Don’t mention the war: Why is the Palace Green pro-Palestine encampment so muted?

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The Israel-Gaza War is probably the most contentious global political issue of our time. The plight of the beleaguered Palestinian people and Israeli hostages is also a stark humanitarian crisis, that has left an indelible mark on the world’s conscience. According to the United Nations, humanitarian organisations “must have full, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access” to reach all civilians in need across Gaza: relevant stakeholders must also “work expeditiously to restore security, dignity and hope” for the affected population.

However, the war in Gaza grinds on, with a just peace looking increasingly difficult to come by. While the Hamas militant attacks of 7th October 2023 were evil, the sustained suffering Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has responded with is unconscionable. Both sides of the conflict have inflamed the world’s ire, in particular among young people. In the United States and now in the United Kingdom, campuses have spawned protests and counter-protests. Pro-Palestinian encampments have been set up on university land, with demands for justice made clear. Calls for universities to divest from Israeli-linked businesses and for universities to condemn the Israeli government’s action have become ubiquitous. Banners have been brandished and slogans slashed over the tarpaulin settlements established by student bodies ranging from Newcastle University, to the University of Cambridge, to Trinity College Dublin. In some instances, police have responded and arrests have been made.

While in all of these cities, the student bodies have rallied to the call of Palestinian liberation, the pro-Palestinian encampment in Durham remains muted by comparison

While in all of these cities, the student bodies have rallied to the call of Palestinian liberation, the pro-Palestine encampment in Durham remains muted by comparison. Less than two dozen tents have been established. The recent 7th June pro-Palestinian protest that led to the postponement of a Durham Union debate, reported on by Palatinate, put inter-community harmony to the test.

The debate, was set to be held in the Durham Union’s debating chamber in the Pemberton Buildings on Palace Green, was titled ‘This House Believes Palestinian Leadership is the Biggest Barrier to Peace.’ While this pro-Palestinian protest marked a major development in terms of tactics used, it was ultimately harmless. Thankfully, even this protest remained remarkably peaceful. Violence has not emerged among different communities in Durham. And altogether, the encampment seems to have had very little bearing on the student body.

This seems to be a trend in Durham, with protests few in number and often with low turnouts. Our students’ union, while often outspoken, lacks the significance of other universities’ SUs in the daily lives of students. This is in large part due to Durham’s collegiate structure, with Durham students typically commanding much stronger ties with their colleges and JCRs. In JCR politics, most parties involved know each other, live together, and eat together. Political campaigns require clear dividing lines to be drawn through divisive and at times demonising rhetoric. With the close ties a college community brings, boundaries are broken down, political views are more easily moderated, and people from disparate backgrounds are brought closer together. This plays a role in making heated political disagreements rarer, creating an idealised – and detached – political sphere.

Durham students often tend to approach politics from an abstracted, more academic perspective

The demographics of Durham are also notable. Overwhelmingly middle-class, the Durham student body often has less at stake in political disputes, while the distinct lack of diversity plays its part in softening inter-community disputes and divisions. Whereas at larger and more urban universities, rallies, sit-ins, and outspoken and widespread protests have become the norm, by comparison the sedate, somewhat aloof Durham ‘bubble’ feels positively disconnected from the wider world. This is not to say that Durham students do not care about politics and global affairs. It is rather to say that Durham students often tend to approach politics from an abstracted, more academic perspective, often obsessed with political theory at the expense of bolder, more radical and practical action.

Durham remains largely peaceful, even in these times of extreme political division. While this may mean that the clarion call for Palestinian liberation sounds more quietly here in our city, it also means that political violence has been avoided, and communities have held together. This, at least, is commendable.

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