Gaza conflict draws crowds to Cornmarket

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Tuesday saw scenes of protest on Cornmarket as demonstrators took to the street to raise awareness of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Protestors supporting both the Palestinians in Gaza, and the Oxford University Israel society faced off on Cornmarket Street.

The larger pro-Palestine demonstration consisted of almost 100 participants, with chants of “Free Palestine” and “We are all Palestinians” to be heard booming across the street.

Organiser Olivia Bergmeijer, an Arabic and Persian student at Wadham, said that the protestors’ aim was to raise public awareness of the current clash between Israel and Palestine, and to highlight the civilian casualties occurring in the volatile region. Missiles were launched from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants towards Tel Aviv, in response to fears of an Israeli aggression, last Thursday.

Speaking on Tuesday, Bergmeijer said: “We’re here protesting in solidarity with the people of Gaza and to raise awareness of what’s been happening in Gaza in the past week. Today we’ve entered the seventh day of heavy bombardment of the Gaza strip, over a hundred people have been killed.

“So we’re here to inform the public, and spread awareness.”

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Bergmeijer described the diverse makeup of the protest group, noting that students from both Oxford and Oxford Brookes  Universities, the PSC (Palestine Solidarity Campaign), and members of the public had joined together.

Bergmeijer, from the Oxford Student Palestine Society, said: “The society is mostly to raise awareness, to inform people about what’s happening in Palestine, about the occupation, make people more aware about the situation.

“We hold speakers events and screen films to inform people about the situation. I think, at the end of the day, it’s our duty as citizens to inform people, because I don’t think our politicians represent us, and our media doesn’t do it either.”

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Tony Richardson, of the Oxford PSC group who were also taking part in the demonstration, said that they are “basically a solidarity campaign with the Palestinians”.  He described the organisation as one that “doesn’t have a particular political viewpoint apart from [their] main objective, solidarity with the Palestinians.”

The PSC organisation are planning a large-scale protest on Saturday outside Downing Street. Richardson said: “This Oxford demonstration is only one of several protests all over the country, building up to what we hope will be a big demonstration in London.

“We have to try and build up the whole mood in the country away from the lies that are coming out in the national media- it’s absolutely atrocious!”

He added: “Our strong feeling is that media is not giving the true picture of what’s happening [in Gaza]. It’s an occupation where people are not allowed to pass out of Gaza, only in very small numbers, they’re not allowed to get materials in and out, and people are going hungry in Gaza. They’re completely defenceless.

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“The borders of Gaza are controlled by Israel and their cohorts, and by stopping food going in, they have basically been under occupation for the last seven years. This control by Israel is stopping the people living.”

Vying against the loud shouts of the pro-Palestine protestors on Cornmarket Street were members of the Oxford University Israel Society, who described themselves as “the alternative voice”.

Richard Black, a member of the society, who studies History at Lincoln was adamant that he was “proud to call [himself] pro-Israel”

He said: “Israel has a right to defend its people, and that’s what we’re trying to say.” Black described Hamas as a “terrorist group” that “chooses to use civilians as human shields”.

“When Israel retaliates, unfortunately Hamas deliberately puts its missiles next to civilian areas and it’s shocking. It is a crime against humanity to use their civilian population as human shields.”

Black added that “we all” have “sympathy for the Palestinians”, yet he did not think this should stop Israel taking military action.

He said: “We think that Israel has a right to take out the missile bases, and it shouldn’t be scrutinised to the way it is, when, for example, from the hundreds of Palestinians that have been killed so far, the vast majority are militants.

“Unfortunately, innocents do get killed, but it’s Israel standing up for itself.”

Black was critical of the PSC’s planned protest on Saturday, saying that it is “an extremely cynical tactic.”He explained: “Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, so [the PSC] know there aren’t many Jews going out to protest against them. That’s a very dirty tactic.”

Judith Weston from University College who was also supporting the pro-Israel demonstration was “angry” at what she sees as an attempt by people who don’t understand the complexity of the conflict, to support the Palestinians.

She said: “Israel acts entirely in self-defence. People support the Palestinians because they think they’re supporting the underdog, and I understand that impulse- they think they’re doing the right thing. The problem however, is that they don’t understand the conflict. These are gravely misunderstood issues form back to front.”

Weston emphasised: “Nobody is advocating violence. I stand for Israel’s right to defend itself when a barrage of rockets are being sent at its civilian population every day without ceasing.”

Likening the situation to “the city of Edinburgh firing rockets into England”, Weston said: “England would fight back. It wouldn’t let its innocent civilians be killed.”

At a protest held by the same organisations last Friday on Cornmarket Street, the opinions of Oxford students were divided.

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Amy Addison-Dunne, a student at Ruskin College said: “Quite frankly, ever since the state of Israel came into existence, they’ve been oppressing Arabs, and systematically they’ve been taking more and more land”.

In agreement with this, Ismail Lala, a DPhil in Oriental Studies at Pembroke, called the Israeli military action “atrocious”, and deplored what he saw as the Israeli decision to “choose land over peace”.

On the other hand, another student [who did not wished to be named] supported Israel’s right to defend itself, emphasising that on practical terms, this was “not such an uncommon response.”

Although many of the protestors were motivated to demonstrate because of their solidarity with the cause (one way or another) others attended because of personal experiences of conflict.

Saleem Lubbad, a third year engineer at Teddy Hall, said: “I’m Palestinian. I’m from Gaza, my family is there. The whole of last night was bombs, more than 250 drones in less than six hours. They are bombing everywhere, anywhere.”

Noting his solidarity with the pro-Palestine demonstration, he said: “This is the least we can do. This is the only way we can tell the world that there’s something happening in Gaza, and that there’s something happening to the Palestinians.”

At the time of going to print, ceasefire negotiations mediated by Egypt were on-going, with Israel belived to be demanding no hostile fire of any kind from Gaza, alongside international efforts to prevent Hamas from re-arming. Hamas is believed to be demanding an end to the blockade on Gaza and targeted killings by Israel.

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