The global “student intifada” at the People’s Conference for Palestine

Attendees at the People’s Conference for Palestine hear from student organizers leading the struggle for liberation across the globe

May 31, 2024 by Natalia Marques
People's Conference for Palestine attendees cheer for student organizers (Photo: Palestinian Youth Movement)

The People’s Conference for Palestine, held in Detroit from May 24 to May 26, came off the heels of the height of the student-led Gaza Solidarity Encampments in the United States. Students at Columbia University kicked off a new chapter in the global movement for Palestine after setting up a “liberated zone” on the main lawn of their campus in early April, using the occupation (or, as pro-Palestine students labeled it, the de-occupation) of campus space to leverage the demand of Columbia’s full divestment from Israel.

This dedicated group of students inspired students across the globe to do the same, forcing the organized movement of students into direct confrontation with both their institutions and the violence of the state, which was called on to brutalize, arrest, and charge students engaging in peaceful protest. Ultimately, despite repression, students won in the battle of ideas, showing the world, including those acting directly for Palestine in the Axis of Resistance, that the movement for Palestine was stronger than ever.

At the height of the student struggle in the United States, banners with images of arrested students appeared at mass mobilizations in Yemen, messages of support for students were written on the sides of tents by Palestinian refugees in Rafah. On May 29, the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei wrote an open letter to the student movement in the United States, stating, “You have now formed part of the resistance movement, and have begun an honorable struggle [despite being] under the cruel pressure of your government—which openly defends the usurping and ruthless Zionist regime.”

The international character of the student movement, which has been dubbed “the student intifada”, was on full display at the Peoples Conference for Palestine. “While we recognize this to be a powerful moment for the student movement, we also must recognize that this is only the tip of the iceberg of our work. To engage in our struggle on a larger level, there must be transnational cohesion,” articulated Nidaa Lafi, organizer with National Students for Justice in Palestine and the Palestinian Youth Movement at the plenary session entitled “The Student Intifada: Zionism off our Campus.” 

“The context of the student movement in Palestine is not at the same place as it is in the US. Which is not the same as Europe, not the same in Latin America. And despite these different contexts, approaches, and strategy, students must become unified under one vision, under one goal. 

Student organizers speak at a plenary session at the People’s Conference for Palestine (Photo: Palestinian Youth Movement)

Students and workers are victorious in Italy

Attendees heard from Dawod Al-Taamari, of the group Young Palestinians of Italy (Giovani Palestinesi d’Italia), and a student organizer at the University of Bologna. Giovani Palestinesi d’Italia organized the first Gaza Solidarity Encampment in Italy, in Bologna. Al-Taamari provided insights into organizing within the student movement in the Italian context. “Italian universities are very different from American campuses… they don’t really have any kind of investment with the Zionist entity,” Al-Taamari explained. “They instead have cooperation, mainly research cooperation with companies, firms, and Israeli universities.” 

Al-Taamari explained that while most recently, Italian students have been inspired by the student struggle in the United States, students in Italy have been occupying their universities since November, demanding a total boycott of Israeli academic institutions. 

In contrast with institutions in the United States, which have almost entirely doubled down on their ties with Israel in spite of student protest, the University of Turin in Italy suspended collaboration with Israeli universities and research institutions following public pressure from both students and academics. Significant victories regarding the academic boycott of Israel have also been achieved by students at La Scuola Normale in Pisa, and the University of Bari Aldo Moro

Al-Taamari also claimed that the student intifada in Italy has been so strong because it “maintained the support of the community and the workers.” Al-Taamari gave the example of students holding a rally and sit-in at the University of Bologna, and there was a group of workers nearby holding a demonstration for salary raises. 

“At the end of their protest, they joined the encampment, they joined our protest.” The workers achieved their demands the next day and stopped their protest, but according to Al-Taamari, the workers, inspired by the students, “made the union write in their agreement that they would not move any product or any shipment that was coming or going into Israel.”

The UK student movement climbs to new heights

Monty Rumbold, a student organizer with the Warwick Stands With Palestine campus coalition in the United Kingdom, also participated in the plenary session. His organization made it possible for Warwick University in England to establish a Gaza Solidarity Encampment in the UK. Despite major encampments being dismantled in the US, universities in the UK are now at a high point in their student movement, with 36 active encampments throughout the country.

Students in the UK, much like fellow students in the US, are using encampments to leverage the demand of divestment. According to Rumbold, UK universities are largely refusing to even negotiate with student organizers. Rumbold describes organizing at the University of Nottingham, where university administrators tried to evict the student encampment but lost their court case against students

However, Rumbold also articulates how public universities in the UK operate differently in relation to the Zionist project, in contrast with US universities. These UK universities are now heavily indebted and “on the verge of insolvency” due to “neoliberalization”, Rumbold describes, unlike US private Ivy League universities that have large endowment funds that are then invested in Israeli genocide. Therefore, the demands that students in the UK must leverage are different than those in the US. 

