On Wednesday 28th January, students occupied a room on University Park campus as a protest in solidarity with the people of Gaza, in light of Israel’s recent military activities there.
Armed with sleeping bags, food, books, laptops, art supplies and legal advice, the protesters planned to remain until the University acquiesced to their demands, or reached a settlement through negotiation. Students at 16 other universities in the UK had already staged occupations, and many had declared success.
The classroom occupied, B62 in the Law & Social Sciences building, is a heavily used lecture theatre. The initial reaction from the University authorities came from Stephen Dudderidge, Director of Student Operations and Support, who cancelled or rescheduled all lectures in the room, in spite of the protesters making efforts to be non-disruptive. After this, the protest became firmly embedded, with posters and decorations placed on the walls (which some students found offensive and borderline anti-Semitic).
The University refused to engage in any negotiations whatsoever. Talks and meetings were held to discuss the issues at hand, Noam Chomsky sent a message of support from America, local MP Alan Simpson gave a well-attended talk, and
On the evening of Friday the 30th, there was a counter-protest held outside by students who felt that the occupation was inherently anti-Israel. This was included in the coverage by ITV Central News. The protest had also been featured in regional and national news. Later, Steven Dudderidge returned, along with Pro Vice Chancellor David Reilly. They read out a statement that said that if the occupation was ended immediately then the University would convene a discussion forum of student groups – no negotiations would take place while the room was occupied. Further, any students who remained in the room would be, “subject to consideration under university regulations.” Few left.
On Sunday night, the fifth day of the occupation, security came in again and gave a two-minute warning for the protesters to leave. The protesters were then physically removed by security, who confiscated cameras – only one video survives. The protesters were left standing outside in the snow and without their jackets, and were only allowed to retrieve their property after surrendering their student numbers (the University authorities were recorded as saying no repercussions would come from this). Allegedly, local television media arriving to cover the eviction were turned away at the entrance to campus. The protesters alleged that the security team had performed assault and theft (physically ejecting a trespasser is often considered assault under common law). The police were called by the protesters, but refused to become involved (in line with trespass laws). The police have since said that they will not pursue the accusations of assault, and so the protesters are considering civil action.
Contrary to the University’s former statements, all students who gave their student number to the University representative have since received letters warning of repercussions under the code of conduct. The students involved in the occupation have begun a new campaign, Books Not Bombs, using protest marches to raise awareness and attempt to convince the University to provide academic aid to the Gaza region. The first march took place on Friday, February 6th, attended by well over 150 people.
Impact felt that taking an editorial stance on the events of the occupation, or the broader geo-political controversies, would serve nobody and would only potentially exacerbate already apparent inter-student divisions on campus. In the next two pages we will be presenting differing views of what happened – we leave the final opinions up to you.
The (Truncated) List of Demands:
1 STATEMENT – The University issue an official statement to the press condemning the atrocities perpetrated by Israel in the Gaza Strip.
2 PODCAST/ DEC APPEAL – An alternative podcast be broadcast on the University Portal that counters the bias of the one already posted. The University website should also carry the DEC charities appeal.
3 SCHOLARSHIPS – The University grants ten fully-funded scholarships to Palestinian students from Gaza.
4 ACADEMIC AID – The University provides academic aid to the Gaza strip, in the form of a) donation of resources, and?b) twinning with Gaza University.
5 REMOVE STARBUCKS – The University ends the vending of Starbucks coffee in Hallward Library and replace it with a Fairtrade alternative.
6 DISINVESTMENT – The University ceases to invest directly or indirectly in companies complicit in human rights abuses in the Gaza strip and internationally.
7 END COMPLICITY – That the University bans all companies involved in the supply of military equipment to Israel
8 THE RIGHT TO PROTEST – That there be no legal, financial, or academic repercussions taken against anyone involved in or supporting this protest.
(Summarised) Statement From Vice-Chancellor, David Greenaway:
Those taking part in the occupation were asked several times to leave, with an indication that a meeting with senior management could then be convened to discuss the concerns of the student occupants alongside those of other students groups affected by the conflict. This was declined. I authorised a move to end the occupation of this lecture theatre on Sunday 1 February. Those still present included registered students as well as third parties with no connection to the University.
