Pro-Palestinian student protests spreading across Europe

Judging by the atmosphere at the protests, the severe state responses, and the budging of certain universities, this appears only to be the beginning.

Student protests and encampments in solidarity with Palestine are now sweeping across Europe. Students in several European cities and major United States universities keep calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war.

With every university in Gaza destroyed, students everywhere have one demand for their universities: divest from Israel. Whether it’s millions invested in Israeli organisations, research cooperation projects, or student exchange programmes, the message is that ties with Israel must be cut to put an end to universities’ complicity in the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

Universities are no strangers to such campus disruptions. It is worth recalling the student protests in the 1980s demanding – and achieving – divestment from apartheid-era South Africa; college students have recently also pushed universities to cut their financial ties with the fossil fuel industry.

However, while the tactics are known, the outcomes and responses vary wildly in each country. Pro-Palestinian student protests are spreading across Western Europe. Some are allowed, while others are stopped.

Germany

At Berlin’s Free University, German Police broke up a protest by several hundred pro-Palestinian activists who had occupied the university’s courtyard. The DPA news agency reported that in the eastern German city of Leipzig, about 50 pro-Palestinian protesters set up tents at Leipzig University and occupied a lecture hall. It said the leading student association in the state of Saxony, where Leipzig is located, called on the university to break up the occupation over concerns about the safety of Jewish and Israeli students.

Photo: Paul Zinken/DPA

The Netherlands

In Amsterdam, protesters occupied a university building hours after Police detained 169 people at a different campus location. Protesters established a Palestine solidarity camp on the campus. Two remained in custody on suspicion of committing public violence. The previous day, the situation escalated into a violent confrontation with the Police after students refused to leave. The students demand that their university cut all financial and academic ties with Israeli institutions. Dutch national broadcaster NOS reported that after protesters formed barricades from wooden pallets and bicycles, Police used a mechanical digger to push aside the barricades and officers with batons and shields moved in. A crowd of some 3,000 demonstrators, including students and staff, some wearing keffiyeh scarves, gathered near the location of the dismantled camp, chanting slogans including, “Palestine will be free!” and “Cops off campus!”.

Photo: AFP

The University of Amsterdam has since issued a public statement regarding its collaborations and expressed regret over the unfolding events.  It said, “We share the anger and bewilderment over the war, and we understand that there are protests over it. We stress that within the university, dialogue about it is the only answer. The statement also mentions that the university organised student exchanges with Israeli universities, which, due to negative travel advice, are no longer taking place, and that it is participating in eight European research projects involving Israeli researchers or companies.

While similar protests are taking place in the Dutch university cities of Utrecht and Delft, student protests for disclosure and divestment from Israel also appear to be most established in the United Kingdom, where students at campuses across the UK are calling on their universities to withdraw financial support from companies complicit in Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

United Kingdom

Just over a week ago, encampments were set up on at least 14 university campuses throughout the UK. Unlike in many other European countries, pro-Palestine student protests have not been localised to the capital and have spread to cities including Edinburgh, Leeds, and Bristol. A primary demand from protestors is greater transparency on university finances, which tend to cloud the extent to which Britain’s educational institutions are invested in Israel. 

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign estimates UK universities to have €485 million invested in organisations complicit in Israeli violations of international law. The University Complicity Database specifically references weapons and technology companies.

At Oxford University, students have displayed a board listing six of their demands. They included that the university pledged to “boycott Israeli genocide, apartheid and occupation”, to “disclose all finances”, “stop banking with Barclays”, help rebuild Gaza’s education system and “divest from Israeli genocide, apartheid and occupation”.

Goldsmiths University in London has met student demands. It includes agreeing to a revised ethical investment policy during which student representatives will present the university’s complicity in Israeli crimes. Whether the policy adheres to the demands of full divestment is yet to be seen.

As Goldsmiths changed its stance, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) said it had started divesting processes, as well as recognising the ICJ ruling on genocide, securing scholarships for its eight Palestinian students and was looking into cutting ties with academic institutions in Israel.

Ireland

Following an encampment set up on Saturday, the Irish university was restricted to students and staff, and it closed its famous Book of Kells library. As in other countries, the protestors are mainly asking that the College divests from Israeli companies and cut ties with Israeli academic institutions.

Other Irish universities face demands calling for a ceasefire and divestment from Israeli companies. Although no other encampments have been set up, at another Dublin university, the University College, the visit by Nancy Pelosi, the American politician and former speaker of the US House of Representatives, was disrupted by a student activist, and walkouts have been happening across other campuses.

Photo: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Austria

In Austria, protesters camped in about 20 tents in the central courtyard of the University of Vienna for a second day. As Police watched, protesters cordoned off the encampment, which is near a memorial for Austrian Jews who died in the Holocaust. The University of Vienna and the Central Austrian Union of Students distanced themselves from the protest. The union said “antisemitic groups were among the protest’s organisers,” which the protesters denied.

Photo: urmedium.net

France

In France, protests are as radical as ever, with the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, better known as Sciences Po, at the forefront. About two weeks ago, students in the French capital blocked the entrances of their university to protest against Israel’s military operation in Gaza. The blockade was only lifted after the students reached a compromise with the institute, but the protest continues.

Sciences Po students on the Reims campus have even started a hunger strike, calling for an independent investigation into their institution’s ties with Israeli universities. On Tuesday, students set up tents in the Sorbonne’s amphitheatres.

Photo: AP/Jeffrey Schaeffer

Belgium

In Belgium a few days ago, about one hundred students gathered at Ghent University, demanding an end to its cooperation with Israeli universities, while on Tuesday, students at the Free University of Brussels (ULB) followed in the footsteps of their Flemish colleagues by occupying one of the campuses. So far, the universities have not bowed to the pressure of their students. However, after a negative evaluation, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has announced that it wants to end its cooperation with two Israeli institutions. Some universities, like Trinity and Goldsmiths, as well as the Free University of Brussels are slowly meeting the students’ demands by ending ties with Israel.

Only the beginning?

Judging by the atmosphere at the protests, the severe state responses, and the budging of certain universities, this appears only to be the beginning. Perhaps sanctions are the next step.

Main photo: AP/Markus Schreiber

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