‘Our universities are complicit in Gaza — that must stop’: inside London's student protest camps

It’s a sunny Tuesday lunchtime at University College London, and more than 20 newly pitched tents are rustling in the wind near the main building. Security is high, with non-students not permitted behind the heavy black gates, while activists are hesitant to come out in case they can’t get back to the “occupation”. Passersby stop to read placards with slogans which read “Israel’s Starvation of Gaza and Blocking Aid Are War Crimes” and “All Eyes On Rafah”. That morning, the Israeli army had launched an attack on the Gazan city.

Stepping outside, third year undergraduate Junayd said he had been camping for the last five days, braving the weekend rain to show his opposition to the war. He’s here to make sure UCL “stands up on the right side of history,” he says. That means cutting all ties and investments with companies that the protesters claim are complicit in the Israeli occupation, condemning the bombing of Gaza and investing in Palestinian education.

Some argue that Russell Square is far removed from the war thousands of miles away, but Junayd, who speaks with a crisp British accent, feels a direct connection to it. He says he spoke to an aid worker yesterday who told him that when Gazans heard about the UK student protests “they literally burst into tears… and made a supplication that God blesses us”. “I don’t care what the random passersby think, if that’s what the Gazans say,” he tells me. Junayd also believes that living in a tent gives him a small sense of what Gazans in refugee camps are going through — though in very different circumstances.

Student protester Junayd at UCL (Lucy Young)
Student protester Junayd at UCL (Lucy Young)

A counter protest at the weekend got tense, with barbs traded between the encampment and a group which appeared outside. A video shows one person spitting towards an Israel supporter, while police tried to calm the situation. But when I ask whether the protests make any of the students uncomfortable, Junayd claims not. He says they have had an “overwhelmingly positive response from passersby and other students,” many of whom offer food, and he refers to a visit made by a group of orthodox Jewish people who support a ceasefire.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is more concerned, opening a Cabinet meeting by saying there had been an “unacceptable rise in antisemitism on our university campuses”. He is meeting university leaders today to discuss “the need for our universities to be safe for our Jewish students”.

A UCL spokesperson told the Standard that the institution is “regularly speaking with (protest) organisers and monitoring the situation,” and that they are managing this “in line with our legal duty and commitment to uphold freedom of speech within the law, whilst ensuring all members of our community are safe and enabling the normal business of the university to go head, including our education and research activities.”

I don’t care what passersby say. When Gazans heard about the UK student protests they cried with joy

UK students have been protesting about Gaza for months but after the international attention on the sometimes violent clampdowns on the protests in America last week, they’ve found new energy. On Monday, camps at Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool and Edinburgh joined Warwick, Manchester and UCL in trying to pressure their colleges to do more about the war.

“One of the great things that helped break down apartheid South Africa was people thousands of miles away boycotting and protesting,” says a masked student behind a gate at UCL. “We know that this has worked before.” The students speak of ex-UCL student Refaat Alareer, a poet who taught at the Islamic University in Gaza and was killed in an Israeli air strike last December. They want UCL to condemn the killing of their alumni, who wrote the poem “If I must die, you must live, to tell my story”.

A student-led group of SOAS University of London students standing in solidarity with Palestinians have formed encampments on campus. (Lucy Young)
A student-led group of SOAS University of London students standing in solidarity with Palestinians have formed encampments on campus. (Lucy Young)

Around the corner at SOAS, a new “Liberated Zone” with tents and placards appeared on Monday afternoon. The students there want their university to declare its investments in companies so they can work on divestment, and stop banking with Barclays, which they claim bankrolls the arms companies which fund the bombs used in Gaza. They also demand SOAS sever its ties with Haifa University in Israel, a link they say goes against its “decolonisation” values.

Late at night, the atmosphere turns more febrile with a loud rally, with over 500 supporters making speeches and chanting slogans including “intifada” and “if you hate Zionism clap your hands”. Ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visited SOAS the next day. The groups are organised, with press spokespeople, and lists of demands.

SOAS students want their university to stop banking with Barclays, who they say bankrolls arms companies

American protests quickly got out of hand after heavy-handed crackdowns by the authorities. Starting at Columbia in New York, police have now made at least 900 arrests across the US, sometimes using tear gas and Tasers. In comparison, the British ones are, so far, much more genteel.

Last week, however, following a protest one afternoon, students at Goldsmiths, University of London, in New Cross stormed their library and decided to stay overnight, laying out beanbags, and putting up slogans in the window. The next morning, MA student Danna MacRae, 24, who had not had much sleep, welcomes me into the library and explains that her group has a meeting with management about their demands that afternoon. A pile of supplies brought by friends sits on a desk nearby.

