We’re Not Backing Down: Students for Palestine’s Shovan Bhattarai on the USYD Gaza Camp

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Gaza protests

The 17 April-established Gaza encampment at Columbia University might have been set upon by the New York police within 24 hours, after university president Minouche Shafik gave law enforcement the greenlight to dismantle the nonviolent demonstration, but it’s since sparked a global movement.

This movement has spread across the US, where the authorities have treated peaceful demonstrators as if their raising of fault over Israel’s seven-month-long genocide perpetrated upon the Palestinians of Gaza is somehow inciting greater harm.

And the visuals of state troopers beating upon civilians for supporting a political position reminds that at times, the US government is already unashamedly authoritarian, and with ex-president Trump waiting in the wings for Genocide Joe to be voted out, heightened fascism is now pending.

But despite the aggression, the currently global pro-Palestinian student movement reveals that grassroots opposition to the Gaza genocide is growing, and the longer western governments continue to provide unbridled support to Israel, the greater the civil dissent that can be expected.

The movement down under

The Sydney University Gaza Solidarity encampment sprung up on 24 April, as an act of support for its US counterparts, as well as a demonstration against the wholesale massacre and starvation program in Gaza, and as an act calling on USYD to discontinue its relationship with Thales Australia.

The USYD demonstration has caused all sorts of outcomes so far. It’s garnered both national and international attention. It has been a site of mass pro-Palestinian support to congregate. And it has seen pitiful counterprotests staged against it, as well as being the subject of derision in the press.

Sydney uni students have also caused their counterparts at other universities to partake in similar camp protests, which has included Melbourne University, Monash and the University of Queensland, as well as related demonstrations at ANU, Curtin, Deakin and La Trobe.

Indeed, as has been the case with certain uni demonstrations in the States, the protest at Monash University has been attacked late night by supporters of Zionism and the Israeli state. And while such assaults locally have not been as violent as in the US, they’re still a worrying development.

It’s antisemitic to oppose genocide

The pro-Palestinian Gaza camps at universities in the US, Europe, Japan, as well as here, have been labelled as antisemitic acts, with numerous commentators pointing to the level of absurdity involved in this charge, which serves to assert that opposition to a genocide is prejudicial towards Jews.

And locally, the most bizarre reaction to the USYD camps saw the prime minister meet with leaders of various Jewish institutions, and while they told him that the university protests were examples of anti-Jewish hate, Anthony Albanese simply labelled agitators as “Trots” with no idea.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Students for Palestine USYD organiser Shovan Bhattarai about the brutality that students in the US have been confronted with, the impact that the movement is having locally, along with how students are feeling about Albanese’s assessment of them.

Students for Palestine Sydney University organiser Shovan Bhattarai speaking at the USYD Gaza Solidarity encampment
Students for Palestine Sydney University organiser Shovan Bhattarai speaking at the USYD Gaza Solidarity encampment

Students for Palestine Sydney University has established its Gaza encampment on campus upon the lawn out the front of the Great Hall.

And a lot has happened in the brief time since: the camp has sparked a nationwide movement, and it’s garnered global attention, while the PM rather dubiously described those involved at the encampment as Trotskyists, during a meeting with prominent Jewish leaders.

This last aspect that involves the PM meeting with the heads of Jewish organisations to discuss the USYD camp in opposition to an open genocide as somehow making other students feel unsafe, is quite bizarre.

And Albanese also made the claim that those involved in the protest have no idea about Middle Eastern politics.

So, Shovan, how are those at the USYD encampment feeling about their prime minister’s assessment?

We think it’s total rubbish. We are all activists in this movement, with some of us active for many years and others active over the last seven months.

We can clearly see what’s happening in Gaza is genocide, which is proceeding at full rapacious pace, with the major backing of political institutions, including the Albanese government itself.

The attempt to smear our camp and the activists themselves is uneducated regarding the realities of the genocide, which is now seven-months-long and has involved over 34,000 people killed, and over 10,000 buried under rubble.

Elderly men, elderly women and children have all lost their lives indiscriminately. And the idea that we are ignorant of what’s going on is completely ludicrous.

We have come out here because we can see what is taking place is a genocide, backed by the institutions of our society, and we want to take a stand against that.

The establishment of your camp was not only an act of protest against the Gaza genocide, but it’s an act of solidarity toward those at Columbia University in the US, who started the movement, which has spread across that nation and now into Australia.

