On the 17th of April, students at Columbia University in New York City set up the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” consisting of around 50 tents and proclaiming 5 demands. The demands were financial divestment, an academic boycott of Israeli universities, “stop the displacement,” no policing on campus and to “end the silence.” Since then, demonstrations, sit-ins, and similar encampments spread across the US, with 140 college campuses experiencing some kind of action. On the 26th of April, the University of Warwick became the first university in the UK to set up its own encampment. As of the 13th of May, there were encampments in 25 universities across the country. On the 6th of May, “Oxford Action for Palestine” set up a “Liberated Zone” outside the Pitt Rivers Museum. Since the beginning of the encampments, Trinity College Dublin have agreed to divest from Israeli companies, and Trinity College Cambridge has agreed to divest from all arms companies.

In this article, the Oxford Blue aims to map the key events surrounding the encampment since its creation over two weeks ago.

6th of May 

The encampment released its demands on its Instagram page (@oxact4pal). These demands are to disclose university-wide assets, divest university-wide assets, overhaul investment policy, boycott institutional relationships, drop Barclays, and rebuild and invest. 

The Oxford Blue went to the camp on its inaugural day and spoke to student activist, Kendall Gardner, who outlined the group’s demands and how the group came about.

Oxford Action for Palestine are the “collective” including Oxford University staff and students who set up tents in protest at the University’s handling of the conflict in Gaza. Gardner acknowledged that there had been older groups in Oxford supporting Palestine even before the October 7th attack and Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza. However, she noted that Oxford Action for Palestine is a new group set up in response to the encampments happening in American college campuses such as Colombia and UCLA. The “trigger” for encampments, according to Gardner, in both Oxford and Cambridge – the first time in known student activism that something has been “co-launched” by the two – was the University of Oxford’s failure to engage with the group. 

Specifically, the group publicly demands that Oxford University “completely discloses its financial investments” and divests in line with BDS guidelines. Gardner also emphasised that the group wanted Oxford to fund the “rehabilitation of Palestinian higher education.”  She was relatively optimistic about the success of the movement in changing the university but stated that the camps would remain until the university agreed to its demands.   

While the Blue were in the camp, they heard a lecture on the intersection of ableism and the Palestinian cause and Gardner confirmed that she would be holding tutorials and faculty members such as Amia Srinivasan would be coming to support the cause. Moreover, Gardner emphasised that the encampment would be a place where students could obtain a “critical education on decolonisation and Palestine” that wasn’t currently available for students at Oxford: the encampment even hosts its own library, and remains an academic space for any students involved. 

Gardner, when asked about the possible impact on the student Jewish community, noted that she was Jewish and a member of ‘Jewish Students for Justice’ – a group of Jewish Students involved in “organising for Palestine on campus.” Though she recognised that Jewish people will have a wide range of opinions on the conflict, she hoped that “any Jewish person feels safe to ask questions” and that she wanted to “build a better community for everyone.” When asked about the slogan “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” a phrase that has garnered controversy, with some deeming it anti-semitic, Gardner said she would personally “endorse that slogan.” For her, the slogan didn’t make her “feel unsafe” instead, it signalled the fact that she wanted “Palestinians to live in equality and safety.” 

Gardner criticised, what she termed, the “horrible violent reactions” by American police towards student protests and noted that all universities had a “duty of care” to protect their students from violence. However, Gardner noted that on the first day of the encampment Oxford did not strongly react to the protests, simply sending an email. In December of 2023, the University of Oxford expressed “hope for a further ceasefire” and the “release of the hostages.” Gardner argued that the situation “requires more of Oxford” as the university needed to address the “settler colonialism” and “apartheid and occupation” that Palestinians have faced for 75 years. Moreover, Gardner believed that the difference in response to the conflict in Ukraine was “totally hypocritical” and occurred because of a “different set of geopolitical factors.”

Later in the day, Oxford Action for Palestine released a statement of solidarity signed by professors and staff that now amasses over 500 signatures. The statement reads that these professors and staff “stand firmly in support of the members of the university community who have begun an encampment outside the Pitt Rivers Museum.” The statement goes on to call the current situation in Gaza “catastrophic” and notes that “the International Court of Justice has characterised it as plausibly amounting to a genocide.” It states it supports the students in “asking that the university review its ethical investment policy to explicitly restrict all investment – direct or indirect – in arms, weapons, and other instruments of war” and “ask[s] that the Vice Chancellor unequivocally condemn the killing of over a hundred university professors and Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s educational institutions and archives.” 

8th of May 

Oxford Action for Palestine organised an “emergency rally” outside the Sheldonian theatre, where the Vice-chancellor was holding the Vice Chancellor’s Awards. Around 200 people gathered to “hand-deliver” the encampment’s demands to the vice-chancellor. The rally continued from 2pm to 3pm, with protestors chanting “free Palestine” amongst other chants. 

9th of May 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met with the vice-chancellors of 17 universities, including Oxford, as a response to the encampments. Sunak focused on the issue of anti-semitism, saying that universities had a “personal responsibility” to protect their Jewish students. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, who was also present at the meeting, said that she did not want campuses to become “unsafe environments.”

Later that day, Another statement was released by Oxford Action for Palestine, this time, a statement of solidarity from Oxford healthcare workers, which as of now, amasses over 150 signatures. The statement reads that the healthcare workers “stand in solidarity” with the encampment and “support their demand that the university divest from Israel’s genocide in Gaza, as well as from Israel’s ongoing apartheid regime.” It focuses on healthcare in Gaza in particular, reading “[the] deliberate and systematic targeting of healthcare and educational settings by the Israeli forces in Gaza is one of ethnic cleansing aimed at dismantling the very foundations of Palestinian society and ensuring that life cannot be sustained.”

