Pro-Palestinian encampment assembled on Palace Green

By Will Dixon, Elliot Burrin, and

A pro-Palestinian encampment has assembled on Palace Green with demands including that Durham University calls for a ceasefire over the Israel-Gaza war, which started on 7th October 2023.

The encampment began in the early morning of 10th May, with tents pitched as a ‘Durham Liberated Zone’, and student protestors planning to stay there until the University complies with their demands.

Two students involved in the encampment told Palatinate that the encampment came as a result of them not feeling listened to by Durham University: “We’ve done marches before. We’ve done open letters. We’ve done all this stuff and universities continue to point-blank ignore us.

“So we’re camping here in such a symbolic location for the University […] and saying we’re not going to allow this to go on. We want to have a conversation with [the University] and to be able to get some of our demands heard.”

Whilst Durham University has “continually expressed distress and mounting concern at the huge number of civilian casualties and humanitarian suffering experienced by the people of Gaza, the appalling attacks on Israel and the plights of Israeli hostages,” it has not called for a ceasefire.

This comes after a culmination of successive staff-student protests have arisen around both Durham and across universities nationally due to the humanitarian concerns over Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

Several groups across Durham, such as EcoDU and County Durham Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) have expressed support for the encampment, with County Durham PSC telling Palatinate that they “welcome and support the action of Durham University students in setting up the encampment on Palace Green”.

As part of the encampment, the organisers will host teach-ins, talks, and rallies furthering the pro-Palestinian cause. One first year student who attended the rally on Friday 10th May told Palatinate that, “I think it’s incredibly important that students get involved in this sort of action. Given that we have such potential as the future of our country, having the ability and the capacity to really make noise about these sorts of issues is so important.”

Responding to the encampment, a spokesperson from Durham University reiterated to Palatinate, “We take seriously the concerns of all our students. We have from the outset been engaging actively with students across different communities and continue to do so.

“As a University, we have repeatedly expressed our deepest hope that a way will be found for a peaceful resolution to the conflict as soon as possible. We also hope for the end to the violence and the safe return of the remaining hostages.”

The organisers have posted a list of demands on social media, calling for Durham University to “Disinvest, Call, Advocate, Safeguard”. They told Palatinate that “we won’t be moving until we’re satisfied that all the demands are met”, and that it is “up to [the University] how long that process takes.”

“There are many channels that we’re speaking to the University through at the minute,” they told Palatinate, “We’re public and contactable – so the time and the length we stay here is completely in [the University’s] court.”

Disinvest

The organisers have firstly called that the University disinvests from “any company or organisation complicit in Israel’s violation of human rights.” Some students at the encampment named Barclays, HP, and Starbucks as companies they were seeking for the University to disinvest from. They told Palatinate, “in the engineering departments, [Durham University] are very willing to advertise jobs in arms companies,” believing that, “many of which are complicit with the genocides, such as BAE Systems and Leonardo UK.”

The latest People and Planet University League Table gave Durham a 10/10 score for committing to screening out investments in arms companies, but a 0/10 score for committing to screening out recruitment links in this industry.

Palatinate reached out to the named companies for comment. In response, Barclays said, “We have been asked why we invest in nine defence companies supplying Israel, but this mistakes what we do. We trade in shares of listed companies in response to client instruction or demand and that may result in us holding shares. We are not making investments for Barclays and Barclays is not a “shareholder” or “investor” in that sense in relation to these companies.”

However, this is not the first time recently that Durham has come under fire for its relationship with Barclays. Last week, Palatinate reported that students had called for the University to “Dump Barclays” over its connection to the fossil fuel industry.

These same banners were also displayed at the pro-Palestinian encampment.

Dan Lonsdale, President of Durham’s Students’ Union (SU), has called for a wider conversation on the matter. In a statement released before the encampment, he said that the SU is “asking for a review and report on all university investments and the adoption of a new responsible investment and partnerships policy, like the University of York.”

