Palestine and Climate Activists Are Joining Forces at UK University Encampments

‘There’s something very powerful in these groups being connected.’

by Clare Hymer

9 May 2024

The pro-Palestine student encampment at the University of Manchester. Andy Barton/Reuters

Students are staging ongoing encampments at British universities demanding they end their complicity in Israel’s genocide in Gaza. 

Inspired by encampments at more than 80 US campuses, these protests are an escalation in pro-Palestine action from students around the world. 

In Britain, they also mark a new phase of coalition-building between Palestine and climate activists. 

Across the country, students from Palestine and climate campaigns are working together to highlight the links between Israel’s genocide and the climate crisis, and universities’ role in both the arms and fossil fuel industries – as well as sharing lessons in how to hold occupations.

At the University of Leeds, the current student encampment on the campus lawn follows seven months of action against the university over Palestine, including a two-week indoor occupation of the main university building in March to demand the university to cut ties with arms manufacturers and Israeli universities. 

Faye, a 20-year-old student from the Palestine society at Leeds, told Novara Media it was coordination with climate campaigners that allowed their protests to scale. Like the other student protesters featured in this article, Faye spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by university management.

“We started out with a very small coalition [of student groups],” she said. “But it was when we started collaborating with the environmental societies that we were able to actually begin planning, mobilising and escalating with some real numbers.”

For Faye, joining forces with environmental groups also made sense for political reasons.

“The colonialism that perpetuates Israel’s occupation is also perpetuating the exploitation of the environment,” she said, noting that in late October, Israel awarded 12 licences to fossil fuel giants to explore for gas off Gaza’s coastline.

“Arms companies and fossil fuel companies are all exploiting vulnerable people for their own gain.”

Both the indoor occupation in March and the ongoing encampment were organised by a coalition that included Student Rebellion Leeds – a campaign group with a dual focus on climate and the arms trade.

Fox, a 20-year-old activist from Student Rebellion says the pro-Palestine occupations at Leeds have had access to invaluable knowledge and experience from climate campaigners. 

“One of this coalition’s demands is [for the university] to cut ties with BAE systems,” they said, referencing the contracts and partnerships that Leeds and many other universities have with the UK’s biggest weapons manufacturer, which makes arms destined for Gaza.

“We [Student Rebellion] have campaigned on this exact demand for the last year: opposing the presence of BAE and other fossil fuel and arms companies on campus.”

At Leeds, there were practical lessons to be learned from climate campaigners, too. Student Rebellion occupied the same university building as the Palestine protesters only a year ago, and so were able to advise on how the university might respond and how to handle campus security.

The group also passed on resources developed by activists across the UK. This included a spreadsheet titled “Learning From Previous Occupations”, including information on different types of security guards and what they are and aren’t allowed to do, and a “safer spaces” policy inspired by feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut.

Leeds isn’t the only encampment to have been organised in coalition with climate groups. 

The camp at the University of Manchester – one of the biggest in the UK – was organised by a wide coalition of student groups including Youth Demand – a new Just Stop Oil offshoot which campaigns for a two-way arms embargo on Israel and an end to new oil and gas drilling. 

Meanwhile, at Newcastle University, the 40-strong Palestine encampment has “relied heavily” on student climate activists, including those linked to Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, according to James, a 20-year-old student and Palestine campaigner.  

These aren’t the only student encampments at which Palestine and climate activists are organising together. At the University of Ghent in Belgium, student groups are occupying a university building with demands on both Gaza and the climate crisis, arguing that “supporting Palestine is a climate issue within itself”.

Not everyone agrees. John Woodcock, AKA Lord Walney – the government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption – has suggested groups like Youth Demand are opportunists for attempting to merge climate demands with those of Palestinian liberation.​

“I think it shows a level of cynicism from these environmental campaigners who have been, I think, frustrated that their actions in blocking roads have not been getting the publicity that they hope that it would because of the dominance of the Gaza protests in recent months,” he told GB News last month. Woodcock also happens to be an arms-trade lobbyist.

For student Palestine activists, however, the coalitions being built with climate activists and other parts of the movement are only a strength.

“There’s something very powerful in these groups being connected now,” said Sue, a 22-year-old student from Manchester encampment. “That could allow for escalation nationally.”

Clare Hymer is a commissioning editor at Novara Media.

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