Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, rose to notoriety with his ruthless and unapologetic defence of Israeli war-crimes in Gaza. His talent for suppressing truth and taking on the rising tide of anti-Israeli sentiments earned him a position in the UK, long seen by Tel Aviv as the global centre of pro-Palestinian activism. The Australian-born diplomat, who moved to Israel in 1982, places a premium on speaking at university campuses and has stoked controversy wherever he goes. The latest saw pro-Palestinian student activists being harassed and interrogated by his security staff who are accused of supressing free speech and behaving like thuggish enforcers.
The showdown between Regev’s security guards and British students took place at the University of Leicester last week. A group of student activists from the Palestine Society decided to exercise their democratic right to protest and express disdain over the university’s decision to host such a polarising figure.
The students organised a walk out, prepared questions for the ambassador and had a rally just outside the event to make clear to Regev that he was not welcome at the university campus. The students said that with his track record of denying war crimes, sharing platforms with fascists, and trivialising the deaths of Palestinian women and children, they felt compelled to take issue with his invitation.
Despite giving assurances that they had planned a peaceful protest, Regev’s security team displayed extreme hostility towards the students. Hamza, who was one of the protestors, described his ordeal to MEMO. He said he was called out five minutes into the event by Regev’s security personnel who interrogated him. He suspects that he was being “racially profiled” citing the fact that they knew his name. They ordered him not to protest but he said he “stood his ground” and tried to calm their concerns saying that the protest was peaceful and that they would walk out as soon as Regev started to speak, without uttering a word.
He was then approached by the university security and asked to leave again. Hamza claims he was “pressured to comply”. As he was escorted out he faced security personnel and police officers. Feeling “intimidated and anxious”, he asked a student union representative to accompany him. He was forced to hand over the placards, despite insisting that his intentions were to merely protest peacefully.
His insistence on holding the protest was met by the university security personnel, Regev’s security and a police officer threatening to have him removed and arrested. Having reluctantly handed over his placards he was informed that the event had started and he would not be allowed to enter the hall on the grounds that they did not want him “disturbing the event”. Hamza said he “felt completely humiliated and was left to feel like a criminal for simply exercising my right to protest”.
In a statement to MEMO Hamza said: “Universities always stress that campus is a safe space for all students and staffs’, yet in my experience this was not the case”. Highlighting his grievances he said: “I was called out twice, interrogated, refused entry and subsequently humiliated and criminalised for exercising my democratic right to protest. The intimidation and fear I felt on my campus were unrivalled. I was questioned by the ambassador’s security team, Leicester’s security guard as well as the police force who threatened to remove me and have me arrested if I did not comply to their demands, which was the removal of my potentially ‘offensive’ placards.”
Hamza suspects that Regev’s security staff came to the event intent on silencing any protest. “I was not allowed to re-enter the event despite the reassurance that I would be allowed to if I obliged, implying that this was a calculated move to prevent me from leading the protest.”
His anger is also directed at the university for failing to keep him safe and protect his right to free-speech against a foreign state accused by the UN of committing war crimes. “This is an indictment of my university,” he said, adding that “they facilitated the use of racial profiling by the ambassador’s security team in order to intimidate and trample on my democratic rights”.
The hostility of Regev and his team is the culmination of a long campaign to supress pro-Palestinian activists. The Israeli embassy is at the centre of this effort; targeting pro-Palestinian groups using a number of front organisations. Regev’s appointment has coincided with clashes at UK universities not least because he sees speaking at campuses as a premium venue to silence Israel’s critics. It is part of larger Israeli strategy. Regev sees Israel’s uphill struggle to assuage a growing sense of frustration and anger over its serial violation of international law and human rights.
Replying to MEMO’s request for comments over the issues raised by the student activist a spokesperson for the University of Leicester said: “This event was organised by Leicester Students’ Union. The University carried out due diligence checks and advice is always sought from the police and security services. This provided us with no basis to prevent the Union from holding the event.
“We take our responsibilities in relation to the welfare, safety and security of all our students very seriously. We have a continuing dialogue between the Students’ Union, student societies and our students about any issues or concerns raised as a result of speakers who visit the University and are looking into these allegations as a matter of urgency. We cannot comment further until those investigations have concluded.”