The reaction to the camps over in the US has been almost unfathomable due to the extreme levels of violence it’s involved.

In your understanding, what has been happening with the camps in the United States? And what does it all mean?

The reaction to the protest camps in the US, especially now in New York, which has involved many of the camps being forcibly shut down by the NYPD sent in by various university administrations, is really horrifying.

The scale of the violent response that is being meted out against peaceful demonstrators indicates something really sick and twisted about the logic behind how these universities are operating and how democratic mayors and state governments consider their priorities.

It has been horrifying to witness this sort of response, and it indicates the sheer depths that major political institutions within American society are willing to go to in order to uphold the status quo of complicity in genocide.

The USYD camp sparked a local movement that’s spread to other universities across the country, and it’s garnered both global and national attention.

The encampment has experienced widespread support, but it’s also been subjected to a Zionist counterprotest and criticism in the rightwing press.

So, overall, how is the Sydney University Gaza encampment impacting?

Our encampment has had a really positive impact on the Palestine movement, so far. For seven months, we have seen proportionally massive demonstrations taking place in Australia against the genocide in Gaza.

There have been weekly demonstrations on Sundays in Sydney, with thousands coming out each week, rain, hail or shine, to protest for Palestine.

Our protest encampment here has been an extra shot in the arm in terms of galvanising the movement around young people, in particular.

This has added a new layer of protest. And one aspect of our protest, which has been important, is that it highlights the extent to which the Albanese government is majorly responsible for politically, economically and diplomatically supporting the state of Israel.

It is not just the government either, it is the universities themselves, which are institutions that pride themselves on being places of learning, knowledge and education.

But they’ve now been exposed as corporate monoliths run for the interests of a very small group of university board members and chancellors to expand the size of their wallets.

So, they’re happy to have all sorts of dirty deals with weapons and fossil fuel companies.

In opening up this new front of Palestinian activism, now involving across the country thousands of young people and students picking up the torch from America and bringing it here, all of that’s really significant.

The Sydney University Gaza encampment is specifically calling on the university itself to cut ties with Thales Australia.

What does this relationship involve? And what has the reaction to your calls been like?

We wanted to highlight the connection that our university has to Thales Australia: one of the biggest weapons companies in this country, who supply weapons to the Australian army to be used in conflicts around the world and these weapons are also used in Gaza.

Sydney University has millions of dollars in ties to Thales Australia. They have a memorandum of understanding, which means that they do joint research projects that Sydney University students are involved in.

The university receives $21 million each year in direct funding from the US Department of Defence. And we think that these sorts of ties are totally abhorrent.

Our university has no business being up to its neck in war and genocide or these bloodthirsty warmongering industries. So, it’s important that we have drawn attention to these links.

And the university, unsurprisingly, has been unprepared to disclose to us the full scale of these investments, or even make comments about any of our demands calling on them to divest.

But that has not yet deterred us.

The university direct actions, both here and overseas, have been deemed antisemitic demonstrations, due to the fact that they’re against the state of Israel committing a genocide on the Palestinians of Gaza.

The further claim is because they are antisemitic Jewish students are feeling unsafe.

How have you all been reacting to these charges? And what do you think about this conflation of opposition to genocide equalling antisemitism?

This conflation is ludicrous. People who have gathered for seven months straight to protest a genocide in Gaza are obviously totally hostile to discrimination and oppression in all forms, whichever they take.

The reality is – when it comes to the current wave of Palestinian activism that we are seeing around the world, often from America and even here, in Australia – at the forefront of these initiatives have been Jewish activists and students.

And these Jewish activists have loudly and clearly raised their voices to say that they totally object to their own oppression being used as cover to try to provide justification for the state of Israel and its crimes.

And lastly, Shovan, the encampment is barely a fortnight old, and a lot has happened. The global students’ movement has been gaining traction, but it’s also been receiving a lot of pushback.

So, what are the opinions like on the ground as to where this student movement is heading?

The opinions on the ground are of determination. We’re determined to keep our encampment up in the face of whatever the university administration is prepared to throw at us.

We are determined to really see the movement for Palestine, which has picked up so much speed in recent months, continue.

And we’re excited to see the campus encampment movement spread across the country and spread across the world.

So, things into the future depend on how many more millions of students across the globe will join us in the coming days, weeks and months in the fight for a free Palestine and against genocide.

Main image supplied by Students for Palestine Sydney University

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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