“Stand with Gaza” protestors demand ceasefire

By and

On the afternoon of 7th February 2024, a “staff and student walkout” was organised by several campus trade unions to “stand with Gaza” in response to the ongoing Israel–Hamas war. It was mostly attended by staff, joined by some postgraduates and undergraduate students, at the “what lies beneath us” mural, near the Bill Bryson Library. 

Protestors were encouraged to get into groups with people they had not met before to discuss what action individuals could take to organise and raise “the need for a ceasefire with the University”. Large University and Colleges Union (UCU) banners were raised, and some protestors wielded Palestinian flags and posters in support of Palestine. Flyers were handed out to passers by, and motorists at the nearby junction beeped their horns. 

After the group discussion, the protesters heard a series of speeches. One student speaker argued that there was a lack of knowledge and understanding amongst the student body about the historical and political context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. They went on to express a desire that the University put its educational facilities and staff knowledge to use to increase opportunities for learning about this, such as developing a series of seminars. One of the academics Palatinate spoke to discussed providing “more space” for education and discussion around Gaza within lessons. 

A Durham University spokesperson told Palatinate, “we have formidable expertise in the history and politics of the region, in the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, the Centre for the Study of Jewish Culture, Society and Politics, School of Government and International Affairs, Department of History, School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Department of Geography, and among our international lawyers, to name only a few. Several of our staff have long been publicly engaged with the imperative of peacebuilding in the region. They are always open to discussion with students, but we will reflect on this suggestion of further engagement.” 

intI would like the University administration to take an official position on this [calling for a ceasefire]

Another staff speaker drew attention to the civilian impact of the war, noting the disruption to education, and attacks on hospitals and homes, and demanded “moral” condemnation of the war regardless of the “complexity” of its politics, reiterating the letter’s demand for an immediate ceasefire. Another member of staff Palatinate spoke to said “I would like the University administration to take an official position on this [calling for a ceasefire.] It’s the bare minimum wouldn’t you expect?” 

Some staff members Palatinate spoke to expressed concern around the welfare of colleagues with connections to the Israel-Hamas war. They said that they felt more limited in what they could say about their experience, compared to that of colleagues with connections to the ongoing war in the Ukraine. 

Responding to this, the University’s spokesperson said that the University had reached out to staff and students affected by the conflict, and will continue to offer support to those who need it. 

Furthermore, outlining the demands of their letter to the Vice-Chancellor for gathered protestors, speakers from the existing Durham University Palestine Solidarity Society criticised the University’s delay in condemning the Israel-Hamas war, comparing this to the statement made by the University following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Durham University have not yet seen this letter.

The University’s spokesperson refuted this, saying “there was no delay in our response. From the outset of the conflict the University has expressed distress and concern at the plight of Israeli hostages and the appalling number of civilian casualties and humanitarian suffering experienced by the people of Gaza. Our approach is in common with universities across the UK and is informed by close dialogue with Universities UK. 

“The current situation is entirely different from that of Ukraine. In the case of Ukraine, we were able to offer immediate support to civilians from our partner university who could travel to the UK. We very much hope that we will be able to offer support to the higher education sector in the region in due course.

“We have started a number of discussions about how we might support educational opportunities for Gazan students. A number of our staff, including the ViceChancellor, are patrons of the Durham Palestine Educational Trust and we will look to augment our support for this Educational Trust.” 

Durham students, like the general public, want peace in Palestine and Israel

Dan lonsdale, su president

Another visiting academic said that he had spoken to his University about other measures they could take, stopping short of a ceasefire, calling on his University “to make some statements which are equivalent to what they had made on Ukraine, about scholars and students at risk […] and start facilitating space for educational dialogue in relation to Palestine.” 

Several speakers also voiced their support for the suggested formation of a Palestinian solidarity network across the University which would address these issues and provide a means of pooling knowledge and resources. At the end of the protest, attendees were invited to add their names to a list to bring the network into being.

A flyer was handed out at the protest, calling on staff and students to sign a letter to Durham University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Karen O’Brien, which had been written by Durham Palestine Solidarity Society. The letter’s main demand called on the University to “issue an unambiguous and official condemnation of the ongoing violence, demanding an immediate unconditional ceasefire”.

Since the start of the conflict, the University has been focussed on providing “practical support” to students and staff who are “personally affected” by the “appalling attacks on Israel on 7th October, the escalating humanitarian crisis and the growing number of civilian deaths and casualties in Gaza”. The University has also committed to allowing those affected academically by the conflict to be able to claim it as a “serious adverse circumstance”. 

