How the UK's pro-Gaza student protests are key to the global fight for Palestinian justice

How the UK's pro-Gaza student protests are key to the global fight for Palestinian justice
Student encampments at SOAS, LSE, the University of Oxford and elsewhere have exposed and called for an end to investments funding the genocide in Gaza.
6 min read
23 May, 2024
Gaza protests have taken place at campuses from the UK to US [Getty]

The UK is in the midst of a mass student protest movement for Palestine with dozens of encampments emerging at campuses across the country demanding an end to university ties to Israel.

The scale of the student and staff uprisings, taking place at 30 locations, has not been seen since the 2010 protests against tuition fees with thousands demanding a change in UK government foreign policy amid Israel's devastating war on Gaza, although the globalised aspect of the movement makes it somewhat unique.

"In this regard, the only parallel is the 1968 student protests and encampments that swept Europe," says Ashok Kumar, a political economist at Birkbeck University.

SOAS encampment: Activism and education

The SOAS Liberated Zone for Gaza, launched on 6 May, has made seven demands to the university administration, including the full disclosure of all SOAS investments and an end to its banking relationship with Barclays, which has been accused of bankrolling apartheid and genocide in Gaza, claims the bank denies.

"The encampment is just the latest step in the UK student protest movement," says Foxglove, a spokesperson for the SOAS Liberated Zone in London who asked to The New Arab to conceal their name. "While occupations like these predated those in the US, the situation across US campuses had a mobilising force."

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The camp at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London is part of a global student revolution but also remains highly localised and connected to other pro-Palestine, non-student groups in the UK, such as activists organising marches for Gaza and collectives engaging in direct action against Israeli arms factories.

The camp draws heavily from super-structural, grassroots organisations such as the London Student Action for Palestine and the Palestinian Youth Movement but also engages with allies such as migrant and detainee support group, Solidarity Detainee Support (SDS).

"We're all learning from each other and innovating tactics," says Foxglove.

"Breaking down the barriers between the university and the outside world is an ethos held by SOAS and many other student encampments"

As a place to connect and educate, the SOAS encampment has been a resounding success and a point for mobilising against the university management and beyond.

"The SOAS camp has grown fast, gained a lot of attention, and, most importantly, won support from our university community and the broader London community, mobilising them," Foxglove adds.

"We've already seen SOAS partially disclose its investments and make other concessions."

Breaking down the barriers between the university and outside world is another key part of the SOAS encampment and other student groups missions.

This outreach to the public has been achieved at SOAS via daily events and education programmes at the encampment which organisers say have been well attended.

"We also have alumni and people from the community staying here at the encampment," says Foxglove.

"SOAS is a very international university and student body, so we have organisers coming from the US to this camp, and vice versa. But knowledge is also being shared online in more informal ways."

While UK students have not experienced the same level of violence experienced by pro-Gaza protesters at college encampments in the US, repression against the movement exists at British universities.

"SOAS, like many others, has limited the acceptable range of speech around Palestine through administrative disciplinary processes that censor, stigmatise, and actively silence us," says Foxglove.

"But this is not about our plight. Keeping the focus on what's happening in Gaza, this is our very purpose."

The LSE encampment: Revealing university complicity

The LSE encampment was launched on 14 May, a day before the annual commemoration for the Nakba, when more Palestinians were expelled from their home during the 1948 creation of Israel, a harrowing event that is still being felt today, said Jack, a spokesperson for the LSE encampment/

"There are no universities left in Gaza, in part, because of the financial activity of universities here in the UK. Our campuses are financed by the complete destruction of Gaza's higher education sector. Our buildings grow from their rubble"

"[There has been] 76 years of dispossession, loss of homeland, ethnic cleansing, and impunity. The settler colonial project in Palestine is a joint project waged by Israel and the powers that endorse it, such as the UK, and the campus in which we are standing," he told The New Arab.

"There are no universities left in Gaza, in part, because of the financial activity of universities here in the UK. Our campuses are financed by the complete destruction of Gaza's higher education sector. Our buildings grow from their rubble."

The launch of LSE’s encampment coincided with the release of a landmark, 116-page report, Assets in Apartheid, following months-long research led by students and staff of the university.

"Our report finds that LSE is undoubtedly complicit in committing crimes against the Palestinian people, and actively grows its endowment by profiting from the genocide in Gaza," says Jack.

The report claims that 18.4 percent of LSE’s portfolio value (at least £89 million) sits across 117 holdings and 137 companies allegedly involved in four egregious activities: the first one being crimes against the Palestinian people (£48.5 million), which includes supporting illegal Israeli settlements, the Israeli military, and sustaining apartheid.

"This report shows what students can do once they achieve disclosure. It also shows how universities attempt to avoid accountability since LSE technically holds no direct investments, only 'indirect' ones," explains Jack.

"We see universities across the UK and US making similar distinctions in their ESG policy. [Direct or indirect] there's no material or ethical difference: LSE's investment is funding egregious activity."

Oxford encampment: Global connections and local challenges

Students from Oxford Action for Palestine launched the 'Liberated Zone for Gaza' on 6 May, in conjunction with the Cambridge encampment. 

"The global student encampment symbolises that our global revolutionary movement has reached mass support"

Since then, hundreds of faculty and staff at the University of Oxford have signed written pledges supporting the demands of the encampments, as well as backing their right to protest on university grounds for Gaza.

"We know that Oxford plays a really critical role internationally and that what we do here will have a lot of rhetorical ripple effects around the world," said Kendall Gardner, a PhD student at Oxford and a spokesperson at the encampment.

"We've been communicating with Cambridge and many camps across the UK, and our startup materials actually came from Columbia and Harvard. We've also been liaising with Emory and UChicago and some of the Texas encampments, as well as activists in Italy, Germany, France, Iceland and Japan about how to start their encampments."

Gardner believes the student encampments show how the global revolutionary movement has reached a critical level of mass support.

"It also represents the materiality of decolonisation which is, fundamentally, about taking back space from colonial forces," adds Kendall.

"This encampment is a really powerful way of doing that as we sit here in imperial core, the lawn of the Pitt Rivers Museum."

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Since its launch, the Oxford camp has faced a notable hostility from external actors with six men allegedly attacking members of the group last week.

"There's a constant threat of violence here. While universities in the UK have not called on the police to violently extract us, they're playing a war of attrition. They know that if they escalate with a higher level of police hostility, it could explode like it did in the US," explains Kendall.

"Oxford is also a site of invisibilized violence that is very interpersonal, rhetorical and diffused – and because of that, it's hard to fight back against."


Sebastian Shehadi is a freelance journalist and a contributing writer at the New Statesman. 

Follow him on X: @seblebanon