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Pro-Palestinian campus protests spread to UK universities

London – The grass outside SOAS University of London has been dotted with a handful of tents since the start of this week, with Palestinian flags and slogans calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

There are similar sites at universities across Britain, and so far the protests have been peaceful and left alone by the police, unlike in the United States, France and other countries.

Students, many of whom were masked, sat in a circle on a blue tarpaulin to take part in what they called a “teach-in” while others took stock of groceries and supplies piled up inside the shelters.

At SOAS, former student Yara, 23, estimated that more than 20 students were taking part — with about a dozen other encampments at universities elsewhere in the UK, following protests on US campuses in April.

The aim, she told AFP, was to “apply pressure on the SOAS administration to adhere to the demands of the students”.

That includes disclosing links to and divesting from all companies complicit in what she said was “Israel’s illegal settlement economy and arms trade”.

– Solidarity –

Warwick University in Coventry, central England, kicked off first with a “Gaza solidarity encampment” on April 26.

Tents then sprang up outside universities in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, Cambridge and Oxford.

At Edinburgh, a group of students began a hunger strike to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. In Cambridge, orange tents were lined up neatly outside King’s College, which dates back to 1441.

Cambridge said in a statement that it respected the freedom of speech and right to protest, adding that it would “not tolerate anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and any other form of racial or religious hatred”.

Jewish students have voiced concerns for their safety and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is mindful of similar problems in the UK as protests in other countries turn violent.

He has called university vice-chancellors for a meeting to discuss the safety of Jewish students in universities, and denounced an “unacceptable rise in anti-Semitism” on campus.

British charity the Community Security Trust, which tracks anti-Jewish hate crime, says there have been “unprecedented levels of anti-Semitism” since Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s military response.

The attack resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages. Israel estimates 128 of them remain in Gaza including 36 who officials say are dead.

Israel’s military campaign has killed at least 34,844 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

The SOAS students were given support on Wednesday by Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran left-winger who led the main opposition Labour party from 2015 to 2020.

Corbyn said the university should “recognise that students have strong, legitimate, valid opinions”.

“They shouldn’t be closing down protests. They should be recognising the very strong humanitarian views of young people all across this country,” he said while attending a rally at the camp.

Corbyn, now suspended from the Labour party, was accused of allowing anti-Semitism to flourish during his tenure, and once called Hamas and their Iran-backed allies Hezbollah “friends” — comments he later said he regretted.

– ‘As long as it takes’ –

Yara, who has been at the camp since it sprung up three days ago, said the student protesters were planning to “stay for as long as it takes” for SOAS, which specialises in Africa, Asia and Middle East studies, to accept their demands.

“The first night was really rainy and wet and muddy,” she said.

“But honestly, no matter how much discomfort students may feel camping out, it’s actually just a fraction of the conditions in which the Palestinians in Gaza have been experiencing.”

Having previously only attended the protests, where dozens more students gathered, one 19-year-old SOAS student who studies global development and law said they planned to join the camp this weekend.

“I don’t think I can wait until my degree’s over because people are dying. So being in encampments is as useful as I can be,” said the student, who did not wish to be named.

“I just said I’d be here because they need people. And I am people.”

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