On their website, which was last updated on 14th November 2023, Durham University say “our students may contact their College Student Support Office, the Counselling and Mental Health Service and the multi-faith Chaplaincy Service. Support is also available from Durham Students’ Union.” 

Durham University has also sought to emphasise its commitment to tolerance in the statement on their website, saying “we do not accept any form of prejudice or discrimination. This includes antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred. We condemn in the strongest possible terms any incidents of racism or those targeting individuals or groups for their religious, political or cultural beliefs.” 

On 18th January 2024, President of Durham Students’ Union, Dan Lonsdale, also wrote a letter to Durham University’s Vice Chancellor, saying in a statement on the SU’s website “I think the University have done their best so far, but it’s important that the leader of our institution explains how and why certain decisions are made.” 

Mr Lonsdale continued, “Durham students, like the general public, want peace in Palestine and Israel, an end to occupation, and for innocent people to live free from terror.” 

We responded immediately to the appalling attacks in Israel of 7th October and the subsequent military action in Gaza

durham university

He said that the SU’s role would be to “continue to prioritise asking the University about how they’ll manage practical issues on campus for affected students who need additional support.” He committed to working to ensure “students feel safe and well on campus. It’s a terrible fact that antisemitism and islamophobia on UK campuses increase when there’s conflict in the Middle East.” 

The University has also, on their Middle East webpage, made freedom of speech a priority, saying “we uphold freedom of expression within the law.” Although a demand as part of the letter that was circulated was to “safeguard freedom of speech and academic freedom within Durham University”, the University’s spokesperson emphasised that they are “committed to Freedom of Expression within the law.”  

The letter, which the University has not yet seen, also called on the University to “disinvest from any organisations complicit in Israel’s violations of human rights and international law”. However, the letter did not name any specific organisations, and the University’s investments follow its Ethical Investment Policy, which is overseen by its Executive and Finance Committees. This means that the University is constrained by its “responsible investment”, which provides a list of several potential issues that restrict the investments that can be made, such as “human rights violations” and “armament sales to military regimes”, amongst others. 

Attendees, as part of calling on the University to “advocate for the protection of the rights of Palestinians”, called on the University to offer “its support and assistance to the students affected by the conflict” using the precedent set by a programme of helping Ukrainian students and academics move to the UK as an example. 

In response to this, Durham University told Palatinate, “as detailed in our statement at the outset of the conflict the University has expressed distress and concern at the plight of Israeli hostages and the appalling number of civilian casualties and humanitarian suffering experienced by the people of Gaza. Our approach is in common with universities across the UK and is informed by close dialogue with Universities UK. 

Lastly, the letter will ask the University to “donate to Durham Palestine Educational Trust [DPET]”, an independent charity which provides tuition fee scholarships for Palestinian graduates to study for Masters degrees at Durham University, which has existed in some form since 1984. According to The Tab, Durham UCU have “decided to donate £500 to the Durham Palestine Educational Trust this year and on an annual basis going forward.” 

We have reached out swiftly and directly to students and staff affected by these events

Durham University

Durham University emphasised its continued support of DPET, saying “We award a tuition fee scholarship to each DPET scholar, where the Trust can raise £13,000 needed for their living costs, travel, etc.

“We continue to support our six DPET students in every way we can, including their college contacting them throughout the University’s winter break and ensuring they had out-of-hours contact information for support. We are committed to the DPET scheme and supporting the students while they are with us. We have other Palestinian students on Durham University funded scholarships.” 

Additionally, a Durham University spokesperson told Palatinate, “We responded immediately to the appalling attacks in Israel of 7th October and the subsequent military action in Gaza. 

“From the outset of the conflict the University has expressed distress and concern at the plight of Israeli hostages and the appalling number of civilian casualties and humanitarian suffering experienced by the people of Gaza. 

“We have published our statement and detailed Q&As on our website and they have been reviewed regularly and refreshed: https://www.durham.ac.uk/events-in-the-middle-east/ 

“Our approach is in common with universities across the UK and is informed by close dialogue with Universities UK. “The health, safety and wellbeing of our students, staff and our wider community remains our priority along with the cohesion of our community. 

“We reached out swiftly and directly to students and staff affected by these events, including our student societies, to understand their concerns and identify where they may need further support. We remain in dialogue with them, and they continue to receive our support. 

“The Q&As on our website outline in detail how we are supporting students and staff, where they can find support and action they can take, should they experience an incident.”

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