7 May 2024

4 min read

Students take a stand: The rise of university protests in response to the Israel / Palestine conflict

Geopolitical analysis
student holding a sign at a protest


Students protesting the rights and wrongs of global events is not new. From the 1968 Columbia University riots against the Vietnam war, to the 1976 Soweto uprising against South Africa’s then apartheid regime and the 1989 Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia, students have played an important role in bringing international attention to and driving change in critical political events. Today, amid the ongoing Israel/Palestine conflict, student groups the world over are once more taking to their campus halls and squares to have their say. Across the US, UK, Europe and elsewhere, student groups have demonstrated against the ongoing conflict many calling on their institutions and governments to take a stand against Israel’s military campaign. Some universities have heeded the call cutting ties with Israeli sister institutions or donors, while others have instead faced the realities of deepening political divides that cut across student groups, donors and authorities alike.

A global movement

Student activists have to date staged protests over this issue in at least 20 countries and 90 campuses across the world. Both tactics and demands vary. At many universities, including in the US, UK, Canada, Mexico, France and Australia, establishing encampments or occupying university buildings or other common spaces have been a favoured approach. Some of the demands are university-specific, calling for a cessation of academic ties with Israeli institutions or the divulging of any investment links to Israel including partnerships with large corporates purported to benefit from ties with Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, some protesters have issued broader demands for state-level policy change including the end of any military support or contracts with Israel. The local political context matters: for example, while few states in Western Europe recognise Palestinian statehood, public opinion and by corollary political will are shifting. In these states, student protests will be viewed with far more sympathy than in states with strong historic links supporting Israel. There have also been counterprotests in support of Israel, alongside calls for ensuring campuses remain safe for Jewish students, too. Still, for the most part ­– and despite high-profile coverage of violent incidents, particularly in the US – the protests have remained peaceful. As we move into the end of the college year in many countries, however, the opportunity large graduation ceremonies offer as a platform to be heard could add further momentum to these campaigns.

A US divided

Nowhere have protests captured the world’s attention of late as much as in the US. Here, thousands of protest have taken place at campuses across the country, with pro-Palestine demonstrations tripling in number over the month of April, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED). Although the vast majority of these have been peaceful, with university and local authorities moving in to dismantle student encampments in some instances, the issue is gaining momentum, fast. The Israel/Palestine conflict remains at the heart of the campaigns, but these demonstrations have come to encompass broader political debates. In a country set to face a divisive election in November, these student campaigns are fast becoming the mouthpiece for the left in the US, while any counterdemonstrations have received the backing of the political right. And, with growing instances of violence between rival protesters as seen at the University of California on 1 May, maintaining law and order as well as the safety and security of all students is becoming increasingly complicated amid reports of rising antisemitism and Islamophobic sentiment on certain campuses. The matter of the administration and both private and public institutions’ ties with Israel is rapidly becoming an election issue and one that will have ramifications for the incoming administration’s foreign policy stance as well as its popularity at home.

A summer lull

For universities, law enforcement officials, and political leaders, determining the appropriate response to ensure community safety while upholding the right to protest and free speech is beset by challenges. Student activists, just as the wider public, are calling on a solution to a vastly complex issue. It would be inaccurate to divide protesting camps into pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel, as these labels tend to blur the range of perspectives protesters may subscribe to. And yet, the events in Gaza since October, alongside widespread and vocal challenges to hereto prevailing narratives of Israeli-Palestinian relations, point to a potential shift in global public opinion that more strongly favours Palestinian self-determination. In the UK, for example, A YouGov poll in February 2024 found growing sympathy for Palestine in the current conflict, rising to 28 percent from 21 percent in November 2023; sympathy with Israel declined from 18 to 16 percent in the same period. In a separate survey in the US, between December 2023 and February 2024 there was a 7 percentage point increase in respondents who feel the US is doing too little to help Palestinians. Globally, protests in support of Palestine are also on the rise since the conflict began.

In the context of heightened tensions, and out of fear of potential disruptions, university officials in the US have already cancelled graduation ceremonies at several campuses. As universities in the northern hemisphere head to summer breaks, protests and encampments are likely to disperse naturally. But once classes resume and students return to campus – with the Israel / Hamas ceasefire attempts ongoing and with upcoming elections in the US and UK, universities will face the prospect of renewed unrest.

And, even in meeting demands concerning divestment from endowments, or unravelling the corporate donors that may or may not benefit from ties with Israel, it will be no easy task for university authorities. Nevertheless, any marginal successes on this front will give credence to broader calls for a pivot away from Israel, including potential boycotts from those corporates and governments perceived overtly supportive of Israel or increased pressure on governments to take more punitive measures – such as sanctions – against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

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