UK students begin new wave of protests against Gaza war after US arrests

<span>Students marching in London in November to demand a ceasefire. Those at several universities have staged occupations and demonstrations.</span><span>Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images</span>
Students marching in London in November to demand a ceasefire. Those at several universities have staged occupations and demonstrations.Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

A fresh wave of student demonstrations and encampments are under way at UK universities in protest over the war in Gaza after violent scenes on campuses in the US, where hundreds have been arrested in a crackdown by police.

Protests were due to take place in at least six universities on Wednesday, including Sheffield, Bristol, Leeds and Newcastle, with others expected to follow suit, in a show of solidarity with Palestinians.

Students are also calling for their individual universities to divest from firms that supply arms to Israel and in some cases sever links with universities in Israel.

While the focus of the protest movement in the UK in recent months has been on mass marches in London and other cities, students occupied university buildings and held demonstrations, which have been on a smaller scale and have attracted less attention.

Related: ‘Like a war zone’: Emory University grapples with fallout from police response to protest

However, violent scenes from Columbia University and other US campuses over the past few days, broadcast across the world’s media, have triggered renewed anger among UK students and a sense of shared solidarity.

David Maguire, the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA), said protests at UK universities had been generally peaceful but agreed that events like those in the US “could happen here”.

In Sheffield, a group called the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine, a coalition of “staff, students, and alumni” from the universities of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam, began an encampment in solidarity with Palestinians.

The SCCP said there had been a mass walkout from lectures, followed by a demonstration, and that many students were prepared to camp “indefinitely” in tents outside the student union. This followed an encampment at the University of Warwick, which began last week.

“We’ve come prepared for the South Yorkshire weather,” said one research student taking part in the protest. “We’ve got gazebos and picnic tables and a generator for power. We’ll stay indefinitely until the university meets our demands.”

In Newcastle, an organisation called Newcastle Apartheid off Campus said more than 40 students were taking part in an encampment and that a day of events and a rally was planned for 5pm on Wednesday.

Organisers said students were outraged after the university apparently signed a partnership with Leonardo SpA, a defence and security company that they claim is responsible for producing the laser targeting system for the Israel Defense Forces’ F-35 fighter jets being used in the war in Gaza.

“Although the student union has passed motions with 95% of people in favour of calling for the university to end its ties with Leonardo, and multiple ‘Leonardo off Campus’ protests on its campus, it is clear that the university has not listened to students’ concerns,” a statement said. The university was contacted for comment.

The University of York, meanwhile, announced in a statement that it “no longer holds investments in companies that primarily make or sell weapons and defence-related products or services”. This followed prolonged pressure and protests from students and staff since the beginning of the war in Gaza.

In Leeds, there was a May Day student walkout for Palestine, and in Bristol, university students established an encampment in Royal Fort Gardens opposite Senate House.

This latest wave of action builds on earlier protests, which included student occupations of university buildings at the University of Manchester, Goldsmiths and at UCL.

In Manchester, protesters said 50 students had set up camp, demanding that the university end its partnership with BAE Systems and other arms companies, cut its ties with Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and stop all “unethical research”.

One first-year student said the US protests had highlighted “now is the time to act”. He said: “The courage that those students have shown faced with extreme violence from the police – it’s like a call that needs to be answered and picked up across the world.”

University vice-chancellors in the UK have been keeping a close eye on events on their own campuses and overseas, meeting regularly to discuss developments. Asked on BBC Radio 4 whether the scenes on campuses in North America could be replicated in the UK, the UEA’s Maguire said: “Of course it could happen here.

“But this is a price that we pay for academic freedom and freedom of speech. Students have the opportunity, if they so wish, to protest about any issue. And I think we’ve got to remember that for a lot of students, these events have been completely cataclysmic. Any response from authorities must be commensurate and allowances need to be made.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK, which speaks for 142 institutions, said: “Universities are monitoring the latest news on campus protests in the US and Canada. As with any high-profile issue, universities work hard to strike the right balance between ensuring the safety of all students and staff, including preventing harassment, and supporting lawful free speech on campus. We continue to meet regularly to discuss the latest position with university leaders.”