A youth revolution for Palestine

Manal Lotfy in London , Friday 3 May 2024

US university students are spearheading demands for cultural and social change as part of their protests against the Israeli war on Gaza.

A youth revolution for Palestine


In cramped tents on the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing with the Gaza Strip, little joy can be found. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians endure crowded conditions, a scarcity of food, ceaseless bombings, and looming threats of an Israeli ground invasion.

Amidst this unbearable humanitarian crisis, messages of gratitude and hope adorn many Palestinian tents. These expressions of thanks are aimed at US students who have rallied in support of Palestinians through demonstrations and sit-ins on campuses for three weeks, despite pressure, threats, accusations of anti-Semitism and smear campaigns against them as agents of Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas.

The phrases most seen above the tents include “Thank you, Columbia University students,” and “Thank you, American university students.”

Over the past few weeks, the protests by US students have become one of the most attention-grabbing events in the war, alongside the discovery of mass graves containing hundreds of Palestinian victims in the Nasser Medical Complex after the Israeli withdrawal from the almost flattened complex in the Gaza Strip.

To date, approximately 1,000 demonstrators, primarily students with some university professors among them, have been arrested on more than 20 campuses across at least 16 US states. This follows the refusal of the students to disperse their sit-ins and halt their protests until their demands are addressed.

Their demands include the lifting of sanctions imposed on fellow students who face disciplinary measures for their involvement in the protests, as well as the cessation of academic and scientific ties with Israel and the termination of joint investments between universities in the US and Israel after revelations that some US universities have investments alongside Israel in technologies potentially employed for monitoring, prosecution, and violence against Palestinians.

UN Human Rights Chief Volker Turk said on Tuesday that he was “troubled” by heavy-handed actions taken by US security forces during attempts to break up pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses.

“I am concerned that some of the law-enforcement actions across a series of universities appear disproportionate in their impacts,” Turk said in a statement, referring to the arrests and sanction of students.

“It must be clear that legitimate exercises of the freedom of expression cannot be conflated with incitement to violence and hatred,” he added.

The standoff between the students at Columbia University in New York and the University administration captured international attention when the latter summoned police forces to disband the sit-in. This action prompted hundreds of thousands of students from other US and European universities to show solidarity by setting up sit-ins in their universities.

On Monday, University President Nemat Shafiq declared the breakdown of negotiations with the students to end their sit-in.

In a statement, she declared that the university would not end its investments in Israel. She also announced the commencement of suspensions and disciplinary actions against the participating students. In response, the students asserted their determination to uphold their demands and continue the sit-in, despite the potential risks and threats of suspension.

On Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters took over Hamilton Hall at the university, barricading the entrances and unfurling a Palestinian flag. Hamilton Hall at Columbia is one of several that was occupied during a 1968 civil-rights and anti-Vietnam war protest on the campus.

Meanwhile, the ongoing demonstration at George Washington University in Washington DC has grown in size after the police denied the university administration’s request to forcibly dismantle it. This made for a surreal scene, with the administration of a major US university seeking the violent dispersal of its own students, only to be rebuffed by law-enforcement due to the absence of any threat.

The students have dubbed the location of their sit-in the “liberated area,” citing their opposition to Israeli atrocities in Gaza and Israeli apartheid practices.

The site of the sit-in has evolved into a symbol of solidarity, drawing participants not only from George Washington University but also from six other universities spanning Washington, Virginia, and Maryland.

The pressure on the administrators of US universities to quell the demonstrations and sit-ins is immense. Professors at state universities have reported explicit threats of budget reductions if the situation is not resolved. Similarly, private universities have faced comparable threats from donors who have indicated that they will withhold donations unless the sit-ins are halted.

Some members of Congress have also called for punitive measures against participating students, including blacklisting their names to prevent employment after graduation and denying them student debt cancellation.

Amidst the hysteria, a fundamental question arises: what danger or threat do student demonstrations and sit-ins pose as no incidents of violence have been recorded? The actual risks lie not in security, but rather in the social, cultural, and political realms.

The protesting students are drawing in thousands of their apolitical peers who question why university students are being denied their constitutional rights of free speech and the right to demonstrate.

Furthermore, the student movement is reshaping public opinion. Many parents have started joining their children in solidarity demonstrations around the universities to shield them from potential police interventions aimed at forcibly dispersing the sit-ins.

Some of these parents admit that they initially did not grasp why their children were jeopardising their futures to protest a cause seemingly unrelated to them. However, becoming more aware of the situation in Palestine, many parents now support their children’s peaceful civil action.

The impact of the sit-ins at US universities has also reverberated across Europe, prompting thousands of students at universities in Britain to organise sit-ins in solidarity with their counterparts in the US, even though in Britain no restrictions prevent the weekly demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians.

At this week’s London demonstrations, a student from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) highlighted that the issue stands as the paramount concern of her generation.

“Despite attempts to manipulate, intimidate, and coerce, I am confident that this student movement will endure even after the war on Gaza. It has brought attention to colonial policies, founded on population displacement and an apartheid system, both of which are unacceptable in our modern age,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Silencing the voices of university students to stifle legitimate criticisms of Israel’s actions is very alarming and inexcusable,” she added.

While the US administration may attempt to downplay the current wave of civil disobedience as a minor dispute between some anti-Semitic students and university administrations, the truth of the matter is that the student movement reflects a significant and genuine shift in US public opinion.

This shift comes after approximately seven months of Israeli massacres in Gaza. Consequently, the US administration faces both a political and moral dilemma.

A new opinion poll by J L Partners Polling sheds light on shifting public opinion in the US regarding Israel’s crimes in Gaza, particularly focusing on bipartisan perspectives.

Responding to the question of whether Israel is committing genocide, 48 per cent of Democratic voters agree, 23 per cent of Republican voters agree, and 30 per cent of independents agree. This marks a notable departure from previous bipartisan support for Israel.

Similarly, responding to a question of whether Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza, a majority of Democrats (52 per cent) and a significant portion of Republicans (27 per cent) and Independents (34 per cent) perceive Israel’s actions as constituting war crimes in Gaza, further indicating a shift in public sentiment.

The polling also highlights views on whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC), with sizable proportions across party lines supporting such a move, with 48 per cent of Democratic voters agreeing, 24 per cent of Republicans agreeing, and 26 per cent of Independents agreeing.

These findings suggest a significant and unprecedented shift in public opinion regarding Israel, signalling potential implications for future US-Israel relations and international dynamics.

Despite facing numerous restrictions and pressures, the student movement is steadily evolving into a broader cultural phenomenon. At student sit-ins at US universities, intellectuals, philosophers, and historians have joined their cause, including figures such as writers and academics Norman Finkelstein, Naomi Klein, and Cornel West.

The exchanges in these sit-ins have extended beyond concerns solely about the war on Gaza to the state of US democracy and the gradual erosion of public freedoms.

It is a political challenge that the US has not faced since the Vietnam War.

It would be difficult to marginalise or underestimate these students’ future influence. This is the Black Lives Matter generation that did not come of age with CNN, Sky News, Fox News, or the BBC as their primary sources of information.

Their worldview has been shaped through social media and direct experiences in universities, where they have interacted with students from diverse racial and religious backgrounds from around the globe.

They are young, educated, open-minded segments of society who believe they have a stake in effecting positive social change and possessing the capacity to enact it.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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