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A group of 15 students are sitting at the back of the lecture theatre. Some are wearing scarves associated with the Palestinian movement, others hold the Palestinian flag. They are silent, apart from the few words one of them utters at the beginning of the lecture explaining why they are there: as part of a symbolic silent protest to show solidarity with the people of Gaza.
On the walls are photos of the conflict, showing men carrying blood-splattered children and posters calling for the massacre in Gaza to stop. In the corner of the room is a pile of sleeping bags and a table stacked with bottled water and cartons of fruit juice.
Over the last week, a storm of student protests has gathered over 16 universities across England, suggesting that students are awakening from the political apathy of which they are often accused. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye of ageing sixties radicals.
Starting at the School of Oriental and African Studies, occupations in protest at events in Gaza spread to King’s College London and the London School of Economics (LSE), then out of the capital to Sussex, Warwick, Newcastle, Oxford, Essex, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan, Bristol, Nottingham, Salford, and Kingston.
At Sussex, students have occupied the arts lecture theatre 24 hours a day since a meeting with a controversial British Palestinian academic, Azzam Tamimi, on Tuesday night.
Simon Englert, 19, a second-year English literature and drama student from Belgium, is a member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign on campus and one of the instigators of the 100-strong occupation. “It’s important for Universities to take a stand on this. We are told in history about the central role that students play in defending causes. So that is what we are doing today,” he says. “We invited LSE students along to our meeting and they helped to inspire this action.”
“The action has brought together socialists, Islamists and even students from the green movement who realise the detrimental effects of war on the environment,” says Gwen Wilkinson, a first-year psychology student from Newport.
A handful of Jewish students are involved in the protest, including Englert. “I don’t want to make a big thing about it,” he says, “but Israel doesn’t speak for the world’s Jewish community.”
The occupiers have issued the university with six demands including the issuing of a statement condemning the “atrocities perpetrated by Israel in the Gaza Strip” and calling on it to disinvest from “companies complicit in human rights abuses”. At night they are using the internet facilities in the lecture hall to contact groups in the West Bank and are hoping to get through to Gaza.
Eleanor, 20, a first-year English and history student, has signed their petition. Although she says many students are attracted to Sussex by its radical history, she is reluctant to get involved in the occupation. “There are two sides to the story and Hamas were firing rockets into Israel,” she says.
And the occupation has passed some students by entirely. May Lam, a second-year media studies student rushing from the library, says: “I don’t even have time to do my own thing. It’s remote, in another country and there’s nothing I can do about it. There are so many problems here in the UK with a recession.”
At the LSE, veteran campaigner and politician Tony Benn told students: “I don’t believe in protesting, because that looks like you’ve lost the battle and don’t like it. I believe in making demands. This is more important than you realise at the moment, but when people get together and do something, that’s when history is changed.”
The numbers involved are a tiny proportion of the 2.5 million-strong UK student body, but they appear to speak for many more, and to have caught a wider mood. So far the protests have been peaceful and treated gently by the authorities, though some Jewish students have complained they feel threatened.
King’s students see the university occupations as a resurgence of the kind of action that took place during the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.
The zenith of British student political activism in the 1960s does not warrant a mention now, not even the protest by LSE students against Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), let alone those in 1968. Presumably for today’s students, many of whom were born in the early 1990s, the sixties are ancient history.
Unlike the anti-apartheid protesters, today’s students have the power of the internet at their disposal. They have put it to good use, publicising their campaigns through social-networking sites, making regular updates on blogs, and supporting one another through emailed messages of solidarity.
All the occupying students have issued similar demands: a statement from their vice-chancellor condemning the Israeli bombing of Gaza; severing university investment or links with companies supplying equipment used in the conflict; sending surplus computers and books to students in Gaza; scholarships for Gazan students Â– and no repercussions for their activism.
King’s students also want the university to remove the honorary degree it bestowed on Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, last November. In Oxford, students occupying the historic Clarendon building called on Balliol College to cancel a lecture series in Peres’s honour.
University officials have on the whole agreed to help students fundraise and send equipment to Gaza, but vice-chancellors have carefully sidestepped demands to issue political statements condemning Israel’s conduct.
So far, four of the occupying student groups have claimed victory: at the School of Oriental and African Studies and the University of Essex (after two days), and at Oxford (after just 10 hours), and the LSE. At the LSE, the student sit-in lasted a week but ended peacefully when the director, Sir Howard Davies, agreed to meet most of the students’ demands.
In a statement, he said he understood the students’ concerns and that the suffering of civilians in Gaza was “painful to observe”. But he refused to issue an official university condemnation of the conflict or to publish regular financial statements spelling out the university’s investment in companies involved in supplying arms to Palestine and Israel.
Michael Deas, a third-year environmental policy student involved in the LSE occupation, said students were “delighted” with the outcome. “It’s a real victory for student activism, particularly forcing the director into making a statement,” he said. Police evicted protesting students at the University of Birmingham after 12 hours.
In recent months, student activists have not limited themselves to sit-in protests over Gaza. They have boycotted careers fairs over university links with companies of which they disapprove Â– distributing badges, draping banners over displays and even dumping bags of coal to make their point.
The ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict has driven hundreds of students to act. But they still a tiny minority. Officials at Warwick – where students have demanded an end to links with BAE, GE Aviation, MBDA, Qinetiq and Rolls Royce – pointed out last week that more than 1,000 students had attended a careers fair where those companies were represented. Careerists, it seems, outnumber the idealists.