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Campus protests over the war in Gaza have gone international

Pro-Palestinian students protest outside the Department for Education on March 22 in London. The students called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for an end to links between U.K. universities and Israel.
Mark Kerrison
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In Pictures via Getty Images
Pro-Palestinian students protest outside the Department for Education on March 22 in London. The students called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for an end to links between U.K. universities and Israel.

LONDON — A growing global student movement to occupy university campuses has continued to coalesce and expand in recent days, following dramatic scenes involving pro-Palestinian protesters and police captured on cameras at American colleges.

Student groups in the United Kingdom, France and Mexico — among others — have sought to erect what many of them are terming "solidarity encampments," prompting a variety of responses from university authorities and local law enforcement.

The efforts by students to pressure institutional leaders, and in some cases national policy makers, to change their stances on Israel's military actions reflect a widespread anger among young people in wealthy and developing nations alike.

These protests are continuing against the backdrop of sustained violence in the Gaza Strip, the continued failure of negotiations led by Qatar, Egypt and the U.S. to bring about a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, and renewed threats by Israeli leaders about launching a ground offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

A common demand among many of the protesters is for their learning institutions to cut ties with companies that conduct business with the Israeli state, or in some cases to end collaboration agreements with universities in Israel.

Student concerns in the U.K. — for instance — seemed to echo the focus of an increasingly high-profile nationwide campaign to end British arms exports to Israel. Earlier this week, hundreds of activists surrounded a government trade office in London and protested at British aerospace manufacturer BAE Systems locations elsewhere in the U.K., leading to arrests.

That came just days after the United Nations' top court in The Hague rejected arguments by Nicaragua that Germany should immediately halt military transfers to Israel.

The protest against arming Israel is particularly pronounced at Warwick University in central England, where a coalition of students and staff built an encampment on a central campus square late last Thursday evening [[APRIL 25?]], demanding the institution sever relations with companies supplying military materiel to Israel.

"The University of Warwick has some of the most partnerships of any U.K. universities with arms companies," says Fraser Amos, a student member of the group called Warwick Stands For Palestine. "We've been campaigning for the last few months for a university to break these ties — an overwhelming majority of students voted in November for it to do so, and we've seen 27,000 Palestinians die since. And so we've been forced to take this action."

Warwick acknowledges it maintains academic and research partnerships with companies involved in the production of weapons systems or components used in weapons, including Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Moog.

In a statement, university spokesperson Bron Mills told NPR, "the University is working to begin discussions with the demonstration's organizers about the demands that have been made."

But so far, few of the student campaigns have seen success.

The elite French university Sciences Po has been rocked by protests over the past week, but administrators on Thursday began what were described by participants as an "emotional" dialogue with students to try and calm the situation.

"It's good to have these debates, because we are in a school that all the time says that we have to debate politics, we have to discuss," said student Ismail El Gataa, soon after participating in those conversations with university authorities.

Students set up camp on the campus of Sorbonne University to stage a protest against the war in Gaza, in Paris on April 29.
/ Ameer Alhalbi/Anadolu via Getty Images
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Ameer Alhalbi/Anadolu via Getty Images
Students set up camp on the campus of Sorbonne University to stage a protest against the war in Gaza, in Paris on April 29.

Despite the students' specific demands, Sciences Po's leadership says it would refuse to cut ties or investigate its relationships with four Israeli universities. With the overnight occupation of a school auditorium into Friday morning, the student campaigners responded that their demonstrations would continue — though far more peacefully and less confrontationally than in the United States.

"I feel like the context for U.S. and here are different," El Gataa said. "Unfortunately what I've seen in the U.S. is that there's a lot of extremism in some in some settings."

But by Friday morning, police units began to gather outside Sciences Po's campus — just as they had at another high profile Paris university, the Sorbonne — after authorities requested their help evacuating the students.

Another group, Goldsmiths for Palestine, was created in November last year at Goldsmiths University in London, when students started conducting walkouts, urging university management to make a statement condemning the circumstances facing Palestinians and to divest from a business called Nice Ltd. that sells surveillance equipment to government for use by police units and prison systems.

Graduate student Danna Liu Macrae says their move this week to occupy part of the college's library was quite specific to Goldsmiths, where students had earlier disbanded a previous encampment after university management offered to discuss their concerns, but had then grown disillusioned with those efforts.

"We had sat in multiple meetings with them, and they had made some commitments which they pulled out of — with little explanation," says Liu Macrae, speaking of the latest library occupation. "It made sense for us to put the pressure back on to hold them accountable, make sure they follow through with their commitments."

The pro-Palestinian protests across U.S. campuses have meanwhile prompted largely positive reactions from contemporaries and peers elsewhere — without much sign of the pro-Israel counter-protests seen at several American colleges.

At the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known as UNAM, bullhorns at the country's largest college boomed across campus Thursday as students erected several tents in front of the university's administration buildings to protest Israel's military actions in Gaza.

Mexican geography student Alexa Carranza says she was heartened by the U.S. college protests, particularly since she had long considered U.S. students to be apathetic about global injustice. "To see them wake up inspired me," she says.

Thursday was the first day of the protest, and students were demanding the state of Mexico — not just their own university — should entirely sever its diplomatic relations. "Break ties with Israel," a small crowd chanted, as some students spray-painted signs that read "Long Live Palestine."

At Warwick University, where police and university authorities have largely kept the situation calm, Fraser Amos says the treatment of American student protesters has been "appalling" and his group wants to show "full solidarity" with similar encampments from Columbia University in New York to the University of Texas in Austin.

For Samir Ali, an undergraduate at Goldsmiths in London, students like her are on the front foot right now, at this moment of mutual global support. "We see ourselves as part of that collective struggle and part of that collective student movement," she says.

A woman raises her fist while she shouts slogans during a  demonstration against Israel's attacks on Gaza, in Mexico City,  April 13.
/ Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu via Getty Images
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Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu via Getty Images
A woman raises her fist while she shouts slogans during a demonstration against Israel's attacks on Gaza, in Mexico City, April 13.

It's an emotional kinship for Ana Jiménez, an 18-year-old UNAM student who grew up in Guerrero, a Mexican region ravaged by drug-related conflict. She says she can relate very powerfully to Palestinian children caught up in the Gaza conflict.

"We need global solidarity, an empathetic world," Jiménez says. "When you're young, there is no other choice but to be a revolutionary."

Eleanor Beardsley contributed reporting from Paris. Eyder Peralta contributed reporting from Mexico City.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]