam Parry-Mills told Red Flag, “And I know from communication with other protest organisers that that is the case at other camps around the country”. The Jewish Council of Australia has also expressed support for the protests, writing in a public statement that it “strongly rejects the claims that these protests are a threat to Jewish students and staff”.

Other supporters of Israel, like Chris Kenny writing in the Australian, attempt to discredit the protesters by implying or openly accusing them of supporting Hamas. Kenny spent his time at the Sydney University camp badgering students to condemn the 7 October attack. But as one of his targets, Palestine Action Group member Josh Lees, pointed out to Red Flag “The supporters of Israel aren’t continually called on to distance themselves from the deranged lunatics masterminding Israel’s genocide. But look at who makes up the war room: they’re religious fundamentalists using extreme violence to realise their vision of an expanded religious state.”

The eruption of student activism in support of Palestine is historic. It builds on a movement against the Gaza war that is without precedent in Australian politics. The media may have tried to bury it, but it is proving very difficult to repress. The students’ actions, along with the thousands who are regularly marching, moving motions on councils, picketing weapons companies and organising walkouts from work, are a source of hope in a world of brutality and war.

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