According to Rumbold, the key questions of the UK student movement include, “How are our universities integrated into the imperial war machine more generally?”, “What [research] projects are being conducted on our campus?”, and “Which companies are present in our labs and our career fairs?” among others.

Confronting the occupation at universities in Palestine

Ghaied Hijaz also participated in the plenary session virtually, speaking directly from Palestine as a student at Birzeit University. Hijaz is also part of the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit, a movement founded in 1998, which works to “empower students to claim their human right to education, to overcome the isolation of Palestinian educational institutions and to demand an end to the illegal Israeli occupation,” according to the campaign’s website. 

In Palestine, because of the heightened political context, “a majority of the student groups are politicized, serving as extensions of national Palestinian political factions,” explained Hijaz.

Palestinian student organizers have faced some of the most acute forms of repression by the Israeli occupation, with the occupation closing Birzeit University alone 15 separate times. There are currently about 150 Birzeit University students detained in Israeli prisons according to Hijaz. As she was addressing the plenary, Hijaz wore a t-shirt in honor of her classmate, Aysar Safi, killed on May 15 by an Israeli soldier during a demonstration. Students have also faced repression from the Palestinian Authority.

“As the Israeli occupation criminalized student movements, arresting dozens every year, the PA also detained students for their political activism,” Hijaz outlined. Despite facing levels of repression that most student organizers do not have to contend with, Palestinian students remain undeterred. The student movement at Birzeit has recently been organizing protests against visits from US officials, or in front of the embassies of nations that are complicit in the genocide. Most recently, students at Birzeit forced the German ambassador to Israel out of the university


Students face brutal repression in the US

In the United States, students have been experiencing severe police repression and brutality, unleashed by their respective university administrations. 

At Columbia University, after students occupied Hamilton Hall (renaming it Hind’s Hall after the martyred Palestinian child, Hind Rajab, police were deployed by the hundreds on the night of April 30. The medical records of student organizers prove that police broke bones and gave students concussions as they were making arrests within Hind’s Hall, despite city officials including New York City mayor insisting that there were “no injuries”. 

At the University of California system, where students organized encampments all throughout the state, they were brutally crushed after their university administrations permitted Zionist mobs to unleash terror against students, before calling in riot police to brutalize those same students. Students at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), in particular, experienced wave after wave of right-wing counterprotest from Zionists, right-wingers, and even neo-Nazis, while the university administration sat back and did nothing. Those same students were then attacked by hundreds of police officers from several different agencies, some even left with bloody wounds from rubber bullets. 

In response, at several University of California including UCLA, student workers have gone on an unfair labor practices (ULP) strike in the thousands. “We’re taking action right now because all of this is tied up with our own working conditions,” Rafael Jaime, President of United Auto Workers Local 4811, which represented 48,000 student workers across the UC campuses, told Peoples Dispatch. “If we can’t protest over something so important, such as the ongoing war on Gaza, then it is an attack on our fundamental rights to protest over anything, to take action on our rights as workers.”

Peoples Dispatch also spoke to Mousa Najjar, who graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas this year, but in the spring was the president of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. Najjar was part of organizing the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at UT Dallas, which, much like other encampments at Texas universities, experienced a level of brutal state repression unusual even across the United States. The ultra-conservative Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, responsible for draconian anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-abortion rights policies, had no qualms about siccing state troopers on students peacefully staging encampments. On May 1, only 12 hours after the establishment of an encampment, Texas state police crushed the protest, making 21 arrests, according to Najjar, three of whom were professors. “This goes to show that the administration not only does not care and nor does it respect the freedom of speech or the rights of its students on their own campus, but that also goes for its own faculty and staff,” Najjar said.

“The encampment at UT Dallas was a reflection of the ongoing escalations that have been led by the student movement, not only in the United States, but also around the world as a whole,” Najjar articulated. “It was no different for us at UT Dallas, although we are in Texas, a repressive state that has a racist governor, and we needed to escalate accordingly.” 

“Following many years of lack of response to our divestment proposals, campaigns and demands from our own administrations, the silence that echoed in the hallways only needed to be met with this escalation.”

The march of the student movement continues

“The student movement at Birzeit has come to realize that through years that any form of surrender, breakdown, retreat, or fear in the face of oppression and occupation leads to dire consequences,” Ghaied Hijaz declared at the end of the plenary session. “However, we understand that the most vital aspect of the student movement is continuity… As we see US crackdowns on protesters mirroring Israeli tactics and the oppression of Palestinians, the continuity of the student movement is vital to protect the student protesters themselves… there’s no going back now. Any retreat gives room for the US government and the Zionist group to destroy the impact of this movement and take revenge on the students.”

Hijaz showed attendees her t-shirt honoring her classmate Aysar Safi, with the slogan “the march of the student movement continues, acts of oppression and terror will not deter it.”