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Gaza protesters occupy Cambridge University's graduation lawn

Organisers said they want Cambridge to disclose its relationships with companies and institutions 'complicit in the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine'
Students wave Palestinian flags next to Cambridge's iconic Senate House (AFP)
Students wave Palestinian flags next to Cambridge's iconic Senate House (AFP)

A pro-Palestine student campaign at the University of Cambridge has escalated, with students occupying the lawn outside the university's central management building on Wednesday morning.

The campaign began last Monday when around 100 students gathered on the lawn outside King's College, one of Cambridge's constituent colleges, where they erected tents and demanded the university commit to divesting from companies involved in Israel's war on Gaza. 

The organisers told Middle East Eye they are demanding that the university discloses all its relationships with companies and institutions "complicit in the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine".

They said they want the university to end all such relationships, support Palestinian students and academics - and commit to protecting academic freedom. 

Now the campaign has moved into a new phase. On early Wednesday morning the protesters set up a new encampment on the lawn of Cambridge's iconic Senate House after climbing over its surrounding fences. 

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The building, which dates back to the 1720s, is the ceremonial centre of the university. One graduation ceremony is set to take place there on Friday and another on Saturday. The encampment threatens to disrupt them both.

The protest's organisers, Cambridge for Palestine, said in a press release on Wednesday morning that they provided the university's senior administration with a deadline of 5pm on Tuesday 14 May to hold a negotiation meeting. Instead, the administration opted to communicate with the encampment through the Cambridge University Student Union. 

According to Cambridge for Palestine, this "has indicated a lack of willingness to recognise the student action as a serious matter".

The escalation also comes a day after a British-Palestinian staff member on the Student Union (SU) resigned over what he described as the body's failure to support the encampment and "express public opposition to Israel's ongoing bombardment of Gaza". 

'Last resort'

Protest organisers said in a statement on Wednesday that they would leave the Senate House lawn as soon as the university agrees to the movement's preconditions and sets a negotiation meeting.

They added: "Disrupting graduation is a last resort which we absolutely do not wish to take, but as the University of Cambridge has refused thus far to engage in negotiations, we have been left with no other choice."

On Tuesday, over 100 protesters - led by 10 Cambridge academics - delivered an open letter demanding the university divests from Israel to Cambridge's pro-vice-chancellors Bhaskar Vira and Kamal Munir outside the Old Schools, the 15th-century buildings in central Cambridge which house the administration's offices.

MEE revealed on Sunday that according to the Trinity College Student Union, the college council at Trinity, Cambridge's wealthiest constituent college, voted to divest from all arms companies.

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The student union said the college decided not to announce the move publicly after an activist defaced a portrait inside Trinity of Lord Arthur Balfour.

In February, MEE reported that Trinity had £61,735 ($78,089) invested in Israel's largest arms company, Elbit Systems, which produces 85 percent of the drones and land-based equipment used by the Israeli army.

The college also has millions of dollars invested in other companies arming, supporting and profiting from Israel's war on Gaza.

In response to a request for comment, Trinity did not confirm or deny that the college council voted to divest from arms companies, but told MEE on Monday that "Trinity College continues to review its investments regularly".

Pro-vice-chancellor for education Professor Bhaskar Vira said in a statement to student newspaper Varsity on Wednesday: "The university has been in regular and ongoing contact with students who have been impacted by the tragic events in Gaza and Palestine. We support freedom of speech and protest within the law."

He added that the university was happy to engage with the protesters, but: "We have received only anonymous emails. We remain ready for constructive engagement with our students, but it is impossible to have a conversation with an anonymous group".

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