The global Palestine solidarity student movement

12 May 2024
Yasmine Johnson
A Gaza solidarity encampment at Oxford University in the UK PHOTO: Mohammad Saleh/MEE

The Gaza solidarity encampment movement has spread across the world, from New York to London, Melbourne to Cairo, Amsterdam to Istanbul. Thousands of students are pitching tents and organising rallies to register their opposition to Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

And the message is being heard loud and clear. On tent walls and placards in the heart of the war zone, Gazan children have written messages thanking students at the encampments. For the first time in seven months, they say, they feel a little bit hopeful.

Encampments have been established on almost 140 American campuses, and more than 80 internationally. They have sprung up on every continent except Antarctica—and even there, scientists recently raised the Palestinian flag along with signs saying “Fund science not genocide”, “Ceasefire” and “Antarctic workers for Gaza”.

This movement represents an escalation of the Palestine-solidarity activism that has been taking place since last October. It’s a product of the growing sense of frustration in the West and elsewhere that Israel has been given carte blanche to destroy the Gaza strip and murder more than 35,000 Palestinians. Students in Denmark wrote on social media: “We can no longer be satisfied with cautious dialogue that does not lead to concrete action”.

The links between Columbia University, where the movement kicked off, and elsewhere are easy to draw. Almost every university maintains research and financial ties with weapons companies—the manufacturers of death. These companies supply Israel with the bombs, drones and other weapons that are now raining down on Gaza. Protesting their universities is one way that students can try to strike at Israel’s war machine.

Student protests in the US, UK and Australia have received wall-to-wall media coverage in recent weeks. But the movement isn’t limited to the West; it’s spreading through the Arab world as well. Students at Egypt’s American University in Cairo have protested in recent weeks, calling on the administration to cut ties with corporations accused of aiding the Israeli occupation. In Jordan, students raised slogans against the crackdown on protesters at Columbia, while calling attention to the ties between Jordanian institutions and apartheid Israel. The Jordanian government has been arresting protesters for the last seven months, and universities have suspended or expelled those involved in pro-Palestine activism.

The global encampment movement is bringing students into conflict with the institutions that drive support for Israel and cracking through universities’ rhetorical commitment to free speech. They’ve been met with physical violence, denunciation and suspension from their universities.

Police have made more than 2,800 arrests across more than 60 campuses in the US. In Amsterdam, the cops smashed a student encampment with a mechanical digger. Activists at Berlin’s Free University were doused in pepper spray as police broke through human chains defending the encampment.

Charges of anti-Semitism are hurled at students by Zionist organisations, university heads, the media and politicians. At University College London, four protesters were arrested under the Terrorism Act for the alleged “crime” of carrying a banner depicting a dove holding a set of keys. In Australia, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has labelled the Palestine solidarity slogan “From the river to the sea” a violent statement. The Berlin Senate is considering legislation that would allow universities to expel students on political grounds.

This repression has failed to quell the movement. It’s not just a set of demands that student protesters have in common—it’s a sense of determination and bravery. As one University of Columbia student told Fox News: “The commitment to Gaza runs deeper than fears for our safety, our academic careers, fears for our pay checks. It’s a fundamental obligation that we have”.

If anything, repression has provoked new waves of struggle. Even where encampments have been smashed by the police, students and their supporters have continued to fight. High school students have joined encampments at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. At Sciences Po in Paris, activists occupied part of the campus and barricaded the entrance until violently attacked by police, then, refusing to give up, they marched through the city centre with students from the Sorbonne. Thousands did the same in Amsterdam after three encampments were attacked. The list of campuses involved continues to grow.

Participants are drawing links to previous waves of student struggle. Protesters at Columbia have invoked the memory of 1968—when campus occupations there became a catalyst for the global student movement against the Vietnam War—making matching signs and placing their photos side by side with those from the past. The scale of the student movement that rippled across the world in 1968 was enormous, much bigger than today. But the current Gaza solidarity encampment movement proves that when some students take a lead in challenging the status quo, they can inspire thousands around the world to do the same.

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