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UK: Cambridge and Oxford students launch protest encampments against Gaza war

Students, outraged over rising death toll in Gaza and how their universities spend tuition fees, launch tent encampments calling for divestment from Israel
Students at the University of Cambridge launched an encampment on 6 May 2024 in protest against the university investing in companies fuelling Israel’s war on Gaza (Imran Mullah/MEE)
By Imran Mulla in Cambridge, England

Students at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford set up pro-Palestine encampments on college grounds early on Monday to demand the institutions condemn Israel's war on Gaza and end any potential complicity in the devastating seven-month conflict.

Around a hundred students gathered outside University of Cambridge's King's College, where they erected tents and demanded the institution commit to divestment from companies involved in Israel's war on Gaza. They were joined by numerous members of staff at the university's colleges.

In coordination with the organisers at Cambridge, students from Oxford University pitched up tents outside the Pitt Rivers Museum, which they claimed holds a disturbing hoard of artefacts stolen from colonised peoples across the world.

Cambridge for Palestine posted a video on X, formerly known as Twitter, of dozens of pro-Palestine protesters marching onto the famous lawn with tents, supplies and sleeping bags, saying they refuse to sit idly by while the university "supports Israel's genocide of Palestinians in Gaza".

Earlier this year, MEE reported that Trinity, Cambridge's wealthiest college, had £61,735 ($78,089) invested in Israel's largest arms company, Elbit Systems, which produces 85 percent of the drones and land-based equipment used by the Israeli army.

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Japanese trading giant Itochu cut ties with Elbit in February in response to an ICJ ruling that Israel may be committing genocide in Gaza.

According to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the college also has investments worth approximately $3.2m (£2.5m) in Caterpillar, a US-based heavy equipment company that has long been the target of boycott campaigns for its sale of bulldozers to the Israeli army, and multiple other companies involved in Israel's war - including General Electric, Toyota Corporation, Rolls-Royce, Barclays Bank, and L3Harris Industries.

At Cambridge, the protest's organisers told MEE they are demanding that Cambridge University discloses all its relationships with companies and institutions "complicit in the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine".

They said they want the university to end all such relationships, support Palestinian students and academics - and commit to protecting academic freedom. 

MEE spoke to a masked staff member at Trinity College who was attending the protest and asked to remain anonymous. "Most staff members here are trying to be fully covered," she said, referencing other protestors. "There's a fear of action against staff members.

'Our attention should be on Gaza, where thousands have been brutally murdered… it’s frankly disgusting that the university is complicit'

- student protester, Cambridge

"I don't know if I'd say there's censorship or fear but you want to protect your income."

MEE saw Kamal Munir and Bhaskar Vira, two of Cambridge’s pro-vice-chancellors, senior administrators, walking around the encampment and talking to protestors. They told MEE they did not yet have a comment for the press. 

Most protestors were masked and asked to remain anonymous.

One student told MEE that he was prepared to remain in the encampment until the movement's demands were met, adding that "our attention should be on Gaza, where thousands have been brutally murdered… it’s frankly disgusting that the university is complicit."

He rejected the idea that the protest was divisive or extremist: "We’re just camping. What’s extreme is bombing kids and occupying land for decades on end."

Another student said he believed there is widespread public support for such protests, noting that according to opinion polls the British public overwhelmingly back a ceasefire in Gaza.

"Every once in a while someone from the public comes and chants with us," he said. 

Not all passersbys were supportive. "They need to be locked up," one man said, as protestors chanted "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." Another passerby agreed with him: "They're ruining this country."

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A group called Cambridge Jews for Palestine formed a prominent part of the encampment. “There are many of us Jews who believe it is our duty to speak out,” one of its members told MEE.

In an official statement to the press, the group said: "We refuse to sit by while our university is complicit in, and profits from, the genocide of Palestinians."

At Oxford, the student protesters erected a board with a list of six demands to university administrators, including a pledge to "boycott Israeli genocide, apartheid and occupation," to "disclose all finances," "stop banking with Barclays", help rebuild Gaza’s education system and "divest from Israeli genocide, apartheid and occupation."

"There is no university in the history of human civilisation that is more complicit in violence, dispossession, and the building of destructive colonial empires than the University of Oxford," they added in a statement.

In a video published on X, a group of protesters at Oxford could be heard chanting: "We are the people. We will not be silenced. Stop the bombing now now now."

Campus protests spread

Since the start of the war on Gaza, Cambridge has been gripped by protests over its potential complicity in possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank. 

In March, an activist from Palestine Action spray-painted then slashed a 1914 painting of Lord Arthur Balfour at Trinity.

Balfour was Britain's foreign secretary in 1917 when he issued the Balfour Declaration - a statement of intent by the British government to support the establishment "in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people".

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And in February, the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians issued a legal notice to Trinity warning that its investments could make it potentially complicit in Israeli war crimes.

In recent weeks, students at several UK universities, including UCL, the University of Manchester and the University of Warwick, have launched tent encampments to demand divestment from Israel. 

The encampments come after violent crackdowns on pro-Palestine solidarity at campuses across the US.

On Thursday, hundreds of riot police descended on a pro-Palestine encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles, and arrested hundreds of protestors, days after the protest site was attacked by Israel supporters.

And on Tuesday, New York City police arrested dozens of students holed up in an academic building at Columbia University and removed a protest encampment the Ivy League school had sought to dismantle for nearly two weeks.

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