University security officers remove the group at around 6pm on Sunday 1 February. Senior Management colleagues were present and verified that this was done sensibly, professionally and expeditiously. The security officers spent two hours helping occupants to retrieve their belongings. At no time were bags searched. It is untrue that we had “barred media from campus.”
Our students have a right to protest peacefully on any issue about which they feel strongly. This is a right which I staunchly defend, providing it is within the law and does not interfere with the learning of their colleagues. Senior colleagues and I remain committed to building on recent dialogue with student groups affected by conflict in the Middle East.
(Summarised) Post-Occupation Statement From Occupation Blog:
Israel’s latest attacks have cost the lives of over 1,300 Palestinians, injuring and maiming many thousands. There is now prima facia evidence that these attacks constituted war crimes as defined under international law. Our university maintains strong ties with arms manufacturers complicit in war crimes. This is unacceptable.
The University of Nottingham has a well-documented history of ignoring student concerns. We believe that our actions were proportionate. We stated explicitly that any disruption of our peer’s education was expressly against our wishes.
Our intention was to open a constructive two-way dialogue, but the only offer of dialogue was made in the same breath that threatened disciplinary action. University security entered B62 and used physical force to end our protest. Amicable agreements regarding student demands were reached at the vast majority of universities, but that was not to be so here.
The only records we have of their statements are on camera – these were confiscated. Further, the media were denied access to campus. An academic environment should teach students how to critically engage with controversial issues. The University has proved that it is prepared to resort to violence in order to enforce ‘harmony’ (read; conformity) on campus. We hope to engage with the University management in a constructive way to address what have finally been acknowledged as legitimate concerns.
Views From Those Affected By The Protest:
Let me start by saying I am a staunch supporter of peaceful protest and have been a defender of this right for years. So whether I agree with Operation Cast Lead is irrelevant – if a group is irritated by something then I have no qualms with a demonstration renouncing it. I do feel, however, that this particular event went beyond the realms of what would be described as a peaceful protest. The aim should be to educate people about perceived wrongdoings, but unacceptably, the occupation ended up disrupting university life for many innocent students.
It made me feel very uncomfortable as the protest seemed to be against Israel as a state or concept, rather than against its actions. This is not the first time this has occurred, but every time it does it strikes me as intolerable. Many are horrified by human rights abuses in China, but I have yet to find a protest against China’s existence. The same is true of many other nations around the world.
Why, then, is Israel an exception? Many answers have been suggested, including deeper issues such as anti-Semitism. Only the occupiers themselves can tell us the real answer. What they wanted to achieve is also a quandary – demanding the boycott of Starbucks suggested more was at stake than the IDF. One thing is for sure, though: this type of campaign has to stop, as many Jewish and Israeli members of the university become more and more uncomfortable in the face of an attack not on the actions of a government but on a people itself.
I joined the occupation on Friday, sceptical about its demands and aims. I sat listening to discussions of any issues, always relating this to their highest concern – the humanitarian crisis.
As my confidence grew, I became more able to express my concerns. I learnt that the protest was an ongoing dynamic process, and I could help shape the form of the occupation. The atmosphere was friendly, productive, mutually supportive and fun. I came to this space with a limited knowledge of the situation but, motivated by the humanitarian crisis, it provided an open forum for debate and discussion that greatly improved my understanding. It only served to increase my passion to help the people of Gaza.
Despite our demands not being met, the most positive thing I gained from this was engaging with others in a lively and impassioned way about issues that are shaping our world. I felt as though I was part of something that could positively help people. It is a shame that the University could not recognise the positive learning environment we had created. I think we now know where the University stands on academic freedom.
Thank you to everyone who helped to create this space and experience, and I have no doubt that these expressions of solidarity and hope will continue unabated.
It’s all too easy to get caught up in the sense of turmoil and hostility that violence in the Middle East generates, allowing it to obscure the humanitarian values that most students really hold in common. I sometimes think that by engaging in partisan – ‘Pro-Israel’ or ‘Pro-Palestinian’ discourse on campus we dichotomise ourselves excessively. I also think that there is too much posturing in student politics; arguing about who is right often seems to takes precedence over actively trying to help victims of violent conflict.
