Students at the University of Sheffield have joined others across the country to campaign against the recent events in the Gaza conflict.
Womens’ Officer Fiona Edwards, who is convener of the Union’s End Israeli Occupation policy, headed up a protest last week with the University’s Palestinian Society on the Union Concourse.
The group, calling themselves Sheffield Students Against Israel’s Attack on Gaza, and have been petitioning students this week in the Union to sign up to a list of demands they wish to put to the University.
According to Palestinian health officials, the war has caused the deaths of over 1,300 Palestinians and injured more than 5,200 since it began on December 27 last year.
The campaign included promoting understanding and increasing awareness on campus of the recent conflict and on Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Edwards said: “If Sheffield University is to maintain its international reputation and evidence its commitment to ethical values, it must make public its opposition to the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.”
The protest, which saw students pretend to be dead on a Palestinian flag which was surrounded by tombstones with statistics condemning Israel’s role in the war whilst Edwards spoke on a megaphone, disappointed the Union’s Activities Officer Matt Fox.
He said: “It was led by the Palestinian Society and all societies are free to campaign.
“Fiona took a lead on the issue as she is the Officer who oversees the Palestinian policy of the Union. Personally I disagree with the method of the protest but agree with the issue.
“What has happened in Gaza is horrifying, but to stage people dying on the concourse could upset anyone, not just Jewish members of our Union.”
The Union has a policy which ‘condemns acts of terrorism and aggression on all sides’, and also supports United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.
The Union believes Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories, allow for the creation of a Palestinian state in its place, and permit the return of Palestinian refugees.
The original policy was passed by a University referendum in March 2004, and an amended version was approved in 2007. It is due for review again in October 2009.
A statement from the University of Sheffield Jewish Society said: “Sheffield Jewish society is concerned by some of the comments and demands being made on behalf of our collective Union.
“The situation in the Middle East is not a simplistic black and white conflict, and by whitewashing the actions of Hamas – including the murder of Palestinians in Gaza as reported by Amnesty International and the indiscriminate eight year campaign of rocket fire onto Southern Israel – the Union will do more to undermine than progress peace in the region.
“The terrible conflict last month affected victims on both sides of the divide and we can work progressively to help all of those victims.
“There must also be a wider question addressed by both the Union and University as to why taking action around this particular international situation is important for our reputation and values, but not other conflict zones.
“As a collective student body we should be promoting genuine humanitarian work and supporting those in difficult conditions; but where then are the calls for scholarships and aid to students in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Sudan and so many other conflict regions?”
Approximately 150 students attended a public meeting on Tuesday, February 10, titled ‘Justice for Palestine’.
It featured speakers from the National Union of Students (NUS), Stop the War Coalition, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Islamic Society of Great Britain.
Abdul Gooljar, from the Sheffield Branch of the Islamic Society of Great Britain, said at the meeting: “The media is biased, politicians one-sided and morally bankrupt, their hands full of blood.
“We stand together, people of moral values, and tomorrow they will be saying that the University of Sheffield has led the way. Where is the human conscience? Where is your moral value?”
Edwards, who also spoke at the meeting, added: “As students we should be appalled. The recent stand of the NUS is disgusting and is once again out of touch with students.
“The NUS has an appalling record. It always supports Israel – well, the last few times.”
She said that it was a “time to start making demands” of the NUS, before announcing her list to present to the University, which has also been endorsed by students at over 20 other institutions.
Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy, NUS Black Students’ Officer, told listeners: “It’s inspiring to see so many standing in solidarity whilst the NUS is out of touch with the wider student movement.
“‘Free Palestine’ is not an anti-Semitic statement. We will not be silenced.”
Lindsey German, convenor for Stop The War coalition, added that students were amongst the “vanguard of the Gaza movement”.
She added: “If you’re right and you’re in the minority, you can become a majority.
“Every generation has its cause, and today we have Palestine”.
Edwards said that representatives from the Black Students’ Committee, Palestine Society, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Society, the Islamic Circle, Ethical & Environmental Committee, Amnesty International Society and others are together demanding action from the University.
The group want the University to issue a statement on what they call the “disproportionate actions of the Israeli state on the Palestinian people” and to enter into an “academic partnership” with the Islamic University of Gaza.
They also want a special programme of five Palestinian scholarships and for the University to waive all fees for students from the occupied territories.
Students at the University of Sheffield are not alone in protesting on this issue.
University of Nottingham security guards forcibly broke up a six day student occupation earlier this month, and students at Sheffield Hallam University staged an occupation in a 10th floor lecture theatre in the Owen Building.
The protesters were removed from a lecture theatre in the University’s Politics department, who had issued a list of the demands in common with those students at the University of Sheffield (see Letter to the Vice-Chancellor, top right).