11th of May 

On the 12th of May, Oxford Action for Palestine released a statement on an “attack” that had taken place the night before by “hostile men.” The statement says that during a vigil, six men “accosted [them] with xenophobic and transphobic slurs, among a litany of other vitriolic insults” and “physically assaulted nearby members of the community.” The statement goes on to say that the men “particularly targeted Jewish students (…) using unacceptable antisemitic language.” They go on to say that “the incident falls squarely on the shoulders of Prime Minister Sunak, University Administrators, and irresponsible media.” Madeleine Jane, a freelance journalist covering the encampment, posted videos of the incident on her Instagram page, where men can be heard shouting “fake Jew” and “terrorist” at members of the encampment. 

14th of May 

On the 14th of May, the Vice-chancellor, Irene Tracey, sent out a statement regarding the encampment to staff and students. Tracey wrote that she was aware “the conflict in the Middle East is causing unimaginable suffering” and that “as an academic institution, we are committed to freedom of speech and we embrace peaceful protest.” However, she expressed worry at hearing that people had “been feeling fearful or uncomfortable as a result [of the protests.]” Along with the statement is an explanation of “what [the university] have been doing over the past two terms and address some of the questions raised by protesters.” In regards to “support for the Palestinian community,” the statement reads that “recognising the destruction of university education in Gaza, we renewed last term our commitment to CARA Fellowships so that at-risk Palestinian academics will be able to apply to come to Oxford.” In response to its investment policy, the statement says that the university has “chosen at various instances to place restrictions on sectors in which it will not hold investments on ethical grounds (…) [including] direct investment in companies which manufacture arms that are illegal in the UK, and investment in funds which invest primarily in such companies.” In regards to financial disclosure, it says “The University is open in publishing and disclosing information on its income, donations, investments, and capital expenditure.” In terms of divestment, it says that the university “has a clear policy on investing in arms; it is compliant with that policy.” In regards to academic relationships, it states that “maintaining global links with peer institutions is essential for Oxford to effectively deliver its core mission.” The statement says that the University banks with Barclays because they “have large, complex financial needs, and international reach” and that they “engage with Barclays bank regularly on a range of regulatory and policy issues, including net-zero, biodiversity, renewables and, most recently, the conflict in Gaza.

Oxford Action for Palestine subsequently released a response to the statement, stating that they were “severely disappointed by the response” as “it neither substantially addresses a single one of our demands, nor does it indicate any willingness to pursue further discussion.” They go on to say they are “alarmed” at the characterisation of their protest as only “largely peaceful,” saying there is “a difference between feeling uncomfortable and being unsafe.” They refer to the University’s silence, especially on the “hostile attacks” making them “actively unsafe.” They go on to note that the “coalition has quadrupled in size over the past week alone” and that “circumstances could not be more urgent, and Gaza cannot wait.” They end the statement by “request[ing] a meeting immediately.” 

One participant in the encampment told the Oxford Blue that he thought “the Vice-Chancellor’s message on Tuesday was a bit of a joke.” “I believe the justification for banking with Barclay’s was essentially that they needed an international bank, as if it’s the only one?” He said. He went on to posit that “if [he] were going to be cynical, [he] would say that there’s probably some political pressure behind the scenes for VCs at big universities not to open negotiations,” but that “the only thing that is going to resolve this situation effectively is open dialogue on divestment because the current policy really isn’t up to scratch.” “A lack of financial accountability is damaging for everyone, including students as a group in their own right,” he said. 

20th of May 

On the 19th of May, Oxford Action for Palestine announced the creation of a second encampment in front of the Radcliffe Camera as a result of the University “refus[ing] to negotiate.” The Oxford Blue spoke to Amytess Girgis, a student at the encampment, for an update. Girgis argued that the Radcliffe Camera encampment was the “logical next step” for the protest movement as they have built an “unprecedented coalition.” She noted the overwhelming support for the cause with, for example, 30 MCRs and JCRs passing motions in support of the encampment. She contrasted this with the University of Oxford who she claims “refuses to meet with [them]” and had “zero direct communication” with Oxford Action for Palestine. More than 2 weeks into the encampment Girgis was optimistic, as she believed that it was “only a matter of time before the University caves,” as while the University is “floundering trying to respond to the protests (…) they are actually losing their minds.” Responding to some reports that anti-semitic incidents have taken place at the camp, Girgis said that some reported incidents are “extremely concerning” but stressed that the camp is a peaceful place for all students. She also criticised some responses to the encampments, for example, the violent reaction to the ‘die-in’ where security guards reportedly kicked a student

Moreover, the Oxford Blue has also obtained an email outlining the University’s response to the protests sent to Politics postgraduate students. In the email, the university recognised the encampment at the Radcliffe Camera and stressed that all libraries remain open while also asking students with disabilities to reach out if they have “concerns about access.” The University has also established a “Major Incident Plan” and Gold and Silver Incident groups which will set out “a strategy and detailed response over the coming days” but the university has acknowledged the “potential” for  “building occupations.” The University, moreover, has said that the encampments are not representative of “any of the registered student societies” which means they have “not chosen to influence University policies through our usual formal and informal routes.” The email also states that the university believes that the protests have caused disruption to student’s safety, graduation ceremonies, and exams.

Additional reporting by Lottie Gaylard