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Israel-Palestine war: London university students say they were 'targeted' over Gaza rallies

Students at Soas remain barred from campus following their participation in two pro-Palestine rallies
People protest on Vauxhall Bridge, London, during a march in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, 11 November 2023 (Reuters)

Students at a London university are demanding that they be allowed to return to classes, after they were suspended following Palestine solidarity action held before and after the 7 October attack.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) suspended four students and three alumni last month for "violating health and safety protocols" following two pro-Palestine rallies held on 29 September and 9 October. 

The students and alumni, some of whom are members of Soas's Palestine Society committee, took part in two rallies, one on 29 September during the students union fresher's fayre and another outside the main entrance to the university on 9 October, shortly after Israel began bombing Gaza following the 7 October attack on Israel by Hamas.

An internal report by the university, seen by Middle East Eye, alleges that the students moved towards the entrance and attempted to occupy a staircase at one of the rallies. It reports that a fire alarm was activated shortly afterwards.

The suspended students have denied their involvement in activating the alarm and told MEE that their suspensions were still in force as of 2 December, with no timeline given for when they could return to their classes.

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"We started chanting on the steps of the main building where protests have always happened," one of the students told MEE, requesting anonymity. 

"In the last 18 months there has been a real escalation in the way security has responded [to student protests], so in this case, they shut all the doors of the building and security officers were filming us on their phones," the student said.

"Around 20 minutes in, the fire alarm went off. Because all the doors were shut, people were unsure of what was going to happen."

The student said demonstrators left the building and moved towards a green space away from the main entrance.

Three days later, the participating students were informed that they had violated health and safety procedures and that they would be suspended as a precautionary measure. The alumni were barred from campus without a disciplinary hearing.

"The allegation was very vague... they [university administrators] said that the students did not move fast enough when the fire alarm went off," the student said. "There was a 30-metre gap between the demonstration and the people exiting the building."

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Soas has insisted that the suspensions are unrelated to Palestine solidarity activism and that the students breached "agreed-upon conditions" with management. 

Members of the Palestine Society, however, claim that they were not notified of these conditions until after the rally took place.

"This is a targeted act of political repression against," the Palestine Society said in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter.

A number of the suspended students are committee members of the Palestine Society, with many members who were not present at the rally reportedly being issued with warnings.

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"This includes racialised students, Arab students and international students on precarious visas," another student told MEE.

"The intention is to silence the Palestine society at this critical time," they said. "We want to get organised, and they're silencing us."

According to one student, the academic board asked university administrators to drop the suspensions, but the request was rejected.

Some of the students told MEE that they were seeking legal action and suing the university for discrimination under the Equality Act, as they believe they were targeted on the basis of their political beliefs.

Despite some small protests continuing on campus, the students reported that the suspensions had a "chilling effect" on discourse about Palestine, with a lecturer reporting on X that Palestine solidarity posters had been removed from her office door.

"Those who are confident enough to protest are now barred from campus. Many on campus are scared to do anything in case they get suspended as well."

According to one student, elected sabbatical officers at Soas are facing pressure both from the student union CEO and the university not to support the suspended students.

When contacted for comment, a Soas spokesperson said: "While there is an ongoing investigation into health and safety breaches, the triggering of fire alarms, and vandalism on our campus, we cannot comment on the details of the suspensions."

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