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Israel-Hamas War

Pro-Palestinian student protests spread across Europe

Leanna Byrne May 17, 2024
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Demonstrators march near the University of Amsterdam during a pro-Palestinian protest on May 9. Ramon Van Flymen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images
Israel-Hamas War

Pro-Palestinian student protests spread across Europe

Leanna Byrne May 17, 2024
Heard on:
Demonstrators march near the University of Amsterdam during a pro-Palestinian protest on May 9. Ramon Van Flymen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images
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This story was produced by our colleagues at the BBC.

As the Israeli bombardment of Gaza continues, students are rallying and protesting, calling for their universities to cut financial and institutional ties with Israel. These students protests, which initially began on U.S. campuses, have now spread to places like the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland and the U.K.

Like in the U.S., many European student-led protests are demanding that their schools divest from Israeli-linked companies or institutions. Zora, who did not give her full name, is a 28-year-old student at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

She’s clear on her demands: “We would like the University of Geneva to cease all collaboration and partnerships with universities in Israel. As long as our demands are not taken seriously, we will stay.”

In practice, divestment is tricky. Many schools say it’s impossible to identify every investment with ties to Israel and argue that making the decision to cut funding is casting a moral judgment on the State of Israel. That said, some protests have succeeded in getting what they want.

At Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, students ended a five-day encampment after the college met their demands, as student representative Aiesha Wong explained.

“The college itself has a lot of links to Israeli firms and companies that are complicit in the war industry, so the college has agreed to review all of these and also divest and remove themselves from any sort of partnerships with these bodies,” Wong said.

  • Protesters wave Palestinian flags at a rally and campus encampment at Manchester University on May 4.
  • Dutch police officers stand in front of pro-Palestinian students of the University of Amsterdam's Roeterseiland campus on May 9.
  • Students set up a camp at the University of Copenhagen's City Campus in solidarity with the Palestinian people on May 6.
  • A student sits at an encampment at a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Copenhagen.
  • A poster reading "Free Palestine" is fixed on a tent at a pro-Palestinian encampment.

One big difference with the student protest movement across Europe is that it’s less cohesive than on U.S. campuses, and a number of other issues have been raised.

Zora from the University of Geneva is calling for some more practical measures to be introduced. “We request the welcoming of all Palestinian students in Switzerland so that they can continue their studies.”

Although many of the protests and demonstrations have been peaceful — as has been the case with the U.S. — there have been violent confrontations. In Paris, police broke up a pro-Palestinian rally outside of the Sorbonne University. In Amsterdam, police were filmed baton-charging students and smashing up their tents after they refused to leave a campus building.

Peter Poelman, a 30 year-old lawyer living in the city, said he has mixed feelings about the protests.

“It was really impressive that such a community of students stood up and tried to attract attention for this matter,” he said. “But then on the other hand, I heard that they occupied some buildings — some classical, 200-year-old buildings.”

In the U.K., the leaders of 17 colleges met with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to discuss the protests and steps they should take to tackle antisemitism. Edward Isaacs, head of the Union of Jewish Students said this kind of dialogue is important.

“The prime minister made it very clear that campuses must be places where Jewish students are welcome and included and able to study in safety,” he said.

Unlike other countries, however, British schools say they have no intention of clearing the encampments.

“We consider it a duty and responsibility to respond to these events and hold our institutions accountable for their actions,” said Henry Wall, an English student in Cambridge.

And more than seven months since the war in Gaza began, students in the U.K. and Europe — like those in the U.S. — say they’ll continue to protest until the conflict ends.

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