I’m a Jew with a strong connection to Israel, but I don’t support the recent actions in Gaza because I believe they are inhumane and counterproductive – a view expressed by various academics, journalists and protestors from within Israel itself. An important link between Israel and concern for social justice are the many Israeli Human Rights organisations which work with Palestinians. In the future I’d like to see more emphasis put by campaigners – from both ‘sides’ – on supporting these organisations, because they have the ability to change peoples’ lives directly, and to promote a more just vision of society.
Neither party in this conflict is about to disappear overnight; instead of picking sides to support or condemn we need to invest in measures that can help give security and freedom to both their peoples. To have any long-term hope for justice and peace in the future we should do more to encourage political change from the inside, starting with the work of organisations like these:
B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: http://www.btselem.org/english/
Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel: http://www.adalah.org/eng/index.php
Rabbis for Human Rights: http://rhr.israel.net/
Physicians for Human Rights – Israel: http://www.phr.org.il/phr/
Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights: http://eng.bimkom.org/
Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement: http://www.gisha.org/
Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual: http://www.hamoked.org/
Public Committee Against Torture in Israel: http://www.stoptorture.org.il/en
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel: http://www.acri.org.il/eng/
For me, the term ‘occupation’ does not seem a fitting description of what happened in B62. ‘Occupation’ implies a negative relationship between those who are newly present in the space and those who usually use it, as well as with the space itself. The ‘occupiers’ made sure the space was suitable for lectures, thus enabling the possibility of a positive relationship with the regular users. What is also important, and potentially more interesting, is the relationship between the ‘occupiers’ and the space itself – I believe ‘liberated space’ rather than ‘occupation’ is a more suitable term.
The space was liberated in the sense that it became a ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ (TAZ) which was a concept proposed by Hakim Bey in the 80s – “like an uprising…which liberates an area of land, of time, of imagination.” It did feel being part of a free, liberated space; decisions were made consensually, food was eaten communally and we felt a sense of genuine solidarity and positivity. If we think that solidarity and positivity are things humanity should be working towards then we should encourage such occupations. As Bey put it, “TAZs are a microcosm of a free culture, I can think of no better tactic by which to work toward that goal while at the same time experiencing some of its benefits here and now.”
I would like to begin by stating how proud I am to be part of a university culture that is concerned about the larger world issues that surround them. The students who ran the occupation of room B62 should be saluted for their commitment to moral and ethical values.
Though the occupation may have had good intentions I would like to draw attention to two reasons that prevented me and many of the Jewish and Israeli students on campus standing together in solidarity with the campaign.
Firstly, the campaign viewed recent events in Gaza in a vacuum, where
Palestinian violence was completely ignored and the numerous peace talks that Israel has participated in completed dismissed. When the situation in Israel and Gaza is viewed in this close-minded manner, students cannot help but form an inaccurate picture of Israeli life and culture. Where was the mention of the thousands of rockets Hamas have fired and continue to fire into Israeli towns and cities causing much destruction and trauma among the children and families there?
Secondly, one of the demands called for a boycott of Starbucks over remarks that CEO Howard Schultz (himself a Jew) had previously made regarding the situation in Gaza. His comments, made whilst speaking at his local synagogue, condemned Palestinian “inaction” and announced that “the Palestinians aren’t doing their job – they’re not stopping terrorism.” I believe these comments prompted a boycott of Starbucks to be added to the list of occupation demands. (Unless you believe that Starbuck’s profits goes to funding the Israeli military as one student seems to believe!) Why have Schultz’s other comments been ignored? He also said that he ,”does not believe the terrorism (sic) is representative of the Palestinian people,” and later, after realising that his words might have caused offence, was quick to make the following statement to eliminate any confusion: “I deeply regret that my speech in Seattle was misinterpreted as anti-Palestinian,” and proceeded to explain “My position has always been pro-peace and for the two nations (sic) to co-exist peacefully.” As Starbucks points out, “Howard was speaking as a private citizen and did not interview with the media regarding this subject”. On a larger note, the boycotting of American-owned companies tends to target what individual people say in a personal capacity and use it as a pretext to boycott whole companies. The link between all the individuals cited seems to be that they are Jewish. It is McCarthyism at its worst to start to hunt down and boycott anyone who says anything that is disagreed with and Starbucks is a case in point.