The University of York recently announced that it no longer invests in companies that “primarily make or sell weapons and defence-related products or services.” This included a disinvestment of over £33,000 which was previously directed towards arms manufacturers tied to Israel. 

According to Durham University’s Ethical Investment Policy, the University has already committed to not investing in companies that generate revenue from “armaments” companies.

Call

As their second demand, organisers of the encampment have asked the University to call for a “permanent ceasefire” and “issue an unambiguous and official condemnation” of the Israel-Gaza war.

Students at the encampment have criticised the culture at Durham University, saying that they believe that there is “a bit of a reputation for not pushing far back on these issues,” and that students are “too willing to accept the University’s position.” Durham University has previously been criticised by protesters for not calling for a ceasefire.

Mr Lonsdale similarly supported the claim for a ceasefire, saying that “Durham University must respect the right to protest”, and that the SU “reaffirm that the University must publish a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire, an end to violence, and an end to the illegal occupation of Palestine.”

In response to the encampment, Durham University released a statement which said, “As a university, we express our deepest hope that a way will be found for a peaceful resolution to the conflict as soon as possible. We also hope for the end of violence and the safe return of the remaining hostages.”

According to Times Higher Education, only two UK universities have called for a ceasefire in Gaza: SOAS University of London, and the University of Glasgow. However, this is one of the central demands for protests and encampments held by students across the country. 

Advocate

The encampment has called for the University to advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people, including the right to self-determination, which has been reaffirmed by the United Nations.

The University says that it has closely monitored the situation in the Middle East and provided “direct and bespoke support” to all students affected. However, students at the encampment have called for more support for Palestinian students, such as the University becoming a University of Sanctuary.

Speaking to Palatinate, a spokesperson from the University furthered this claim, saying, “As a University, our top priority is the wellbeing and safety of all our students and staff, strengthening campus relations and striving for community cohesion of our diverse global community. This continues to drive our responses.”

One second year student at the rally held by the encampment, Georgie, told Palatinate, “I believe that as a Christian, a lot of what God has called me to do is advocate for biblical justice. This is a huge, widespread and systematic justice issue that I believe isn’t right and should be changed. And so I wanted to show support for those who are in the thick of protest and join them in that.”

Safeguard

Finally, the organisers demand that Durham University safeguard freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Students at the encampment have explained to Palatinate that, whilst their focus is protest, they hope the encampment is also a place “to highlight all the intersectional identities that make up the University […]. We’re particularly looking forward tonight to our interfaith prayers, tonight we’re joined by Jewish people, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims, so we’re looking forward to that.”

At the rally, prayers were hosted from Christian, Islamic, and Jewish groups, and one student who attended the rally praised it because “everyone [was] being very thoughtful and open and it’s welcoming to everyone.”

In its statement released after the encampment began, the University said, “We do not tolerate any form of prejudice or discrimination, including antisemitism or anti-Muslim hatred and will take swift action. We condemn in the strongest possible terms any incidents targeting individuals or groups for their religious, political, or cultural beliefs.”

We won’t be moving until we’re satisfied that all the demands are met … [it is] up to [the University] how long that process takes

SPOKESPERSON FOR THE PROTESTORS

However, at the rally, Palatinate spoke to Yousef, a third year student, who said, “I think university is where students are allowed to give their views […]. I welcome any opposition. I think this is where we sit down and talk […] and we can exchange ideas.”

Similarly, one PhD student told Palatinate, “I have grown up in Jewish communities and I always had a sense of an obligation to fight for peace and justice for everyone in Israel and Palestine. I’m also just impressed that students have managed to come together and get this off the ground. It’s very well run and peaceful and lovely.”

How has the encampment been received?

The University has said that it “supports and respects the right to lawful protest,” and that “we have stringent policies and processes in place to deal with any incidents reported to us, and any criminal matters will be reported to [the] Police.”

