Gaza protest camp at Bristol University can stay - at least for now

-Credit: (Image: PAUL GILLIS / Reach PLC)
-Credit: (Image: PAUL GILLIS / Reach PLC)

Bristol University has failed in its first attempt in the courts to immediately end a protest camp about Israel in one of its gardens, after a judge adjourned the case to give time for the protesters to get a legal defence together.

The University of Bristol said the protest camp in Royal Fort Garden, on the uni’s campus, had become unsafe with the behaviour of some involved becoming ‘aggressive' and 'abusive’, with outsiders being blamed for infiltrating the camp to stir things up - something the protesters themselves have slammed as a ‘smear’ campaign against them.

But the protesters, who are demanding the university cut ties with arms manufacturers who are supplying the Israeli army, have been given at least another 11 days before a second court date will hear the university’s case to take back possession of the area.

Read next: Bristol University takes legal action to ‘disperse’ student encampment

Read more: Bristol University student camp will stay until institution 'ends links with Israel'

The protesters set up camp on May 1 in protest at Israel’s military action in Gaza, and the university’s links to companies which supply arms and defence technology to Israel. Since the start of May, the camp has grown initially from a handful of tents and protesters to a large-scale camp with as many as 25 tents, and dozens of protesters.

The University of Bristol has said the size and scale of it is now out of hand, and while they have been tolerant to the protesters, there are elements there who are not. “Since the encampment was set up nine weeks ago, the University has treated those involved with courtesy, dignity and respect. Unfortunately, especially during the last few weeks, we have seen actions on campus that fall far short of our behavioural expectations,” a spokesperson for the university said.

“The encampment has become a focal point for some of these unacceptable behaviours, including we believe from people outside of the University. Some of this has gone beyond what is an acceptable expression of views, raising concerns over the safety of our community and our visitors and interfering with core university business. As such we last week commenced legal action to disperse the encampment,” he added.

-Credit:PAUL GILLIS / Reach PLC
-Credit:PAUL GILLIS / Reach PLC

The University served repossession papers on the camp last Monday, July 1, and when the protesters did not leave, the University’s lawyers went to the Bristol Civil Justice Centre in Redcliffe late on Friday afternoon to ask a senior County Court judge for an order for possession, which would be a precursor to an eviction.

In response, one of the protesters, final year English student Joseph Burns, argued that further time was needed for he and the other protesters to prepare their defence in full. The Circuit Court Judge Alex Ralston agreed, and adjourned the university’s application until July 19 - now another 11 days away - which gives the protesters another couple of weeks to prepare their case and remain at the camp.

“The University has shown contempt for its own students and for basic human rights in serving the encampment with this claim, particularly given their refusal to sit down with us and discuss this important issue,” said Mr Burns. “As the global student movement has shown, these demands are far from unachievable. Members of our encampment have felt unsafe and unsupported by the University, and have been subject to abuse by security staff.

“The University’s comments smear peaceful student protesters and completely misrepresent the nature of the encampment. The administration's repressive tactics are nothing new, but our focus remains on resisting the University of Bristol's complicity in genocide. The collaboration with arms manufacturers selling and developing weapons, with full awareness of the atrocities these weapons are used to commit, implicates us all. We will not stop until the University divests from Israeli genocide,” he added.

-Credit:PAUL GILLIS / Reach PLC
-Credit:PAUL GILLIS / Reach PLC

Ruth Mellor, a solicitor at the civil liberties firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, acting for Mr Burns, said: “Universities are legally required to take reasonable steps to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for its students. They are also prohibited from discriminating against students on account of protected philosophical beliefs, a category which the courts have found includes anti-Zionism.

“At a time when the deaths of civilians in Palestine continues to rise it is only right that the legal rights of those raising concerns about the scope of military support for Israel are fully protected,” she added.

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said they would continue the legal action to remove the protest camp. “The University acknowledges the court’s decision to adjourn the possession proceedings,” he said.

“We support the right to freedom of expression and to engage in lawful, peaceful protest and understand the deeply held concerns that many in our community feel about the situation in Israel-Gaza,” he added.