UK students take a stand on Gaza with US-style tent protests

Organisers say demonstrations will spread but not get violent as students demand action from universities

The National reports from University of Leeds Gaza protest camp

The National reports from University of Leeds Gaza protest camp
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Thousands of students across Britain have walked out of lectures and set up US-style protest sites on campuses in support of Palestine, mirroring action being taken across the globe.

Tents have been set up outside university buildings as students demand their institutions cut ties with Israel in protest against the war in Gaza.

As violence broke out thousands of kilometres away at US universities when police tried to dismantle students' camps, their counterparts in the UK came out in solidarity, with organisers warning more will follow.

In the West Yorkshire city of Leeds, dozens of tents were erected in the middle of the historic campus with flags and banners hung from the buildings.

“It has been a culmination of action we have been taking over the last few months,” Izzy, an English and Classics student at the University of Leeds, told The National.

“We have five demands of our university relating to cutting ties with Israel. The support we have received has been phenomenal.

“We are pretty outraged, it is so sad to see so many people dying and our government is not doing everything it can to stop it.”

What began as a few tents on Wednesday had more than doubled in size by Thursday as support for their protest gathered momentum. It mirrored camps at universities in Bristol, Sheffield, Warwick, Manchester and Newcastle.

Armed police kept a low profile, patrolling the outskirts of the grounds as campus security monitored the protesters.

A day earlier one person was arrested after 400 students walked out of lectures and marched through the Leeds campus.

At Leeds, feelings were more heightened than in some other universities, with students demanding the institution cut ties with its Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, who served for a few months in the Israeli army last year during the war on Gaza before returning to his post.

“We feel it is morally wrong for him to be here,” Izzy said.

“Even Jewish students have felt threatened by his presence on campus. He fought for Israel, how do you think Palestinian students feel?”

Her comments were echoed by a fellow student protester, who wished to remain anonymous.

“We feel uncomfortable with him having a presence on campus when thousands of people are dying,” he said.

“It’s not appropriate.”

A petition calling for his dismissal has gather almost 12,500 signatures, however, the University of Leeds has defended his appointment.

“Rabbi Deutsch is employed by the University Jewish Chaplaincy (UJC) to support Jewish students in Leeds and at other universities in the Yorkshire region,” it told The National.

“The university remains in close contact with the UJC to discuss how it supports his work, and ensure we are sensitive to the diverse perspectives of our community.”

As the students basked in the sun outside their tents, Izzy said she and her fellow protesters want their university to acknowledge the genocide in Palestine, and cut ties with defence firms and companies supporting Israel and its universities.

“We are going to stay in our tents for as long as it takes until we decide to leave,” she said.

“We would like the university to acknowledge our demands.”

Another student, who did not wish to be named, said the demonstrators had the support of hundreds of people.

“Yesterday 400 people joined us marching in protest against Israel’s actions,” she said.

“The support has been amazing. We are going to camp until we have made our point and we feel our message has been achieved.”

The University of Leeds said it is monitoring the situation and the campus remains open.

“While we respect the right to freedom of expression within the law, we are working to minimise disruption for everyone on campus,” it told The National.

“We know that many in our community are distressed and directly impacted by the continuing conflict in Israel and Gaza, and we will continue to do more to support our students, act to protect the cohesion of our community and tackle hatred wherever it is found.”

In Bristol, students said they staged the action “in protest of the university’s complicity in Israel’s genocide of Palestinians”, while Apartheid Off Campus Newcastle said its demonstration was to “highlight the institution’s investment strategy and its complicity in the Israeli military’s war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank”.

The groups have called on their universities to divest from Israel in response to its military operation in the Gaza Strip.

This would mean selling off stock in Israeli companies or otherwise dropping financial ties.

On Thursday, Stella Swain, youth and student campaigns officer with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said more campus camp-outs will follow soon.

“Later this week and next, more places will be taking up that call for support,” she said.

“All of the protests so far have been completely peaceful and there is nothing to indicate that they wouldn’t be.

“There would be very little cause for an escalated (police) response.”

Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt, speaking in Parliament, warned that protesters should be met with “an extremely strict response” if they tried to replicate what she called the “disgusting” scenes happening in the US, where 1,000 students have been arrested.

Asked about anti-Semitism on British campuses, she said UK universities were aware of their responsibilities to all students, “in particular, those communities that are feeling particularly under attack”.

“That is what we expect of them and we hope and expect that they will meet any such notion of similar protests with an extremely strict response," she said.

The protests follow violent clashes at campuses across the US, most prominently at Columbia University in New York.

Violence also broke out at the University of California (UCLA).

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman would not comment on protests in the US, but said: “We’ve always been clear that people have a right to peaceful and lawful protest but clearly people shouldn’t abuse that right to intimidate others, cause unnecessary disruption.

“Obviously, the police already have extensive public order powers to tackle disorder at protests and will continue to have our full support in doing so if needed.”

Tom Southerden, Amnesty International UK’s law and human rights director, said: “The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to our democracy and it’s vital that UK universities and the police respect and protect peaceful student protests on Gaza.

“Peaceful, student-led protests are an important part of the movement across the globe against Israel’s war crimes, apartheid and possible genocide in Gaza.

“The authorities in the UK must avoid the dangerous clampdown we’ve witnessed at university campuses across the US.”

Updated: May 03, 2024, 12:06 PM