Students in Britain are in revolt for Palestine

Friday 10 May 2024 –

Pro-Palestine encampments have spread across Britain. Thomas Foster spoke to the students about why they won’t stop fighting for Gaza

Palestine students encampments

Pro-Palestine students at an encampment in Oxford Picture: Socialist Worker

A furious revolt on campus for Palestine is growing into the largest student movement in Britain for over a decade. Encampments in solidarity with Gaza have spread across Britain as students rage against both their university administrations and government complicity in Israel’s genocide.

On Friday of last week there were encampments in Aberdeen, Newcastle, Leeds, Durham, Kent, Sheffield, Leicester, Lancaster, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Bangor in north Wales and two in central London. 

It is an explosion of resistance. At Soas university, central London, up to 50 students were occupying a square opposite the main entrance to the campus. 

Tara, a student in the Soas encampment, said, “We are here because our university has funds in companies that are complicit in genocide.

“We are demanding our university cut ties with Israel’s Haifa University and end all investments in companies involved with the Israeli state,” Tara explained. 

Tara also spoke on the role of students in political movements. She said, “Historically, students have been a catalyst for wider struggle, especially among workers, and revolutionary change. “Because we have the time and collective space to organise, it can be easier.” 

Tara added, “So far management has been quiet. They sent out an email saying they will let the encampment happen as long as it doesn’t impact the normal functions of the university.” 

And so students at the encampment were willing to escalate if management continued to ignore them. “We will do whatever necessary to have our demands met,” Tara argued, “We are not interested in prioritising the comfort of students on this campus when students in Gaza have nowhere to go.”

At Oxford university, around 100 students pitched up in a square opposite the Pitt Rivers Museum. 

A protester at the Oxford camp said, “Students are standing with Palestine and calling out the complicity of our universities and governments with Israel. “We have been inspired by how students in the United States are not being intimidated. 

She explained, “As students in the West, we are strategically placed to call out its complicity. We are morally compelled to do so. Israel’s war machine is only as strong as its international backing.

“We can instil the most pressure through our immediate connections to power. For us, that is Oxford university.

“It’s powerful to see students standing firm, coming with clear demands for divestment from Israel. Brown university in the US is now committed to divestment, so we must do the same here.” 

Dylan, an Oxford student involved in the encampment, told Socialist Worker that struggle can transform the people who take part.

“In terms of a mass movement for Palestine the student revolt has been so fastmoving,” he explained. 

“We went from no encampments to hundreds across the world. It shows how quickly consciousness can shift. 

“A few months ago it was uncomfortable to talk about Palestine in classes. But now you see more people talking about it every day. 

“The encampments have raised the level of discourse and consciousness.” 

And activists remained defiant. Dylan added that “students aren’t going anywhere and have no plans on leaving any time soon, regardless of summer.”

“People outside the encampments need to get mobilised. We need strikes on multiple fronts. We can’t win this alone but as a collective we can do anything.” 

He added that the aim is “to destabilise our ruling class. We can see the genocide on our phones and sometimes feel we can’t do anything. But the encampments show that’s not the case—they show we can act decisively.”

Encampments are also quickly becoming places for students to debate and discuss radical politics.

Liam, who is part of the encampment for Gaza at Newcastle university—which had about 50 people—said that the encampments are acting as a radicalising force. 

“We are seeing escalations on a daily basis—chants have progressed from ‘Free, free Palestine’ to ‘One solution, revolution’,” they said. 

“The militancy of the students is increasing as more and more students are coming to revolutionary conclusions.” And Liam added, “We are constantly discussing what more we can do—more picketing, stepping up the flyposting, occupying university buildings. 

Liam said that there are disagreements in the camp over how far protesters need to escalate. But anger is building because the university doesn’t listen, and more people are won over to escalating actions.

 “When we were picketing a university building, we were standing around chanting. But we quickly decided to do a proper picket and blockade the building, preventing anyone from entering. 

“We had a six hour long flying picket of university buildings and we managed to get an emergency meeting. We got it because we escalated.”

Students in the city have also been critical of other encampments ending too soon. As Liam said, “If we get an agreement from the university to divest, we aren’t going to take down our encampment then.

