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Pitching For Change: The Student Protests and Encampments for Gaza

Jackson Robb visits the USYD Gaza encampment and reflects on the courage of students across the world who are fighting for humanity and justice.


This article does not reflect the views of the Publisher or Macquarie University


Student camp at the University of Sydney

As the Israel-Gaza war rages on into its seventh month, communities around the world have continued to use protest to advocate for a ceasefire and an end to the conflict that has seen over 35 000 Gazan citizens and 1100 Israeli citizens killed [1]. 


Throughout April and May, some of the most significant protests have come out of university campuses, with students worldwide launching encampments in support of Palestine. Established universities in the US such as MIT, UCLA, and Ivy League schools like Columbia and Brown have seen students and staff camp out on the lawns to raise awareness of the ongoing conflict and, in some instances, peacefully protest their university’s ties with businesses contributing towards the genocide in the Middle East [2].


The protests in the US have faced varying degrees of backlash from university administrations for their disruptions of key events such as graduations and commencement ceremonies, with some encampments being raided after protests have escalated and students being arrested. Police were called to Columbia University when students took occupation of a building on their campus after talks with the university about their demands failed to reach a conclusion. Police proceeded to remove the protestors and dismantle the encampment [3]. 


The protestors at Columbia have also faced threats to their enrollment if they continue to participate, with some students already facing suspension. Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, has rejected the protestors' calls to divest from businesses supporting Israeli involvement in the conflict [4]. The Guardian reports that nearly 1000 arrests have occurred nationwide as a result of protests and Shafik’s administration has been scrutinised by her peers for undermining academic freedom and privacy [5].


As a show of support, both for the continued conflict in Gaza and their student peers in the US, universities across Australia have also started their own encampments. From the University of Sydney (USYD) in NSW and the Australian National University (ANU) in ACT to Monash University in VIC and the University of Adelaide in SA, students have been demonstrating that this is a cause of national interest as much as it is of international interest. 


Grapeshot was fortunate enough to visit the USYD encampment and learn more about the motivation behind the camp’s establishment and what the students hope to gain from protesting. In the case of USYD, protestors discussed their university’s ties with defence and security companies, Thales and Raytheon, that are producing weapons for Israel to use in the war. 


According to data from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Raytheon have been supplying missiles, bombs and other weapon systems to the Israeli government for several years and have continued to do so during the war in Gaza [6]. Additionally, Thales is reported to operate Israeli weapons companies that are the largest suppliers of drones to the Israeli government [7]. Thales also has a Memorandum of Understanding with USYD and extended their partnership with USYD in 2022 in addition to providing a scholarship program for students [8].

Students use their camp to show solidarity for Gaza

One protestor involved in setting up the camp, Lucas, stated that most students don’t know about USYD’s connections with these companies and that by having such a visible presence, students walking past have become curious and wanted to know more about their cause. 


Another protestor, Remy, reiterates that the encampment is “about showing solidarity with Gaza … and the camps around the world”. He continues, saying “we all deserve peace; we all deserve to feel safe” and that it has become an issue that has required students to become involved as their tuition dollars are contributing towards the continued aggression in the Middle East.  


The president of the USYD SRC and fellow encampment protestor, Harrison Brennan, states “it’s important that our education is ethical” and that students should have a role in understanding how international conflicts affect them. Brennan also illuminated the varying degrees of support they’ve received from other bodies on campus, stating how the protestors have been cooperating with security to stay safe and mentioning the involvement of campus wellbeing staff who have been down to offer support. They also mentioned their invitation to the Vice Chancellor, Professor Mark Scott, to come and learn about their cause and negotiations but, at the time of writing, he is still yet to visit the encampment.  

Protestor's mentioned the continual growth of the camp as more people learn about their cause

Many of the protestors at USYD discuss how inspired they were by the actions of students at Columbia University and noted the generational power of young people to introduce change. One of the encampment organisers, Shovan Bhattarai, mentions how “students have always been at the forefront of fighting for progressive social change throughout all of history” and that students who have stood up for justice have been vindicated by history. 


When asked how the general public can support the encampment, the protestors had a universal stance; come down and visit. Bhattarai states, “we’re here to put out our peaceful anti war message” and that you don’t have to be a student to get involved. Fellow protestor and Students for Palestine member Yasmin Johnson discusses how students from neighbouring universities such as UTS and Macquarie have also become involved at USYD and urges supporters to continue sharing their message throughout their communities. 


By all accounts, the morale at the USYD encampment remains high. Despite little communication from the university regarding their negotiations, the students are committed to fighting for USYD to divest. The campers have also been subjected to a slew of other threats during their time, including counter-demonstrations from Zionist organisations, bomb threats to the USYD library, the sprinklers being turned on them, and media teams from major news channels depicting the protestors as radicalised. 


However, many continue to study from their tents and organisers host various events from teach-ins, movie nights, and concerts to keep participants engaged and connected to the cause. Bhattarai mentions how the recognition from the Gazan people of the student camps and support from activists and journalists like Bisan Owda continually inspire them to persevere for this worthwhile cause. 


Student camp at the University of Sydney

ENDNOTES

[1] - AJLabs. (2023, October 9). Israel-Hamas War in Maps and charts: Live Tracker. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/longform/2023/10/9/israel-hamas-war-in-maps-and-charts-live-tracker


[2] - Maruf, R. (2024, May 5). Columbia University’s encampment ended with a mass police operation. Here’s how some schools avoided that | CNN Business. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2024/05/05/business/how-schools-avoided-police-columbia-encampments/index.html


[3] - Pilkington, E. (2024, May 6). Columbia University cancels commencement ceremony following student protests. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/article/2024/may/06/columbia-protests-commencement-cancelled


[4] - Tait, R. (2024, April 30). Columbia campus protests: what is happening with the standoffs? The Guardian; The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2024/apr/30/columbia-university-campus-protests


[5] Ibid.



[7] Gregoire, P. (2024, April 16). A15 Sydney Targets Weapons Supplier Thales, as Governments Continue to Support Israel’s Genocide. Sydney Criminal Lawyers. https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/a15-sydney-targets-weapons-supplier-thales-as-governments-continue-to-support-israels-genocide/


[8] Research partnership extended with Thales Australia. (2022, December 22). The University of Sydney. https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2022/12/22/research-partnership-extended-with-thales-australia.html


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