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Students’ mass encampment for Palestine

Students at the University of Sheffield have today (1 May 2024) begun a mass encampment in solidarity with the Palestinian people and in protest against allegations of their university’s complicity in Israeli apartheid and the ongoing bombardment of Gaza. The day started with planned walk-outs of lectures and teaching activities, followed by a demonstration. As the demonstration neared its end, students could be seen setting up tents and gazebos outside university buildings. Combined with solidarity encampments created by students at the Universities of Warwick and Edinburgh last week, this marks the spread of the tactics of the American student movement (as seen at Columbia and at least 30 other US institutions) to the UK. Multiple other coordinated encampments are expected imminently.

The protests are led by the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine (SCCP), a coalition of staff, students, and alumni from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University. They are backed by staff members,  local trades unionists, and community groups such as Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and Jews Against Israeli Apartheid. The latter have issued a statement of support, saying they welcome the walk out and  ‘call on all students and staff to do so and resolve to hold their University to account for its complicity with the genocide perpetrated by Israel in Palestine’.

Student demonstrators point to the role played by the university’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in manufacturing the F-35 combat aircraft used by the Israeli military. The AMRC boasts that its ‘novel, fully automated manufacturing process’ has been used to provide ‘critical fuselage panels’ for more than 500 F-35 Lightning II aircraft, saving arms manufacturer BAE Systems £15 million in costs in the process. A Dutch court recently ordered the country’s government to immediately suspend all exports of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel, due to concerns that they were being used to violate international law.

A student spokesperson for SCCP said: ‘The university can house decolonial lecturers in their theatres whilst simultaneously profiting off settler-colonial projects. But now the fig leaf has fallen, revealing the University of Sheffield not as an academic institution, but rather as a brazen hub for weapons manufacturers. Most egregiously, the University has been found to have helped streamline and produce the very instruments of warfare Israel used in its ruthless and indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza. It is for that reason that we students have come to charge the university with complicity in the genocide of the Palestinians in Gaza. Our demand is clear: divest now.’

The university’s involvement in F-35 production is part of a pattern of close ties with the arms industry. In 2022, a freedom of information request (FOI) revealed that the University of Sheffield took at least £72 million in investment from the arms trade over the preceding decade. This level of investment is exceptionally high in the context of British higher education. Last year openDemocracy reported that Sheffield University received more defence funding than any other institution, taking over £42m, while Oxford and Cambridge took £17m and £10m respectively.

University of Sheffield Lecturer, Dr Lisa Stampnitzky, said ‘I am proud to see our students taking a stand and joining this worldwide movement against the ongoing genocide in Gaza.   Our university needs to confirm its commitment to be an ethical institution and divest itself of ties to the development of weapons used to perpetrate atrocities.’

Students have expressed concerns about the influence exerted by these companies on the university’s research agenda and teaching. The protesters draw attention to the AMRC’s membership scheme, which allows private companies to mould research priorities, and to the role played by Industrial Advisory Boards (IABs) in some university departments.[1] Both feature representation from arms companies.

[1] See https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/aerospace/about/industry/partners#AerospaceIndustrialAdvisoryBoard; https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/eee/about/working-industry.

SCCP Demands: 

Divest (سحب العلاقات): We call on the University of Sheffield to divest from weapons manufacturing. The University should not be aiding in supplying instruments of warfare to a genocidal state.

Boycott (مقاطعة): We demand that the institution sever all ties to Israeli universities. Israeli academic institutions have long served as pillars of Israel’s system of oppression against Palestinians, with many universities utterly entangled in the violent machinery of Palestinian dispossession, occupation, incarceration, surveillance, siege and most recently genocide.  

Accountability (مساءلة): We hold the University of Sheffield accountable for their complicity in the genocide of the Palestinian people. The campus community demands that the University agree to a meeting with students and staff.