A movement builds against Israel’s apartheid

January 27, 2009

Eric Ruder reports on the spread of a movement in solidarity with Gaza.

STUDENT ACTIVISTS in Britain have occupied 16 universities in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and antiwar forces are pressuring the BBC for refusing to air an emergency appeal on behalf of Palestinians.

From campus to campus, the demands of the occupiers were largely similar: end university investments in or links to companies that supply equipment used in the conflict; a statement from university administrators condemning Israel's war crimes against Gaza; donating extra computers and books to students and educational institutions in Gaza; providing scholarships for students from Gaza; and no repercussions for occupiers.

Occupations at four universities--the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of Essex, Oxford University and the London School of Economics (LSE)--have ended in victory, with administrators meeting most of the students' demands.

The LSE occupation ended after the school's director Sir Howard Davies issued a joint statement with student protesters. "I well understand the concerns felt by many students about the events in Gaza," the statement said. "It is painful to observe the suffering of the civilian population." The statement acknowledged that many casualties occurred when Israel attacked educational establishments.

Protesters occupy the BBC Scotland headquarters
Protesters occupy the BBC Scotland headquarters (Glasgow Stop the War Coalition)

LSE agreed to waive scholarship application fees for students from Gaza, donate surplus computers and help LSE students organize a day to raise funds for Gaza students.

"We're delighted with the result, although nothing we could have done would ever have been enough," said student Michael Deas. "It's a real victory for student activism, particularly forcing the director into making a statement. We would encourage other students to take this sort of action and have the confidence to do so."

At Oxford, more than 80 students occupied a historic campus building and demanded that the university cancel a lecture series in honor of Israeli President Shimon Peres. At King's College London, students called on the university to rescind an honorary degree bestowed on Peres in November.

"It's important for universities to take a stand on this," said Simon Englert, an activist participating in the occupation at Sussex University. "We are told in history about the central role that students play in defending causes. So that's what we are doing today."

MEANWHILE, MORE than 100 people occupied the BBC's Scotland headquarters to demand that the network broadcast an emergency appeal to send humanitarian aid to Gaza. The BBC and Sky News have so far refused to air the appeal, saying that this could compromise their impartiality.

Police threatened to arrest the occupiers within 15 minutes, but the action continued for nearly four hours ending without arrests. BBC officials agreed to a meeting between a delegation of activists, and demonstrators pledged to hold future actions if their demands weren't met.

"The life of every man, woman and child in Gaza is just as valuable as the lives of people anywhere else in the world," said Penny Howard of the Stop the War Coalition. "The people of Britain want to help the people of Gaza, and the BBC should give them the information to do so. Every day that the BBC waits to show this appeal, more people in Gaza will die."

Former Labour Party member of parliament and socialist Tony Benn phoned activists occupying the BBC to tell them, "The decision to occupy the BBC in Glasgow must be understood as a plea for the people of Gaza, who are suffering so much and who need our help to help get the money through."

Unions at the network also condemned the decision not to air the appeal as "cowardly" and potentially "politically motivated."

"The justifications given for the decision--'question marks about the delivery of aid in a volatile situation' and risks of compromising its 'impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story'--appear to us cowardly and in danger of being seen as politically motivated and biased in favor of Israel," a letter from leaders of two of the largest broadcast unions read.

"Far from avoiding the compromise of the BBC's impartiality, this move has breached those same BBC rules by showing a bias in favor of Israel at the expense of 1.5 million Palestinian civilians suffering an acute humanitarian crisis."

Students and activists in the U.S. and around the world should follow in the footsteps of these bold and inspiring efforts.

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