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UK campus crackdown: King's College students 'strangled', 'choked'

June 14, 2024 at 5:56 pm

Students and other protesters go on a tour of London Universities to demand a boycott for all Israeli academic and cultural institutions in solidarity with the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid in Israel on 09 July 2021 [Martin Pope/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

A pro-Palestine student encampment at King’s College London has accused university security of using excessive force and issuing threats during a confrontation at a recent alumni event on campus. In an interview with MEMO, the encampment spokesperson, Luqmaan Waqar, a final year PhD student, detailed the protestors’ demands and described the alleged altercation with security that led to injuries and troubling threats against students.

King’s College London (KCL) students launched the encampment on 13 May in solidarity with Palestinian protests globally, including a similar encampment at Columbia University in the US, to pressure universities to meet their demands. The KCL protesters have five key demands: One, condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza since October, applying the same standard used when condemning Hamas’s action on 7 October; two, boycott Israeli institutions with ties to King’s until the end of Israel’s illegal occupation; three, divest endowment funds from companies complicit in the Occupation; four, provide 50 scholarships for Palestinian students and name two scholarships after KCL alumni killed by Israeli Occupation forces in Gaza and, lastly, safeguard students’ right to protest without repercussions.

READ: University of Birmingham seeks legal action to remove pro-Palestine encampments

According to Waqar, King’s has been slow to engage on these demands. The encampment submitted their demands immediately, but it took a week and a half to get a preliminary meeting. After 30 days, they have yet to meet with the Principal and get a substantive response.

In the interview, Waqar highlighted King’s College London’s inconsistency and double standards. He pointed out that, while the University condemned Hamas’s attack on Israel, it failed to apply the same standard to Israel’s actions in Gaza since 7 October. Israel is currently under investigation by the International Court of Justice for genocide. Despite the deaths of over 35,000 Gazans and the dropping of “two Hiroshima’s worth of bombs” within the first few weeks of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, King’s referred to the situation as a “humanitarian crisis” rather than condemning Israel’s actions as terrorism.

Moreover, the University is accused of failing to honour one of its alumni killed by Israel in Gaza,  Dr Maisara Alrayyes, who completed his Masters at King’s and was killed, along with his two brothers, in Israeli strikes. The University’s announcement did not mention Israel’s responsibility over Alrayyes death. “In this statement, there is no mention of Israel,” Waqar noted. “Palestinian was just killed. So we’re really trying to ask them what killed them? Was it a lightning strike? Was it a meteorite that fell out of the sky?”

Similarly, King’s has denied any association with Dr Adnan Al Bursh, who worked at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. Al Bursh, who did a fellowship at King’s Hospital in 2013, died in an Israeli prison after more than four months of detention. He is said to have been arrested, tortured and killed by Israel. The protesters are demanding that King’s establish scholarships and fellowships named after these two alumni to properly acknowledge their deaths and the circumstances surrounding them. “King’s College London, so far, have been denying the fact that he had any association with the University,” Waqar explained. “So we’re demanding at least two scholarships and, perhaps, one academic fellowship be named after Dr Adnan Al Bursh and the other on Dr Maisara Alrayyes.”

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

During the evening of the altercation with the security staff on Tuesday, the encampment followed through on their plan to start a protest in the evening, as the Alumni Awards event was set to start at 6:30 pm. While members of the encampment group were not permitted to enter the venue, a KCL spokesperson told MEMO that “a representative from the protestors was invited into the event to address the audience”.

Waqar described several instances of alleged violence and aggression from security personnel. Two female students were reportedly nearly crushed in a doorway as security attempted to forcibly close the doors on them. Another student had a keffiyeh around her neck, which a security guard allegedly used to strangle and pull her. Waqar also mentioned that a student was put in a chokehold by security. During the confrontation, one student’s fingernail was broken as security personnel forcibly closed the door on her and another female student.

Students taking part in the King’s College London Gaza encampment say, one student’s fingernail was broken as security personnel forcibly closed a door on her

Waqar himself was allegedly shoved and had his arm twisted by a plain-clothes individual claiming to be a staff member while he was standing outside the event door. He emphasised that he did not provoke this response and was merely standing peacefully.

Most troubling, the head of security allegedly threatened an isolated student, saying “You are finished” and “I will deal with you tomorrow.”

“That is a serious threat, coming from a head of security to tell a student,” Waqar commented. “That’s not his place at all whatsoever. And I think that student was really shaken the entire evening until the very next day.”

According to Waqar, it was after the confrontation, that security eventually allowed one student to enter the event and address the audience. Waqar said this student gave a “powerful speech” about Alrayyes, which received a standing ovation. Even the event’s Alumni of the Year honouree, a Saudi woman, called for a permanent ceasefire in her remarks, leaving the Principal, according to Waqar, “quite embarrassed.”

However, the alleged violence and threats from security have left the encampment shaken and concerned about their ability to continue protesting safely.

Going forward, the students are considering their options and seeking advice from rights organisations about how to proceed. They had been assured their right to protest would be protected, Waqar explained, but that trust has now been broken. “Initially, we were demanding an apology and a commitment to safeguard, but I don’t think obviously this should, after what’s happened,” said Waqar. “We think there has to be much more serious accountability and, if need be, people might have to lose their jobs over the way they handled that situation.”

“Obviously our trust on that fifth point, that fifth demand of safeguarding us and protecting our freedom of right, freedom of assembly has been shaken,” said Waqar. “If that kind of attitude and action was taken, we are deeply concerned about going ahead.”

In their statement to MEMO, a KCL spokesperson said: “Our security staff works hard to ensure the safety and well-being of our community, while also respecting the right of freedom of expression within the law. We expect protestors to abide by the clear guidance we have in place to ensure that an inclusive and safe environment is maintained, opinion and differences can be aired with civility and that appropriate behaviour towards our staff is maintained at all times. We have a reporting system in place to ensure any complaints submitted from our students and staff are investigated through well-established protocols.”

The disturbing allegations of violence and threats against peaceful student protesters at King’s College London further underscore the urgent need for universities to engage in good faith with students on issues of social justice and human rights. The KCL encampment’s demands, including condemning Israeli actions, divesting from companies complicit in Israel’s Occupation and genocide, and honouring alumni killed by Israeli forces, reflect a growing global movement for Palestinian rights that universities can no longer ignore.

As the KCL students continue their protest and await a response from University leadership, the higher education community in the UK and beyond are having to grapple with its responsibilities to foster open debate, protect dissent and stand on the right side of history. The future of academic integrity and moral leadership is at stake.

READ: Combatting academic censorship of the Palestinian narrative in the UK

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