However, organisers told Palatinate that they had not informed the University of their plans to start an encampment. Durham University’s code of practice for freedom of expression states that any members, students, or staff at the University must notify the University Secretary at least seven days before any protest event takes place.

This was confirmed by the University, who said, “We did not receive prior notice of the encampment but we fully support and respect the right to lawful protest.”

Students at the encampment also told Palatinate that Durham Constabulary had visited the encampment. Durham Constabulary confirmed this to Palatinate, saying that they are “aware of a peaceful protest taking place at Palace Green,” and that “officers from Durham Constabulary have attended to engage with the group and continue to monitor the situation.”

Though the organisers said that the majority of passersby had been supportive of their cause, they also said that there had been “a few people who are […] clearly not very happy about this whole thing.”

“Our initial focus this weekend has been on the wellbeing of the students involved, and we have been in dialogue with the protestors about this.”

Durham University

Whilst on Palace Green, the encampment has received welfare support from Durham SU, with Dunelm House being opened by security for students at the encampment, providing access to water, toilets, tea and coffee, and a microwave.

Durham University has told Palatinate that it “appreciate[s] efforts to sustain [the welfare of students] by the Students’ Union.”

Mr Lonsdale previously said that the SU would be “on hand to support all students’ wellbeing” in the event of an encampment, and called for “any incidents of racism, antisemitism or islamophobia” to be reported “through the appropriate channels.”

He told Palatinate that “this side of the weekend we are all prioritising establishing the safety and welfare of those inside and outside of the encampment. Next week, we will be looking to see the University open dialogue with the protesters and with us around the demands.”

This was confirmed by the University, who said, “Our initial focus this weekend has been on the wellbeing of the students involved, and we have been in dialogue with the protestors about this.”

Organisers have said that the encampment will continue until Durham University takes their demands into consideration, and hopes that their commitment to protest will encourage this. One second year student at the rally emphasised this, telling Palatinate, “Hopefully the University will start listening to our demands. For too long, they’ve ignored the wishes of students on campus.”

How does Durham fit into the national picture?

Pro-Palestinian encampments have spread from the US to the UK, and have brought a certain set of controversies along with them. The contexts are slightly different, with America’s strong freedom of speech and property laws, coupled with more militant and antisemitic incidents have seen university bosses taking more heavy handed approaches – according to analysis by The New York Times, 2,800 campus protesters have been arrested.

These protests have since spread to the UK, beginning in Warwick and spreading to 20 other University campuses. Encampments have so far been smaller and less militant than the US, however, there are still concerns about how well University bosses have balanced freedom of speech with keeping students safe. In a meeting with the Prime Minister on Thursday, University bosses warned the PM not to increase tensions over protests on campus with one university boss telling The Times “It mustn’t become a new culture war issue. Otherwise it will just inflame the situation.”

This side of the weekend we are all prioritising establishing the safety and welfare of those inside and outside of the encampment. Next week, we will be looking to see the University open dialogue with the protesters and with us around the demands

Durham SU President

However, the government and Jewish student groups raised concerns about instances of antisemitism being behind some pro-Palestinian protests in the UK. The PM told those present to take a “zero-tolerance” approach to antisemitism. Also at the meeting, Edward Isaacs, the president of the Union of Jewish Students warned University bosses that since 7th October, there has been an “unprecedented rise in campus antisemitism”. He outlined the antisemitic incidents that Jewish students face, criticising University leadership for “failing to singularly condemn instances of antisemitism”, and calling on leaders to subscribe to a set of commitments.

In the UK trespass is a civil matter, rather than a criminal offence; meaning most University’s strategies in the UK have been to leave them be, especially as it is the final few weeks of the academic year, although some concerns have been raised about protestors who are not students being involved in organising the protestors. Some protestors have claimed success after the University of York and Goldsmiths changed some of their policies in a way that is reflective of demands.

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