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Why massive pro-Palestine student movement is facing violent repression

May 10, 2024 at 4:25 pm

A women is injured in the head during a Pro-Palestinian demonstration as protesters marched after the actions of the police in Amsterdam, Netherlands on May 9, 2024. [Selman Aksünger – Anadolu Agency]

Martin*, a research assistant at the University of Amsterdam, has a busted lip and bruises all over his body.

He was caught up in the thick of things as Dutch police launched a violent crackdown on a pro-Palestine camp a few days ago – violent to the point that they tried to run over people with a van at one point, according to the protesters.

Despite the other side’s aggression, Martin says the protesters were not violent at any point and “never touched” the police.

Martin was thrown to the ground and a police officer stepped on his hand. He was then hit in the face with a baton, followed by more blows on the shoulders and across his back.

“I have a split lip, a cut on my gums, and bruises on my back and my shoulder,” he told Anadolu.

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A new wave of student-led activism in support of Palestine has exploded all over universities in the US, Europe and other parts of the world.

But as the protests have gained more momentum, so has the intensity in governments’ reactions, leading to episodes of shocking police brutality.

At some institutions, such as Martin’s university, the administration itself is giving police “consent and direct support … to forcibly and violently attack us,” he said.

On the other hand, there is no action against the “far-right and violent agitators” who “threw fireworks at us, set of flares and attacked people,” he said.

“The police didn’t do anything to them, and it felt very much like that would not have happened had it been the other way around,” he added.

His views are backed by others who also feel that police aggression has specifically targeted pro-Palestinian activists, with peaceful protesters facing intimidation and violence.

Sabine Scharwachter, an activist supporting the student protests at universities in Netherlands, pointed out that police “didn’t really act against the Zionist attackers and didn’t protect the protesters against their attacks.”

“Pro-Israel and Zionist dogmas”, along with racism, are integral factors in all of this, she said.

“Compared to the blockades by climate activists of Extinction Rebellion, people of colour are much more represented within the pro-Palestine movement, and our police and government is infamous for its institutional racism,” she told Anadolu.

‘Driven by anti-Palestinian, Islamophobic, anti-Arab racism’

Just like the protest movement spread to Europe from the US, so have the violent tactics being employed against the demonstrators.

In the US, more than 2,900 people have now been arrested as authorities have intensified crackdowns on encampments and sit-ins, using tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and many other forms of excessive force against peaceful protesters.

According to the Axios tally, more than 2,900 people have now been arrested at protests on at least 61 college campuses across the US.

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But there has been little to no action against “extremist and very violent groups that are provoking people at encampments, attacking and sometimes violently threatening them,” according to Abdel Razzaq Takriti, an associate professor of history at Rice University.

“There’s an anti-Palestinian sentiment that is not confronted. There’s a right-wing extremist sentiment that’s not confronted,” he told Anadolu.

This, he said, exemplifies the fact that “at end of the day, this is a political process driven by anti-Palestinian, Islamophobic and anti-Arab racism.”

“The patterns of targeting are racialised. The people who belong to African-American, Palestinian or Arab or Muslim backgrounds are targeted,” he said.

The thousands of young Jewish dissidents that are coming out are being targeted as well, said Takriti.

“They’re also being subjected to these smear campaigns because they are Jews that are interested in social justice, in universal emancipation and in Palestinian rights,” he said.

‘Biggest movement in US since Vietnam, civil rights fight’

Takriti, like others, views the growing wave of student-led activism in support of Palestine as “the biggest in the US since the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement”.

This movement is also being smeared and attacked “in precisely the same way,” he said.

In the US, he explained, there has been a visible contradiction between the political establishment and popular movements at different moments in the country’s history.

In the current situation, the pro-Palestine students “are the conscience of the nation”, while the political establishment is “carrying out essentially the genocide in Gaza”, he said.

“Students have confronted them with this reality. They’ve shamed them. They’ve shown the moral bankruptcy of the current political system and the figures who represent the prevailing social balance of power in the country,” said Takriti.

“The only answer they have to them is to either smear them by claiming that the students are anti-Semitic, which is not true, or repressing them and attacking them directly.”

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In essence, he said, US authorities are “carrying out a very illiberal and a very oppressive policy because they have lost the moral argument.”

“They can’t argue with the demands of the students in a rational way. They can only resort to smear campaigns or actual violent repression through police intervention,” he said.

Takriti believes the repression of students will continue, especially given the calls from the Israeli state and the Knesset, its parliament.

“I see this repression as a form of promoting genocide denial in the US,” he said, adding that the problem of “genocide denial” is already prevalent among the country’s political establishment.

The discrepancy in how pro-Palestine and pro-Israel groups are treated also reflects the “deficiency in the current US higher education system,” he said.

“Private universities are led by boards and the administrators are answerable to boards that are basically run by wealthier sections US society … and that usually means they represent concerns of people who belong to the 1 per cent or even less of the population,” he said.

“So, they’re all part of the 1 per cent and those usually ally with the most aggressive forms of action of the state, and in this case, they happen to be very pro-Israeli.”

As for public universities, he pointed out that they are “easily politicised because their boards are appointed by state governors.”

“That means that the state can intervene in way things are run through these boards and against the wishes of the academics, sometimes the administrators, and definitely against the wishes of the students,” he said.

‘Administrations, police should not silence students’

Regarding the rising police brutality against pro-Palestine protesters, Amnesty International in Netherlands has called for investigations, demanding that the use of force must be scrutinised.

“The student demonstrations are at the centre of a politically sensitive debate. The demonstrations in the Netherlands in recent months were almost entirely peaceful,” the rights group said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a separate statement, reiterated that students at US public and private universities have engaged in peaceful protests.

“Freedom of speech and assembly, including public protest, are human rights and essential to a functioning democratic system. Students in the United States have protested to support the civil rights movement, to resist the Vietnam War, to oppose apartheid in South Africa and to challenge many other government policies throughout the country’s history,” said Tanya Greene, US program director at HRW.

“University administrations and the police should not silence US students’ peaceful expression of their support for the rights of the Palestinian people amid the atrocities in Gaza and their objection to their universities’ investments.”

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.