Goldsmiths students Starr Thomas and Danna MacRae (© Lucy Young 2024 07799118984 lucyyounguk@gmail.com www.lucyyoungphotos.co.u​k)
Goldsmiths students Starr Thomas and Danna MacRae (© Lucy Young 2024 07799118984 lucyyounguk@gmail.com www.lucyyoungphotos.co.u​k)

MacRae thinks that Goldsmiths trades on its counter-cultural image but has been avoiding taking a political stand, and wants that to change. She and others have fallen behind with some of their course work but they think it’s worth it. The British students have been inspired by the US efforts, she says: “It’s incredible what they’re doing despite the brutal repression”.

Starr Thomas, 19, a non-binary undergraduate studying political performance and theatre, says the occupation was also about students reclaiming their politics more generally in a time when education is more corporate than it used to be.

“Goldsmiths is meant to be a really liberal radical space for challenging systems and institutions,” Thomas says, but management and the “machine” have been cracking down on protests. “The occupation has really expanded how students see themselves within this institution.”

A group of fellow students nod in agreement. Mark Peacock, 28, is working on a PhD on US foreign policy, and says: “It’s imperative that people in this country take a stance and push our government to end arms sales.” The occupation is one of many Left-wing causes he supports, saying that his family aren’t as political as he is, but they are proud of him for standing up for his beliefs.

One of the posters in the window facing the main road carries the phrase “from the river to the sea”, which Israel and some Jewish groups view as antisemitic, believing that it refers to Israel’s destruction. Last year, Labour MP for Middlesbrough Andy McDonald had the whip removed for using the phrase in a speech. It was later restored after he promised not to use it again. Activists keep using it, arguing that it only refers to freedom for Palestinians, but it remains highly controversial. Anthropology undergraduate Naomi is Jewish and says she’s one of many in the student body who feel comfortable with the protest at Goldsmiths. She has had many disagreements with her family over the politics of Israel and Palestine over the years.

Students occupying the library at Goldsmiths University (Lucy Young)
Students occupying the library at Goldsmiths University (Lucy Young)

“I don’t want Israel’s actions to represent me,” she says, saying that antisemitism has been “weaponised” by those who don’t want the marches to go ahead. “There’s a very strong Jewish bloc that come to all the marches... there’s no one Jewish community.”

Other London Jewish students say they are uncomfortable. Rachel Coussins, 23, is studying for a journalism MA at City University. “It’s one thing for people to be on a campus and using their right to protest, I don’t have a problem with that,” she says. “But when you’re a Jewish student, and you can’t get into your classes every day without hearing ‘From the river to the sea’ or ‘Intifada until victory’ … it’s quite upsetting.” Coussins doesn’t disagree with the cause — she opposes Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is pro-Palestine, giving money to Palestinian charities.

But she says she’s also a Zionist, in that she believes Israel has a right to exist, and feels that position puts her at odds with the protesters. City doesn’t have an encampment, but has been the site of at least one pro-Palestine protest over the last six months.

Coussins wears a star of David necklace, and says that these days, “being visibly Jewish is antagonistic on your university campus”, which is “a very difficult thing to manage”. She acknowledges some of her fellow Jewish students take part in the protests, but says she feels they are only accepted if they are “good Jews” and forswear the idea of Israel entirely.

A placard at the student protest in Goldsmiths (Lucy Young)
A placard at the student protest in Goldsmiths (Lucy Young)

Over in Israel and Gaza, the war goes on. Earlier this week, Hamas said it had accepted a new ceasefire deal but Netanyahu said the terms did not fit his requirements. Almost 35,000 Palestinians are reported to have been killed in Gaza, including more than 14,500 children. The invasion of Gaza started after the brutal attack of October 7, in which Hamas killed more than 1,160 people and took over 250 hostages.

Back at Goldsmiths last Thursday evening, the students have declared victory. Management, they say, agreed to make a statement about the war in Gaza, to fund two Palestinian scholarships, and look at divesting its investments more ethically. In addition, one of the lecture theatres in the media department is set to be renamed after Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by an Israeli soldier in 2021. Yesterday, Trinity College Dublin agreed to divest from Israeli firms after a similar student protest.

“Victory to every student encampment around the world,” the Goldsmiths student group wrote in a celebratory post online last week. “We will not stop fighting until Palestine is free, from the river to the sea.” At UCL and SOAS, the tent camps continue, with students sleeping out on their university lawns for the foreseeable future. “We’ll be here until management meet our demands” says Junayd.

A UCL spokesperson said: “Like many other public institutions, we continue to have a protest with tents on our campus, and are regularly speaking with the organisers and monitoring the situation.

“We are managing this, along with other protests, in line with our legal duty and commitment to uphold freedom of speech within the law, whilst ensuring all members of our community are safe and enabling the normal business of the university to go head, including our education and research activities.

“To minimise any disruption, we are currently asking our staff and students to show their ID cards at the gates of our Bloomsbury campus.

“Separate to UCL, we are also aware there have been a number of protests outside our university on public streets, which have been organised by external groups.”

Additional reporting by Alexandra Parren