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Cambridge for Palestine – demanding divestment

Mahmoud begins his day eating breakfast in tents with his comrades below Palestinian flags hanging over the grandiose King’s College in Cambridge. “Then, we have our morning briefing to reiterate our purpose. We’re not here for fun, we’re not here for a picnic. This is a protest against the University’s complicity in the massacre in Gaza, and we affirm that everyday.”

The encampment is operated by Cambridge for Palestine, a student-run organization created to protest against Israel’s genocide in Gaza that has set up an encampment on the lawns of King’s College in central Cambridge, an impossible-to-miss demonstration. The camp is demanding disclosure of the University’s ties to Israel, divestment from Israel and reinvestment into Palestinian livelihood, and additional protection for pro-Palestine students.

According to Mahmoud, “Freedom of Information reports have found that at least three colleges at Cambridge have invested millions of pounds into companies like Caterpillar, BAE, and Elbit systems, directly fuelling the massacre”. Caterpillar Inc is a construction company that has built bulldozers and other manufacturing equipment that has been used to demolish Palestinian homes across the West Bank for decades. BAE Systems is a longstanding arms manufacturing company that has built arms systems for Israel’s Air Forces. Elbit Systems is an Israeli-based defence contractor company supplying Israel’s military with weapons, munitions, and communications technologies. The University has funded these businesses through investments held by the University’s constituent colleges.

Beyond financial capital, huge amounts of intellectual capital are funnelled from Cambridge to Israel. Engineering and manufacturing research from Cambridge has received funding from arms companies and informed arms technology for Israel’s military proliferation – from BAE to Rolls Royce. “Oxbridge has a lot of history of educating UK government leaders, all of whom come out with an attitude of needing to support and invest into a post-British imperialist world, where the UK still retains control over the Middle East as unwavering ally to Israel,” Mahmoud explained.

“We want the University to cut all financial ties to Israel and instead invest into Palestinian livelihood. This includes supporting Gazan students at Cambridge, who have been pleading with the university for over six months for financial support (which was offered almost immediately for Ukrainian applicants following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). The University hasn’t given anything concrete, showing they’re not serious about supporting these students. The students recently ended these conversations and joined the encampment, referring the University to us for further discussion – we’re so glad to have their trust”.

The University issued a brief press release on May 8th, offering minimal response to the encampment and its demands, and instead simply reiterating student’s right to protest. “They haven’t contacted us directly at all, But they have isolated at least two students and approached them in-person while outside of the encampment, presumably to get information”, Mahmoud told me.

While the University administration remains silent and unsupportive, the same cannot be said for the University student and staff community. “Faculty support has been incredible from the very beginning of the encampment. From open letters, to coming to support and offer teach-ins on things like the weaponization of antisemitism, apartheid and genocide in the Middle East. They’ve also been providing support for students through welfare, offering water and food, just asking how they can support us.” The student community also remains supportive. Indeed, over 1700 students, staff, and alumni have signed an open letter against the University’s support and complicity in the massacre.

In addition to the growth of the camp itself and widespread social media support, there has been little pushback from students and peers. “We haven’t received anything like that from students, but we know they exist and have been speaking to some news outlets, trying to spread alternative to the media”

Concluding my phone call with Mahmoud, I asked him if he takes a hopeful approach in the encampment. “A hopeful way is the best way. Student movements have played a central role across history. Look at the war in Vietnam, ending South Africa’s apartheid. Student mobilization at such a global stage is amazing.”

If you would like to support the encampment, C4P has a donation portal and a list of most-needed supplies like tarps and lights that community members based in Cambridge can drop off. Moreover, if you are an educator or activist in Cambridge, London, or nearby, who would be willing and able to give teach-in at the camp, please reach out.

You can follow C4P here for updates and to amplify their work.

~ Laura O’Connor

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