* The Guardian, Saturday 14 February 2009
A new wave of student activism sparked by events in Gaza has seen dozens of university buildings occupied in Britain, with some of the UK’s top educational establishments agreeing to set up scholarships for Palestinians or disinvest in arms companies linked to Israel.
Though the assault on the territory ended three weeks ago, lingering anger over the attack has prompted students to stage sit-ins at 21 universities, many organised via blogs, Facebook and text messages.
Students at Glasgow and Manchester are refusing to leave the buildings until their demands are met, after similar occupations at other universities provided tangible results in what is being seen as a new era of highly organised student activism.
Katan Alder, 22, one of 50 Manchester University protesters who have occupied a university building for nine days, said students were abandoning diplomatic tactics in favour of direct action.
“There is a new level of anger among students that we haven’t seen before,” he said. “There is definitely a new confidence among students who are beginning to realise that if they want to achieve anything simple negotiation won’t work, our actions have to escalate.”
Students at Goldsmiths, University of London, ended their occupation yesterday after their demand – two scholarships for students from Palestine’s al-Quds university – was met. The students campaigned for a year without success, but their demands were met within 24 hours after they occupied Deptford town hall, which houses the university management offices, said James Heywood, 21.
“We were getting ignored and patronised, so when we saw what was happening at other universities we took direct action,” he said.
Technology has played an integral part in the protests. Within minutes of starting the occupation students at Goldsmiths were blogging, and a recent protest that gathered 2,000 students was organised almost entirely by viral text messaging, said Heywood.
Student demands include a call to end all investments in arms companies that may trade with Israel, scholarships for Palestinian students and humanitarian assistance.
At King’s College London, students gained scholarships and donations to institutions in Palestine.
A seven-day Cambridge University occupation, which saw students denied access to food before being threatened with a court injunction on 1 February, achieved little in the way of concessions.
But last week 60 academics at the university sent an open letter to the vice-chancellor deploring the “heavy-handed” tactics used to crush the protest and supporting the students’ calls for disinvestment from the arms industry and scholarships for Palestinian students.
Prof Priyamvada Gopal, one of its signatories, said: “It was only when the students became galvanised that we looked at writing a group letter from the academics following the lead of the students.”
She believes the movement is the first signs of a new political awareness. “As yet this is a small but vocal minority, but I think we are seeing an emergence from the froth and apathy of the 1990s.”