7 February 2009

A new generation of student activists from the flames of Gaza

By Juliette Harkin

Hundreds of students have staged occupations of university buildings around the country in solidarity with Palestinian citizens against Israel's brutal attack on Gaza. Young students, some of whom who have never been involved in political activism, have been moved in large numbers to express the outrage that British people feel about the mass carnage in Gaza. In doing so the myth of student apathy has been completely debunked and it looks like a new generation of activists are here to stay.

Participants in the occupations of building at the universities have come under fire by critics claiming that their actions are disruptive for other students and a form of bullying that is not acceptable in our higher education system. These critics have misjudged the strength of feeling about the injustice visited upon Gaza and chosen to ignore the noble history of student protest which played a part in ending South Africa's apartheid regime and condemned the Vietnam war.

I was one of the students involved in occupying the Clarendon building of the historic Bodleian library of Oxford University. As I returned for a new term at Oxford, I wondered what kind of a world do we live in where it is 'normal' to hear about fathers watching as their daughters are beheaded by explosions in front of their eyes and their sons die because the ambulances were refused access? In the face of this horrifying terror visited on a civilian population as our governments look on we have to ask is this right? Is it right that students be angry that they have the inconvenience of not being able to access a building or of being disturbed by the calls for justice for Palestine? Is it right that some universities resort to the law to forcibly remove students who feel so passionately about justice?

We as students and humans had a moral obligation to act and it was one that far outweighed the restrictions that criminalise direct action when international conventions are being ignored, or the rule books of our great universities. Attending a lecture on Palestine in Oxford University last week, we were reminded that our governments have failed to reign in what Professor Avi Shlaim stated clearly was a "rogue and pariah" Israeli state that was exhibiting the signs of "fascism" in its behaviour. A word that the Israeli professor would not use lightly.

The list of sheer wanton destruction of Gaza that was read out by Dr Karma Nabulsi was in no way exhaustive... 1,325 civilians killed of which 446 were children, 110 women and 108 elderly, 5,320 injured many of them very seriously, 10,000 farms damaged or destroyed, the fishing port, UN compounds and schools and food warehouses all bombed to destruction, Gaza's largest university attacked... the list goes on. Many of us speak out and say this is wrong and we must do something. The situation is desperate and our politicians, with few honourable exceptions, refuse to condemn Israel's reign of terror over occupied Palestine.

By occupying the buildings the students gained national media coverage and alerted students and staff and the British people to the urgency of the Gaza crisis. The occupations highlighted the brutality of Israel's assault on a civilian population. Students from across the political spectrum have come together to make their voices heard and they have acted honourably. This is just the beginning as students now organise and work with the Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to keep the pressure on our government to act responsibly.

The students and activists deserve our support.

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