A Student Was Referred to Prevent for Tweeting ‘From the River to the Sea’

The crackdown has become a farce.

by Rivkah Brown

4 December 2023

a person with a keffiyeh covering their face, with only their eyes visible, holds a homemade cardboard sign above their head on which is written in the black, white, red and green colours of the palestinian flag: 'from the river to the sea, palestine will be free'
A person holds a banner at a pro-Palestine rally in Warsaw, Poland, November 2023. Marek Antoni Iwanczuk/Reuters

On Friday 19 November, Tuğba İyigün was home studying when she heard a knock at the door. It was two officers from the North Yorkshire police, looking bashful. “I feel a bit silly being here, to be honest with you,” one of them told her. “I don’t believe that you’re a terrorist.”

The officers had been sent to speak to İyigün about a tweet she had posted on X/Twitter two weeks earlier. The tweet, which included the widely-used Palestinian liberation slogan “From the river to the sea”, had prompted İyigün’s referral to the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy.

The incident exemplifies the crackdown on Palestine solidarity – spearheaded until recently by former home secretary Suella Braverman and egged on by establishment media – that has gone into overdrive since 7 October.

Posted on 4 November, İyigün’s tweet features a video of a pro-Palestine demo held at the University of York, where she is a mature student of social and political sciences. “From the river to the sea, #Palestine will be free!” the tweet read. “This was the probably the biggest Pro-Palestine rally in #York so far. ✊” At the time of writing, the tweet had six likes and one retweet.

One of the officers explained that they were visiting İyigün’s home because “there’s an overlap” between people who use that phrase to support Palestinians “and people who support Hamas” – and that she’d been referred to Prevent to nip any terrorist sympathies in the bud. “Sounds like Minority Report,” İyigün replied (Amnesty titled its 92-page report on the strategy ‘This Is The Thought Police’).

Introduced in 2011, the Prevent duty is nominally designed to identify and reroute individuals vulnerable to radical ideologies, including Islamic fundamentalism and white supremacism. In practice, it mostly targets Muslims: 65% of referrals to the programme in 2017 were for “Islamist extremism”, even though by the Metropolitan police’s own admission, the far right is the fastest growing terrorist threat to the UK. In November, Amnesty International called for the strategy to be abolished, saying it was “’fundamentally incompatible” with human rights and accusing it of trading in “Islamophobic stereotypes associating Muslims with extremism or terrorism”.

İyigün reckons it’s no coincidence she’s from a Muslim country.

Having suggested she might have terrorist sympathies, the officers then fumbled for a different explanation for their visit. ‘From the river to the sea’ “is not in and of itself a hateful comment,” one officer said, “but if it’s in the forum or place where Jewish people may hear it, it could be considered antisemitic … as I understand the guidelines that the Home Office have set out.”

@novaramedia Is “From the river to the sea” antisemitic? Rivkah Brown talks you through the history of the phrase to explain why it’s actually just a call for Palestinian freedom. #palestine #gaza #israel #uk #politics ♬ original sound – Novara Media

Which “guidelines” the officer was referring to is unclear: while former home secretary Suella Braverman did write to police chiefs on 10 October urging them to “consider whether chants such as ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ should be understood as an expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world, and whether its use in certain contexts may amount to a racially aggravated section 5 public order offence”, the Home Office has not issued any formal guidance on the slogan, nor did the department respond to Novara Media’s request to see such guidance if it had been issued privately.

The incident, says İyigün, reminds her of the kind of repression that drove her out of her home country of Turkey. A former journalist, she fled in 2005 after she and her partner were violently targeted by the authoritarian regime. “My first reaction to [the police officers] when they talked about this tweet was ‘Are we in China or in Turkey? Is it a dictatorship? You’re coming here and talking about tweets.’”

Since 7 October, the rightwing panic about the suppression of free speech on campus has been flipped on its head, as mainstream media outlets goad politicians to ruthlessly pursue those who refuse to toe the line on Israel and Palestine. Much of the flak has been directed at young women like İyigün, and particularly women of colour.

Four days after Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the Times ran a story exposing “the British academics defending Hamas”, accompanied by an image of three young women. A week later, the Jewish Chronicle ran its own version of the story, zeroing in on Egyptian politics lecturer Amira Abdelhamid.

In many cases, universities have hung their students or staff members out to dry: in mid-October, Soas University of London suspended students who’d taken part in a pro-Palestine demo (for their disruptive conduct, the university insisted, not for expressing support for Palestine). İyigün believes that her own Prevent referral may have been made by her university, which under UK law has a duty to report staff and students it believes meet the programme’s criteria. York University did not respond to Novara Media’s request for comment.

No further action has been taken by police against İyigün. After meeting with her, local Labour MP Rachael Maskell agreed to write to the police regarding the incident.

In a statement to Novara Media Kevin Blowe, campaigns coordinator for police monitoring agency Netpol, said: “When repeatedly demonising a slogan calling for freedom from oppression for everyone living in Palestine and Israel leads to police knocking on campaigners’ doors, this is a sinister development that threatens free speech and may frighten people away from exercising their fundamental right to protest.

“North Yorkshire police needs to explain how this situation arose, what ‘guidance’ they are relying on and how many others have faced home visits since the surge in nationwide protests.”

North Yorkshire police did not respond to Novara Media’s request for comment.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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