UK students launch five pro-Palestinian university encampments as Gaza protests spread

UK students launch five pro-Palestinian university encampments as Gaza protests spread
Pro-Palestinian encampments were launched at five elite British universities on Wednesday, with more schools expected to join the burgeoning movement.
8 min read
Sheffield, UK
02 May, 2024

Students at five elite UK universities set up pro-Palestinian encampments on Wednesday as international protests over Israel's war on Gaza continued to spread.

Outdoor camps were launched by students at Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, and Sheffield – universities part of the UK's prestigious Russell Group of higher education institutions – with more schools expected to join the burgeoning movement. London university Goldsmiths' library was occupied.

Pro-Palestinian encampments and protests had already hit universities across the world, including Columbia in the US, the Sorbonne in France, the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, Sydney in Australia, and University College London and Warwick in Britain.

"My message for the people of Gaza is… we're still fighting, we're not giving up," Sophie Smart, 18, an undergraduate biology student at the University of Sheffield, told The New Arab on Wednesday.

"We're here for you. Everyone's on your side. The world is on Gaza's side. And we will free Palestine."

Along with dozens of others, Smart attended a rally that took place as tents were set up at her university. She said she was considering camping out.

The encampment taking place at the University of Sheffield is led by the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine (SCCP).

SCCP is a group of students, staff, and alumni of Sheffield and another school that shares the same northern English city, Sheffield Hallam University.


To end the encampment, SCCP is asking the University of Sheffield to comply with demands for divestment from weapons manufacturing, the cutting of all ties with Israeli universities, and accountability.

The coalition says it holds the university accountable for its "complicity in the genocide of the Palestinian people" and that the academic institution shouldn't be "aiding in supplying instruments of warfare to a genocidal state".

A banner across tents reading: 'This uni is complicit in genocide'
The University of Sheffield was accused of being "complicit in genocide" at the encampment on Wednesday [Nick McAlpin/The New Arab]

A case study for a 2021 UK-wide research assessment programme said the University of Sheffield's work had "pioneered a novel, fully automated manufacturing process" used since 2015 at a BAE Systems site in Samlesbury, a village in northern England.

It said the process had been used at the arms firm's site to produce fuselage panels for more than 500 F-35 warplanes.

BAE Systems said last year that it produces the rear fuselage for all F-35s globally at its facilities in Samlesbury.

Israel finalised an agreement in 2010 to buy around 20 of the American warplanes.

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) took delivery of its first F-35 in 2016, with senior US defence official William LaPlante saying last December that the IAF had more than three dozen of the fighter jets.

The New Arab could not confirm whether the process pioneered by the University of Sheffield's research had been used in making F-35 aircraft delivered to Israel.

The local edition of student news website The Tab quoted a university spokesperson as saying a "small number of people have pitched tents in front of our students' union following a planned protest".

"We support the right of our students to express their views peacefully and within the law and planned campus activities will continue as normal," the spokesperson added.

The university did not respond to a request for comment from The New Arab before this article's initial publication, but later said its statement was the same as the one reported by The Tab.

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'Proud of our students'

Demonstrators chanted: "One, two, three, four, occupation no more!" and called for a free Palestine at the rally that kicked the encampment at the University of Sheffield off.

"I'm really proud of our students, to see them standing up for what's right," said Lisa Stampnitzky, a 50-year-old politics lecturer who researches terrorism discourse and is involved in SCCP.

"We are seeing now, across the UK, in the US, worldwide, an overreaction and a misnaming of these protests as terrorism," she added, calling this a "smear".

"In the US, we've seen the government, we've seen university leaders sending in SWAT teams and riot cops against peaceful protesters who are simply protesting to stop the violence that's happening in Gaza."

A banner reading: 'Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine'
The pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Sheffield is being led by the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine [Nick McAlpin/The New Arab]

Alexandra Hulme, 23, a recent Jewish graduate of the University of Sheffield, came to the encampment to show solidarity with the people of Palestine.

"What the state of Israel is doing is absolutely abhorrent and I will not let them do it in my name," they said.

"I think it's important for pro-Palestinian Jewish activists to understand that you are welcome in these camps, you are welcome at the rallies."

While Hulme was unable to camp out for health reasons, they said they would stay as late as possible to support the action.

