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Life In A Pro-Palestine Encampment

Students from the pro-Palestine encampment at Oxford University share their camp experiences and hopes for negotiations with the University.

students with faces covered and wearing blac stand holding pictures of and information about destroyed education buildings
Credit: Madeleine Jane

I spoke to students at the Oxford Uni pro-Palestine encampment (Oxford Action for Palestine or OA4P) to hear about their experiences at camp and hopes for what it will achieve.

For no particular reason other than the timeline of this piece, I visited Oxford’s pro-Palestine encampment exactly 30 days after its formation. This turned out to be the day that the Vice Chancellor of the University agreed to meet with students from the camp, after almost a month of refusing requests to negotiate.

The mood in the camp on hearing this news was jubilant to say the least. The veteran campers (and at this time of the evening, most of the people present are) break into a rousing chorus of ‘Yalla Irene’ (directed at Vice Chancellor Irene Tracy), just one of several songs that the campers have made up or adapted for their rallies. This particular song goes to the tune of the British club classic ‘Come on Eileen:’ ‘We’ll live on your green / til you divest / we won’t stop, we won’t rest.’

However, returning a few days later to interview students about camp, the cold light of day prompted a warier response. All three of the students I spoke to have been at the camp since May 6th, and clearly one email hasn’t been enough to erase 30 days of damage in terms of their relationship with the University.

Students speak

Tents and flags surround the Radcliffe Camera  (Oxford University library).
Encampment at the Radcliffe Camera (Oxford University library). Credit: Flora Symington.

Amytess Girgis, studying for her PhD in Politics, puts the University’s offer down to the group’s wide support base within the community.

‘The administration has been feeling a lot of pressure for the last few weeks. Faculty and heads of college have been pushing them to really take action…Meanwhile, a lot of colleges at Oxford have started thinking very seriously about what it would look like to disclose and divest, and so we’re pushing on that pretty heavily,’ she said.

The 43 Oxford colleges are responsible for their own finances, so getting each college to individually agree to the group’s demands is a win in itself.

‘In essence, our demands are about compelling the university to halt its support for the Israeli genocide in Gaza, but also the ongoing occupation and apartheid system that Israel has.’

Amytess summarises OA4P’s demands

However, the demands, listed on their website, go beyond those directly relating to the situation in Palestine — asking the University to disclose all of its investments, divest from any military and arms companies, and overhaul its ethical investment policy.

There is also a specific demand to drop Barclays Bank, a popular bank which has been the subject of a wider boycott campaign due to its investments in arms companies that supply Israel, as well as an academic boycott of all Israeli universities. The final demand asks the University to commit to the rebuilding of the education system in Gaza, including internet infrastructure as well as physical.

Camp life

Both Amytess and Josh (an undergraduate studying Law) are overwhelmingly positive about the support they’ve received at camp, both from students and the wider community. ‘The movement on this campus is the deepest it’s ever been in the history of this University,’ Amytess noted. ‘We have nearly 700 Faculty and Staff signed on to a support letter, and we have the faculty and staff union organizing for us. 14 trade unions in the city have backed us, and we have, I think now, 13% of the student body signed on, as well as colleges’. 

I asked Josh for some of his fondest memories from camp. He mentions Friday prayers and meal donations, even a teenager who took his girlfriend on a date to camp, but finally settles on the Parents for Palestine events. ‘We met the parents, we met the kids, they’d make pink lemonade and posters that we’d hang at the entrance.’

In terms of the tighter community at camp, Josh says he has ‘made some of the best friends that I’ve had at Oxford here in just these last 33 days.’

Josh on life in the encampment

Another student I speak to has a more stressful-sounding fondest memory.

‘We had so many recruits over the first 24 hours that on the second night, one of my friends and I just went to our college library, and until about 3am, some ridiculous time, [we] just put phone numbers from this spreadsheet into a massive chat and invited them to welcome talks, because we couldn’t figure out any faster or more efficient way to onboard hundreds and hundreds of people who wanted to be involved.’

Elliot’s memories of the first night (undergraduate in Politics, Philosophy and Economics)

They describe it as ‘the easiest recruitment I’ve ever done; people just want to help.’ Some of this support is put down to the general effect of student movements, because they give hope to people who otherwise feel they have little authority, and ‘make them feel their perspectives matter’ through collective action. More specifically, though, Elliot thinks this movement resonates with students because their universities are ‘complicit.’ ‘When an institution that we are a part of is actively participating in the annihilation of an entire people [and] everything that is like that belongs to them, how could anyone possibly not do something?’ he remarked.

