Bournemouth University Biomedical student Dina Williamson stood up holding a sign outside Poole House on Monday in protest at the continuing bombing of civilians and siege of Gaza by Israeli forces. Dina’s family, who are Palestinian, includes an aunt, Bushra, who is trapped in Gaza and who is in intermittent contact with Dina via Whatsapp from the territory, which has had all food, water, and electricity cut off since the 9th of October. Campus security asked Dina to stop her one-person protest and when she did not comply, they informed her that they would be contacting the police to remove her from the campus.
Dina put a black gag around her mouth after the warning that she could not continue her protest. The sight reminded me of similar silent protests in Russia, Belarus and Iran in recent years that resulted in violent police crackdowns. As a lecturer, I can’t recall any similar intolerance of peaceful protest on any UK campus. Police have been called in for prolonged student sit ins and occupations elsewhere, especially where damage has occurred, but it seems extraordinary to me that a student should be told she cannot peacefully express her views on a matter of grave concern affecting her family and people.
Dina’s family was permanently displaced from their homes in Palestine when, in 1948, Israeli armed forces drove 700,000 Palestinians from their farms, villages and towns. Many Palestinians fear the current attack on Gaza will result in further ethnic cleansing and displacement from the already impoverished ruins of Gaza. Dina only asks that Israeli and Palestinians be treated equally, with dignity and respecting international law. A ceasefire and resumption of humanitarian aid must commence immediately to halt the traumatic terror civilians in Gaza have suffered for two weeks.
I would hope that Jewish students would feel safe to peacefully express their outrage on campus at the Hamas war crimes and slaughter of civilians in Israel. And I understand that the university will be keen to avoid any potential confrontation between students with very different views on the present conflict and its origins. But this should not mean that peaceful protests about Israeli war crimes and the slaughter of civilians should get shut down. If students are not breaking the law, I can see no justification for calling, or threatening to call, the police.
The attempt to silence Dina’s protest is a chilling echo of the wider campaign to shut down expressions of outrage at Israel’s collective punishment of the 2.3 million people of the Gaza Strip around the world. Protest marches in support of Palestine have been totally banned in France and even in Germany, where peaceful protests are enshrined in law. A protest of more than 100,000 people in London this weekend was followed by demands from the British Home Secretary for a toughening of the application of laws to arrest those chanting for jihad and other Hamas-inspired slogans. Dina’s sign contained no provocative statements at all. It read:
I stand here for the Israeli hostages
I stand here for ALL the victims
I stand here for peace
The sign also reads:
I stand here for my Palestinian brothers and sisters across the world
Harvard University students have already been suspended and blacklisted by CEOs
I know I’m risking my degree here
Dina should not feel that her academic career might be at risk for peacefully protesting. If we cannot peacefully and lawfully protest on a British university campus, then I do wonder where anyone can protest. Dina is connected through her family to the current tragedy and feels compelled to speak out. I also feel compelled to speak out as an academic in her defence, in defence of freedom of speech and protest in a university culture that accepts differences of view and protects the right to express those views peacefully.
In fact, we are all connected to this tragedy, whether we like it or not. Britain and the US’s unconditional support for the Israeli offensive—even by Sir Keir Starmer a human rights lawyer – means Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right, nationalist, expansionist government are free to continue the destruction and seizure of Palestinian homes and territory, free to starve and ethnically cleanse the troublesome occupied territories. This is done in our name, underwritten with our tax-payers’ money.
It is difficult to imagine the current plight of Palestinians in Gaza, who are sealed into an area not much bigger than East Dorset and less than four miles wide in the north, which contains Gaza City. This siege has been going on since 2005, but even the trickle of food and water has now been blocked entirely. Gaza City, the same size as Bournemouth, is home to 600,000 people—more than three times the population of Bournemouth—who are living under unrelenting bombardment. UN schools, hospitals, electrical generators, water treatment facilities, markets, shops, and residential buildings have been destroyed as Israel turns northern Gaza into a free-fire zone. But for those trying to flee the bombardment, there is no escape. Gaza continues to be totally sealed off in practice (just 20 aid trucks on October 21, according to Egyptian authorities), and many Palestinians have been killed trying to escape south which has not been spared from attack by the Israeli air force.
I stand with the civilians of Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, whose fundamental rights must be protected equally. The long decades of conflict have their roots here in Europe, especially in Britain, which controlled Palestine after World War One. Britain and America turned away thousands of Jews desperate to escape Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Following the Holocaust, Britain was instrumental in the creation of the state of Israel and washed its hands of the region when Palestinians were expelled from their own country. Our responsibility to protect civilians, to call for an immediate ceasefire, and to begin genuine peacebuilding in the region cannot be shrugged off. Simply giving blanket support to Israel while turning away from the state’s terrorising attacks against Palestinians can only fuel and spread this conflict far beyond the barbed wire of Gaza—a densely packed open prison under fire from the most devastating modern weapons of war. I stand with Dina in calling for peace and for people to educate themselves about the hundred-year history that led to this tragedy.
Dr. David McQueen
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