‘Take your hands out of Gaza’: 300 join Uni of York student walkout in support of Palestine

Students and staff protested against the university’s stance on the ongoing conflict in Gaza

Students at the University of York staged a mass walkout and march last week in support of Palestine.

Around 300 demonstrators made up of students, teachers and community members took part in the protest which saw a roadblock outside of Heslington Hall.

The march, which took place on Wednesday 8th of May, called for the University of York to sever all ties with weapons manufacturers fully, as well as support Palestinian students through scholarships and partnerships with Gazan universities. This comes after the university announced its divestment from arms companies last month.

After gathering at 12:30pm, the march continued through Derwent college, around the lake, by the exhibition centre and concluded at Greg’s Place. Students carried flags and banners reading statements such as “Ceasefire now, lift the siege, end the occupation”.

Just over two weeks ago, a statement was released by the University of York which announced a revision of its responsible investment commitments. The institution explained that it had withdrawn investments from “companies that primarily make or sell weapons and defence-related products or services” after calls from the student body to “cut these investment ties and renew our commitment to the mission of public good”.

Despite this, students are still calling for the University of York to reject grants and research funding from arms companies in order to totally disassociate with them. Aaron*, an organiser of the student walkout said: “According to data, collected by one of our fantastic students from the philosophy department, the University of York accepted £8 million grants from BAE Systems in January.”

In addition, students also protested against the presence of AWE systems, a nuclear and atomic weapons manufacturer which was present on campus at the time of the protest, advertising company jobs and roles to graduates in the exhibition centre. They were invited to the graduate’s fair by the University of York.

Aaron spoke loudly into the megaphone, towards Heslington Hall. He said: “It seems that the uni want their graduate students to be making bombs that land on the children of Gaza.”

Then, to the crowd, he said: “Whilst we’re here together, we remember the 40,000 Palestinians who have been butchered by the Israel Defence Forces.”

Amidst the rallying cries, a protest organiser shared information that Fadi Hania, a University of York alumnus from Palestine who was trapped in Gaza, had successfully managed to escape with his family, with the help of donations and fundraisers.

Another student protestor, Jane*, claimed that it was students, staff and the local community who were bale to get Fadi out of Palestine through fundraising. The GoFundMe for Fadi amounted to a grand sum of £8,000.

Jane made a series of demands for the University of York after the institution claimed to evolve its investment strategy “in line with its values as a university for public good” and after the YUSU President claimed to have “started something in York“. She said: “We will not whitewash your reputation, at a departmental level has extensive ties to Israeli apartheid, and settler colonialism.”

Addressing senior management inside of Heslington Hall, Jane continued: “You can’t boast about protecting human rights defenders programme, at the same time helping the Israeli and other governments to persecute the very human rights defenders that it claims to uphold.

Outlining the students’ further demands, she said: “Number two, condemn the ongoing genocide and anti-Palestinian racism, both on-campus and off-campus.”

“Number three, provide scholarships for Palestinian students and twin with Gazan universities” ”

Later, she referred to the University of York’s response to the Ukraine/Russia war and outlined her expectations of the institution during the ongoing war in Gaza. Referring to the partnership agreement signed by the University of York and Karazin Kharkiv National University in Ukraine, she said: “We have to ask the university to secure relationships with Gazan universities just like they did with Ukrainian universities”.

Signed over two years ago, this agreement includes staff fellowships, supporting Kharkiv in the management of their cultural heritage, summer schools and short courses, online access to books and teaching materials, longer-term academic links, online access to academic content and connections between the students’ unions.

The organisers’ fourth demand was to support Palestinian alumni such as Fadi Hania.

Poet and student Amira* read her poem, “The Student Revolution”, inspired by the encampments happening around the globe. Many of her poems are inspired by resistance and Palestine.

Politics student Emma* also gave her own speech, part of which said: “We stand in front of Heslington Hall to further the work of York alumni such as Michael Young, who was credited in conducting the talk in apartheid South Africa with the representative of the South African government and their African national congress which led to the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

“Whilst the university is happy to credit and claim him now, Palestinian racism, islamophobia, remains rife on campus. Whilst Palestinian activism is constrained and excluded by the university, we stand against another apartheid state”.

Julie, a trade union student for the public sector union, Unison, gave a talk outside of the physics building.

In response to six security guards who crowded round the entrance, she said: “Our resistance is shaking the establishment.”

Julie added: “Every institution should be prepared to make a statement, a condemnation of what is happening in Gaza. There’s money being spent for warfare, not worker’s wages, and health and education and public services.”

The protest was so large that there were several chants occurring simultaneously, down the crowd.

Writer and activist Mia* spoke with outrage and sadness for the lives lost. She told the crowd: “When I look at these children, I see my own. I saw a picture of children crushed under rubble and I could not help but notice their hair. One of them had a distinctly different style to the other, cut straight, brushed forward, the other had his hair recently cut too but his was brushed carefully to the side. I look at the care and the love and the nurture embodied in coloured t-shirts and haircuts, and tiny little socks”.

Mia added: “We reject the assertion that brown bodies are collateral damage”.

The protest concluded at Greg’s Place while students left buildings and joined the group of approximately 300 people.

Yusuf*, a former student and former professor at the University of York, reminisced with a student on his time at the institution amid political dissonance.

He said: “I was here in 1977 occupying Heslington Hall.”

Yusuf added: “I remember the call of Margaret Thatcher, when we were standing by Nelson Mandela, that he’s a terrorist and he will die in prison. And what happened? One of the greatest statesmen ever. Nelson Mandela was freed and South Africa was freed. I can see Palestine will be free.”

The protest concluded with the words of speakers, Gabriel* and Aaron.

Gabriel said: “Take your hands out of Gaza, take your hands out of Palestine” whilst Aaron added: “We will not stop; we will continue to escalate. We want full divestment now.”

After the protest, The York Tab spoke to an attendee of the event, Mina*. She spoke about the personal effect of the protest, saying: “I feel like getting through these times are really hard, but by having people around you who are standing in solidarity, especially today with there being over 200 people, I’m guessing, you feel like you are not alone in this.

“It feels so dark and lonely at times, but seeing all these people of different colours, ethnicities, religions and nations, coming together to do this, makes it feel a little bit better and that there is hope.”

A spokesperson for The University of York said: “Lawful free speech is to be treasured, including protests and demonstrations on campus, and we are proud of our campaigning students who over the years have rightly challenged the university, the government and others on a number of issues. We need to make sure we listen and learn from each other, but we reject violence, intimidation and harassment.

“We have a strong history of challenging social injustice and we recognise the strength of feeling students may have on many global issues. We believe our community does – and will continue to – embrace the values of free expression, ensuring our campus is a place where difficult issues can be discussed openly, in good faith and mutual respect.”

IDF, AWE Systems and BAE Systems were contacted for comment

* Names have been changed to protect students’ privacy 

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