“We disagree with other encampments that stopped after management made a promise. We will only take it down after universities have actually divested.” 

Among the tents at the Newcastle, students have also built a library filled with Marxist books.

A Soas university student agreed that taking part in protests can be transformative for students. “People are collectively excited to exercise their agency rather than be passive agents,” they said.

“We are all fighting for a common cause. There are lots of events planned throughout, with many focused on political education. On Wednesday, there was a teach-out on the 1936 Palestinian revolution.” 

To keep the encampments going will take determination and organisation. A student in Oxford described how students are maintaining their camps on a daily basis.

“We wake up and have a news readout about Gaza. We are trying to centre ourselves on why we are here,” they explained.

“We have a community check-in in the morning, where people contribute their thoughts. 

“At 1pm every day, we have teach-outs covering the Palestinian liberation struggle. Towards the evening we have community events such as open mic and poetry. And every day we have a vigil at 8pm. 

“We also have an evening forum, which is our decision-making space. We make all of our decisions collectively, voting on the core decisions affecting the camp.”

Jacob, a postgraduate student at Oxford said that debates are happening, especially over the balance “between democracy and security”.

“On the one hand, it’s important that decisions are made collectively, and on the other hand, anyone can enter the camp and create an unsafe space for members,” he explained. 

Leo, a Soas student, added that at their encampment, they “have meetings in the morning to go through the agenda and what we need to do, and then throughout the day, we have a lot of media coming and teach-outs.

“We have no leadership, we decide democratically—voting by majority about things that come up. We have a welfare group, a media group, and a logistics group. We’ve split up the work.” 

Students also know the importance of connecting with workers. Leo said this had been one of the priorities of the Soas encampment.

He explained that it was important that students connect with staff at their university. “We’ve combined our demands with what the staff Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions group are demanding and together we are working to get our demands to management.” 

Leo argued that the student movement needs to move off the campus and spill into the streets and workplaces, “It’s vital to connect the student movement to the workers movement— they are completely linked struggles,” he said. 

Jacob in Oxford argued, “Students are taking risks, and now it’s time for trade unionists to take risks. There should be solidarity strikes, even if they are illegal.” 

Ultimately, Jacob said that the encampments should be the start of an even bigger, more powerful movement for Palestine. 

“Encampments directly impact the institution they are a part of. “Quantity changes can become qualitative changes. Enough people choosing to participate in escalating actions can lead to a qualitative shift in the politics of Western imperialism. 

“The aim is to get Western states to withdraw support for Israel, the support which it depends on.”

And a student at Soas thought that the student protests must be the beginning of a new stage of escalation for Gaza. 

They said, “The student movement can be a launching pad as it’s also about the agency of people outside of universities. We will lose momentum if people don’t rise up beyond students.” 

They added, “All movements consist of waves. We are waiting for a wave big enough to smash capitalism. Every movement in history is a wave that contributes to that process.”

And so it’s vital “to connect and unify our movements. Every single group, from students to trade unions to cultural groups, need to work together in conjunction,”they added. 

And a student at the Oxford encampment said, “We need to continue to press, not step back. We are staying until our demands are met. “If we need to escalate, then we will. We are not afraid to take risks. “We will not let there be business as usual. We will make it unbearable for those in power.”

Kick war criminals off campus

“Liberating people worldwide, fighting antisemitism at home and abroad is the only answer. Everyone should be able to lead lives free from oppression together, united.” 

These were the words of Issy, a student participating in the Leeds encampment, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme last Thursday. 

“Our first demand is that university acknowledges the genocide that is happening in Palestine,” she told the interviewer.

“We also demand the university cuts ties with companies such as BAE Systems which makes parts for the jets that Israel uses to bomb Gaza. 

“We demand the university cuts ties with Israeli universities on occupied Palestinian land. We demand that there are no war criminals on campus.

“And we demand the university stands with the student movement for Palestine.”

When asked about what she thinks about the state of Israel, Issy said,  “Zionism is an ideology that has led to the oppression of thousands of people.

“The logic of Zionism is a defeatist one that says the only path to liberation is to give up the fight against antisemitism and carve up a space elsewhere. 

“If we reject defeatist logic and fight oppression, we can find a better way to fight antisemitism.”