Protesters at the University of Sheffield in the UK
The rally at the University of Sheffield on Wednesday was awash in Palestinian flags [Nick McAlpin/The New Arab]

Israel's war on Gaza, which is nearing the seven-month mark, has killed at least 34,596 people, according to the Palestinian enclave's health ministry.

The International Court of Justice found in January that there was a plausible risk of Israel breaching its obligations under the UN Genocide Convention.

Other encampments expected

One student involved in the Sheffield camp, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said there were plans for encampments at "a very, very good number" of other universities in the coming days and weeks.

"We follow in the footsteps of Warwick, who began [an encampment] last week," the student told The New Arab.

"Absolutely, we hope that this will be… a national movement. We're already part of an international one."

Ali Jacques, 20, a Sheffield Hallam University student involved with SCCP, said he believed most UK universities will have had some type of encampment or large protest by at least the end of May, but that he was not sure if all the camps would stay around.

"We've seen in America, already some of the encampments have fallen," he said.

A view of the pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Sheffield on Wednesday
Tents set up at the pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Sheffield on Wednesday [Nick McAlpin/The New Arab]

Stories posted on the Instagram account of Welsh university Swansea's Palestine Society suggested an encampment was underway there, but The New Arab could not immediately verify this.

Pro-Palestinian protesters occupied the library at London university Goldsmiths starting on Wednesday, with the Evening Standard newspaper reporting the following day that a staff member had said the demonstration was ongoing.

However, the paper said that when it was in attendance, it seemed there were just two people at the occupation as other students carried on studying.

"We recognise that people hold strong views over the war and uphold their right to freely express themselves while being clear about the need to be respectful and within the law," a spokesperson for Goldsmiths said.

Organisers at Newcastle said on Wednesday they were proud to be joining Warwick and that other universities would follow suit in the coming days. Students in Manchester said their action coincides with encampments in at least four other cities.

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"The struggle of the Palestinian people to keep their dignity and livelihood is still going strong," a spokesperson for the Manchester camp said in a press release.

"We stand in solidarity with all who are fighting for a Palestine free of genocide and occupation, from the River to the Sea," the spokesperson added, referring to the boundaries of Palestine before Israel was created in 1948 alongside a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The University of Manchester fully recognises students and staff have the right to protest within the law, chief operating officer Patrick Hackett said in a statement.

"However, setting up camp in a city campus raises potential health & safety concerns, risks disruption to staff, students and our wider community and ultimately is an unauthorised and unlawful use of the university's campus," he added.


Anna and Ellie, students participating in the Newcastle encampment, compared British universities' positions on Russia's war on Ukraine with their approaches to Gaza.

"We applaud the strong stance taken by our university and multiple universities across the UK in response to Russia, strongly condemning what has been happening in Ukraine," they jointly told The New Arab in emailed remarks.

"We cannot help but notice the lack of similar support for universities in Gaza – none of which remain standing."

The New Arab contacted Newcastle University for comment but did not receive a response before publication.

May Day

Protesters launched their encampments on Wednesday as the world marked May Day, a yearly observation heralding working people.

Sophie Smart, 18, an undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield
Sophie Smart, an 18-year-old biology student, spoke with The New Arab in Sheffield on Wednesday [Nick McAlpin/The New Arab]

"May Day, it's… a day of change and action," said Smart, the 18-year-old University of Sheffield student.

"I think it's really powerful that we come out here today, especially, you know, and gather. It's… a massive group of people."

Also on May Day, more than a thousand people blockaded three BAE Systems sites across England, Scotland, and Wales, as well as the UK's Department for Business and Trade (DBT) in London, the group Workers for a Free Palestine (WfFP) said.

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The DBT is responsible for overseeing arms export licences.

All four blockades finished on Wednesday, WfFP told The New Arab the next day.

London's Metropolitan Police Service said on Wednesday that it was policing a demonstration in the area of the British capital where the DBT is located.

"Officers have made three arrests for assaulting a police officer after protesters blocked access to a building," police told The New Arab.

The International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) said on Wednesday that it had written to 82 British universities this week, warning them of the possible risk of criminal liability over any investments held in arms companies and Israeli settlements.

"The letters inform universities that profiting off investments made in companies supplying weapons to a military that uses them in the commission of war crimes may be a criminal offence," ICJP added in a press release.

More than 700,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. All Israeli settlements violate international law.

Note: This article was updated on 5 May 2024 to include comments that were made by a University of Sheffield spokesperson and reported by student news website The Tab.