Image Credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

Here’s where things stand a week into the pro-Palestine encampment

On May 6th, an Oxford encampment supporting Gaza was set up outside the Pitt Rivers Museum. The Oxford Student has followed these protests on the ground from the moment they started. Here’s everything you need to know, one week on.

Student actions 

In the early hours of Monday 6th May, members of Oxford Action for Palestine (OA4P) set up an encampment outside the Pitt Rivers/Natural History Museum.

The protestors set up tents to sleep in, marquees to serve food, and a welcome desk. Upon arrival, entrants agree to the encampment rules, and join the Signal group. The camp requires protestors to wear masks for the dual purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19 and identification, but this rule was less strictly enforced as the week progressed. 

By the encampment’s entrance, OA4P placed a banner listing the protestors’ 6 demands for the University. They urge the University to divest from Israel, disclosing all finances, divest from “Israeli–genocide apartheid and occupation”, overhaul its investment policy, stop banking with Barclays, and commit to rebuilding the educational sector in Gaza.

By Thursday, May 9th, the number of tents was 46. The Oxford Student has been told that over 700 individuals have signed up to the “onboarding form”. 

Life on the encampment 

The Oxford encampment differs significantly from those of US universities. Minimal chanting and a focus on teach-ins, discussions and talks have led to the creation of a largely peaceful space. This is especially notable when in the Radcliffe Science Library, where the sound of the camp can be rendered mute with just a pair of headphones. 

At around 3:00 am, several sprinklers on the museum lawn were switched on. Campers appeared to be damp, and they had to use wooden boards to cover grass areas that had churned to mud.

On Wednesday night, protestors sleeping in tents confirmed that the sprinklers had gone off again, despite the museum’s promise that they would get it sorted by Wednesday night. Protestors have since confirmed that the sprinklers have been turned off. 

On Thursday night, residents of the encampment turned to the sky to witness the northern lights happening across the United Kingdom. 

Life in the encampment runs to a schedule written on a whiteboard and published on social media. Days often start with news from Gaza, or a community check-in and end with a vigil. Throughout the day the camp hosts activities from talks and discussion groups to film screenings and art projects. Food is provided on-site from donations from members of the community, the camp can cater for vegetarians and vegans. 

The University’s silence 

Unlike the violent confrontations overseen by US college administrations that have shaken American campuses, the University has taken a more permissive approach, citing the importance of rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protests. 

On the day the encampment started, the University released a statement in which they said:

“We are aware of the ongoing demonstration by members of our University community. We respect our students and staff members’ right to freedom of expression in the form of peaceful protests. We ask everyone who is taking part to do so with respect, courtesy and empathy.

“Oxford University’s primary focus is the health and safety of the University community, and to ensure any impact on work, research and learning, including student exams, is minimised. As we have stressed in our student and staff communications, there is no place for intolerance at the University of Oxford.”

“The Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum remain open.”

Around 2 pm on May 8th, dismayed by the University’s lack of response to their demands, a group of more than 150 protestors marched from their encampment to the Sheldonian Theatre where the Vice Chancellor presented professional service awards. 

The University’s silence comes against the Government’s rising dissatisfaction about the growth of encampments set up by students protesting the war in Gaza.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak summoned the Vice-Chancellor among leaders from other British universities to discuss “escalating antisemitic abuse toward Jewish students in the U.K.” He instructed university leaders to ensure that universities “remain bastions of tolerance, where debate takes place with respect for others and where every student feels safe” and take “personal responsibility” to protect Jewish students. 

Nearly 500 faculty and staff at Oxford University have backed the students and signed an open letter expressing their support for the ongoing pro-Palestine encampment. The statement calls for divestment from Israeli actions in Gaza, discloses details of the University’s endowment and investment, and support for Palestinian scholars, following the destruction of all universities in Gaza. 

Local response

In a conversation with a protestor on the site of the encampment, The Oxford Student learned that campers found the reaction and support of the passer-by as “broadly, really positive.”

“It’s really lovely to have support from the community and feel like we are creating a space that is welcoming and positive and giving people hope…The vast majority of the time, people who have been looking to engage with us in any capacity have been looking to do that [positive and constructive conversations].”

However, the encampment was also met with a more disruptive response from members of the public. On Saturday evening, six men disrupted a vigil at the protestors at the encampment, directing abuse at the occupants and attempting to pull down posters around the camp. No injuries were sustained. 

Video of the men has been posted on social media shouting “Israel we love you” and calling the protestors on the encampment “Terrorists” and “Terrorist Sympathisers.” 

OA4P posted a statement on their Instagram page following the incident, stating that the six men accosted the protestors with “xenophobic and transphobic slurs, among a litany of other vitriolic insults.” 

Minimal police intervention 

Few police officers were intervening throughout the week, a stark contrast with the police response at American campuses. 

A handful of police officers arrive each day and walk around the internal perimeter of the camp, stopping at the media outlets that have set up on the corners of the grass, and inquiring the protestors on how long they were planning to stay there. The participants rarely engage with them. 

On day 2 of the encampment, two members of Thames Valley Police arrived at the site and told the protestors that they were “not here to stop you, we are not here to give you any crap – we just want to know what’s happening.” 

The police appeared concerned about the prospect of drunk members of the public causing trouble at the encampment overnight. Despite their insistence to spread the message camp-wide, the police were met with the same statement from the protestors: “We keep each other safe – nobody here would like to speak of you”. 

The officers asked a photographer to convey that they would assist if the public harassed the camp at night and left the encampment area with chants of: “We do not talk to police.”

JCR statements of solidarity

College Junior Common Rooms (JCR) have filed for motions of the statement of Solidarity with the Gaza Encampment. 

The statement believed OA4P should be interpreted as “a public-facing global education project” and called for the University’s leadership to treat OA4P as “the opportunity for dialogue that it is.” It also stressed that the weaponisation of antisemitism is “wholly at odds with the reality of these encampments, and has been used to“ suppress these legitimate protests and shut down free speech on campus.”

If passed, the JCR resolves to reiterate the demands of Oxford Action for Palestine to the College. 

Balliol College, St Anne’s College, Jesus College JCR passed the motions, and students of Lady Margaret Hall have signed an open letter in support of the encampment. This will be updated as the story develops. 

Reporting by Cameron Samuel Keys and Valida Pau.

Image Credit: Cameron Samuel Keys