Broken trust: the university’s response

Josh is the only student I speak to say he is ‘hopeful for the negotiations [with the University],’ though he concedes that, ‘I know that this university doesn’t always operate in good faith. I think that’s been really clear [since] the Vice Chancellor and some of the other administrators sent out emails saying, you know, that we were violent or really trying to paint us in just completely incorrect, very negative light…I think that they will try and do everything they can to get out of it or do as little as possible.’

Josh is referring to an email sent by the University after 17 protestors were arrested on May 23rd for staging what OA4P has called a ‘peaceful sit-in’ in the Vice-Chancellor’s office. The email described it as a ‘violent action,’ claiming that protestors had ‘shouted’ and ‘physically handled’ the receptionist. After protestors gathered around the building to try and stop police from taking the arrested students out, officers forcibly removed them. Injuries have been reported among the students.

Commenting on the events of that day, Josh, who is from the US, expressed his surprise at the behavior of the police. ‘I didn’t expect to see scenes of police brutality here in Oxford, partly because it’s the UK… It just reminded me a lot of Texas, where they would send in the state troopers…So then to have those same scenes repeat here in a place where, supposedly, you know, the police are less violent.’

Amytess describes ‘a litany of hostile incidents’ at the camp, including several knife attacks. ‘People have shouted slurs at us, including anti-semitic slurs for the Jewish members of our encampment. And the university has yet to comment on a single one of these issues, despite the fact that we have publicized them.’

‘Do I have hope? I think it’s uncomfortable to even look at the word hope right now, considering how dire the situation is, but I think that this movement is the closest I’ve felt to it.’

Elliot is sceptical about the University’s agreement to meet with protestors.

Zooming out: motivations and the global student movement

While Elliot has been a self-described activist since they were 15 and getting involved with school strikes for climate change, they had intended to give it up when they got to Oxford, but after 7th October felt they could no longer do so.

Josh’s reasons for being here are a little closer to home. ‘I’ve never done anything like this’, he stated. ‘You know, I’m not some sort of, I don’t know, professional activist in any way, shape, or form. I kind of took a leap of faith and said, Hey, I think this is something that’s important…’

‘A lot of my friends back home are Palestinian, my neighbors are Palestinian, so I grew up around stories of the Nakba.’ He also told me about visiting Palestine and how ‘actually seeing parts of the West Bank, in particular, with the big apartheid wall, that changed my view forever.’

Josh’s personal reasons for joining the encampment

Speaking about camp specifically, though Josh had never been an activist before, he said he felt inspired to join because he saw ‘how effective they could be in terms of moving the national conversation forward’ (he has friends in the US who were already part of encampments on their campuses).

A crowd listens to speakers at the Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah rally outside Oxford University building.
A crowd listens to speakers at the Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah rally. Credit: Madeleine Jane

When asked why this movement has resonated so much with the international student population, Josh said he thinks that students have always had ‘a strong moral sense.’ He speaks about the role of TikTok and other social media making students across the world feel more connected with those in Palestine. ‘I think the fact that every university in Gaza has been destroyed is something that really does not sit well with me as a student. I’m having my graduation in November, and I just keep thinking about how there’s no graduating class in Gaza for this year.’

Final words

At the end of our conversations, I asked what they would say to students reading this piece. ‘I used to not be sure if protests like this would amount to anything,’ Amytess reflected, ‘because the world wants us to believe that they won’t, and that we are powerless students, and that if we are setting up an encampment, we just look silly, but we’re not achieving anything. But the global student Intifada has shown us in the last couple of months that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.’

‘If people in power want to understand why young people are so passionate about this issue, it’s because it connects all of us,’ Josh said. He connects Palestine to other issues like the climate crisis.

‘It’s because of the shared sense of humanity that we all have. People in power should not be cowardly, and they should actually stand up and fight for justice.’

Josh on student solidarity with Palestine

Eliot’s message is simple: ‘Anyone with any humanity would have a very clear conclusion from even a handful of the images and stories that we’re seeing and hearing every day. But even putting that aside…the popular movement is for Palestine, and the students stand with Palestine, and there is no question about that.’

I want to give Amytess the final words, reflecting on how the actions of student protestors and the Universities who responded to them will be remembered in years to come. ‘Your time is coming,’ she declared. ‘The lens of history is so clear right now; the tides are turning. The international community is beginning to heavily condemn Israel for what it has done in Gaza and what it has done in Palestine for the last 76 years. And looking back, people will wonder why you didn’t act.’

Written By

I'm in my final year at the University of Oxford, studying English. I'm interested in all kinds of writing, from theatre reviewing to covering current affairs, with a particular focus on Gen Z's engagement with politics and popular culture.

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