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‘Israel’s lies that are being exposed because of this genocide is the most powerful thing to watch’

MEMO speaks with Amytess Girgis, a PhD student and an organiser with Oxford Action for Palestine, who says the students' Gaza solidarity encampments are powerful. 'This moment is unique in that there are so many people, it doesn't matter where you're from, it doesn't matter what your identities are, people understand that Palestinian liberation is tied to everything and that Palestine is the litmus test for this generation.'

June 2, 2024 at 10:00 am

On 6 May, as Israel launched a ground offensive on Rafah in southern Gaza, tents sprang up across the lawn of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, where hundreds of students gathered daily, demanding the university sever financial ties with the Occupying State.

By 23 May, the university’s vice chancellor placed the building under lockdown and called the police, leading to the arrest of over a dozen students.

“This has everyone quaking in their boots,” says Amytess Girgis, a PhD student at Oxford and an organiser with Oxford Action for Palestine. “The day after our encampments at Oxford and Cambridge went up, [UK Prime Minister] Rishi Sunak summoned vice chancellors across the UK to Westminster to discuss suppressing student protests. Since that meeting, we’ve seen university administrations nationwide coordinating their repressive responses to our protests.”

She adds: “That tells us we’re doing something right. So we are most definitely going to keep going.”

The global student intifada – uprising – has not gone unnoticed, even by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has decried the protests as anti-Semitic – a reaction Girgis interprets as fear.

Similar to the US protests, the encampment at Oxford has resonated deeply with students and community members who back the cause.

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Supporters argue that the encampments provoke such strong reactions because they expose glaring contradictions: governments that claim to champion human rights yet provide unwavering support to Israel, and universities that profess to uphold freedom of expression but remain unresponsive to students and deploy police to disperse peaceful protests.

For Amytess, the encampments are a necessary escalation in a campaign that has faced years of administrative inaction. Moreover, she notes that it serves as both a protest and a platform for education, drawing in curious passersby and fostering informed discussions about the war on Gaza.

“When we saw the encampments going up in the US, we knew we had to do the same. Not just because it’s an excellent form of applying pressure on the Oxford administration, but also because we understood our role in the global movement. We knew how important it was to have an encampment at Oxford, at the heart of the British Empire, standing in solidarity with Gaza and with encampments around the world.”

“The beauty of the encampment is that it pulls people in because we are so present. We are in your face and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. There have been students, faculty, community members who walk past, and we have a welcome tent so people can walk up to ask questions and be involved. We have hundreds and hundreds of people who come through our encampment,” she explains.

“In any given week, we have teach-ins and events. Last week, we had Nakba memorial events and various other activities to educate people on the issue of Palestine. It’s reached a point where the whole community is honestly behind us. But of course, when it comes to Palestine, there are always going to be issues with the mainstream media and the general British public.”

The activists at Oxford have laid out six clear demands. Foremost is transparency. The university’s endowment management has been frustratingly opaque, despite numerous Freedom of Information requests.

Secondly, they demand divestment from companies linked to genocide, occupation, apartheid and all military and weapons manufacturers. The activists know that Oxford has investments in companies like Elbit Systems and Caterpillar, notorious for their roles in the occupation, but the details are murky and they are therefore demanding full disclosure of the university’s finances.

Thirdly, they call for a major overhaul of the university’s investment policy. The current “ethical investment policy” is too limited and must be expanded to prevent future investments in such entities, they say.

Additionally, the activists urge the university to academically boycott and sever ties with any companies or partnerships that facilitate the genocide in Gaza, including no longer using Barclays Bank due to its significant financial support for Israel-linked entities.

A report released this month found that Barclays now holds over £2 billion in shares of companies whose weapons, components and military technology have been used in violence against Palestinians by Israel. Barclays also provides over £6.1 billion in loans and underwriting to these arms and military technology companies including holding £2.7 million in Elbit Systems.

“No longer use Barclays for its banking has been a huge campaign, because Barclays has been going above and beyond all other horrible banks in its bankrolling of this genocide. So we’re asking the university to drop Barclays as a client,” says Amytess.

Lastly, the activists call on Oxford to back Palestinian-led efforts to rebuild Gaza’s education system, suspended for over seven months due to Israel’s ongoing attack.

Among its many atrocities, Israel has committed ”education genocide” in the Gaza Strip, demolishing 103 schools, while partially damaging 309 other educational institutions, according to the Gazan authorities. All of the enclaves universities have been razed by occupation forces.

“We need Oxford to be funding the efforts that are happening on the ground and when the time comes to rebuild the higher education system in Gaza. So those are our six demands, and all of them are rooted in a desire from the community for greater transparency regarding the largest university endowment in the UK, valued at $8.1 billion.”

For Amytess, the fight is personal. As a Persian-Egyptian with American ties, her identity is deeply intertwined with the Palestinian cause.

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“I’ve cared about Palestine since I came out of the womb but I’m also American, which means that I am deeply aware of how much my country has been bankrolling not just this genocide, but the occupation of Palestine since day one.”

The death toll from Israel’s war on Gaza has climbed to more than 36,300, with the majority of victims being women and children. The figures exclude tens of thousands of dead who are believed to be buried in the bombed-out ruins of homes, shops, shelters and other buildings.

Over 81,000 Palestinians have also been wounded, according to the Ministry of Health.

This student intifada, says Amytess, represents a broader understanding that “Palestinian liberation is tied to everything,” making it a litmus test for this generation.

She explains that the brutal reality of the genocide in Gaza has peeled back layers of deception that have shielded Israel’s actions from global scrutiny. Long-standing lies about Israel’s military actions are being exposed as the global community witnesses atrocities that were previously dismissed or ignored.

“Many of Israel’s lies that are being exposed are what has been most powerful to watch. Watching those around me who have a conscience and understand what Israel is doing is unacceptable and wrong but couldn’t see it before, because the lies from the media were so so, so strong are all being exposed for everyone to see – and there’s no going back from that. Any legitimacy that Israel had in the international community is never coming back,” she says.

Amytess also highlights how the mainstream media is using the student protests and encampments at Oxford and across the UK as an opportunity to shift focus away from Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.

Even from those slightly sympathetic to the encampments, the coverage tends to emphasise the narrative of student protests and free speech rather than the dire situation Palestinians are suffering in Gaza. “It’s  been very difficult for us as students putting up these encampments in an attempt to put all eyes on Gaza and still seeming like we’re taking attention away,”she notes.

“But the beauty of social media is that we can say what we want on our own terms so we have been extremely deliberate with updating our followers on exactly what is going on in Gaza and in Rafah on a daily basis. Because none of this is about us,” Amytess concludes. “It’s about what’s happening in Gaza.”