The group walked the short way from the Van der Goot building to the Plaza in silence. At the corner of the food court, they formed a circle, after which those present recited the names of a number of Palestinian academics and placed a red gerbera in the middle of the circle. According to figures from human rights monitor Euro-Med, three university presidents and 95 university lecturers have been killed in Gaza since the attack by Hamas on 7 October. Five of the six universities in Gaza have been partially or totally destroyed by the Israeli army.

Stop the violence

Amir Khalil addresses the audience via a Zoom meeting. Image credit: Daan Stam

The commemoration marked the end of an afternoon of action for Gaza, which started with a round-table discussion in the Van der Goot building. This focused on how academics and students can help stop the violence in Gaza.

Around seventy people with an interest in the subject listened to a panel consisting of Amir Khalil, associate professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, Ahmad Sabobeh (a student at Birzeit), and EUR academics Jeff Handmaker (ISS) and Otto Spijkers (EUC). Irene van Oorschot (ESSB) and Isabel Awad (ESHCC) led the discussion.

Birzeit student Ahmad Sabobeh summed up what has happened to Palestinian students since 7 October. “Sixty students have been captured, forty of whom as yet without explanation. We don’t have enough equipment and resources for laboratory work. Also, it’s really difficult for us to get to the university because of all the checkpoints in the West Bank.” He stressed that his experiences in the West Bank are relatively insignificant compared with the war violence faced by students in Gaza. Amir Khalil explained how Israeli universities are complicit in the violence that is currently taking place in Gaza, which he called genocide.

Different from Ukraine

EUC lecturer in international law Otto Spijkers said that, in his opinion, universities should ‘probably say a bit more’ than President of Leiden University’s Executive Board, Annetje Ottow, did, for example, when she explained in an interview on her university’s website why the university was not taking a stand in this conflict: “The big difference from [the war in Ukraine] is that almost our entire academic community was united behind Ukraine. The conflict between Israel and Hamas has sown a lot of division internally.”

Rector Magnificus Annelien Bredenoord recently expressed herself in similar terms in EM, yet there was no criticism of EUR’s Executive Board whatsoever. “I’m very proud of our board”, said Jeff Handmaker during the Q&A session. “At no other university has there been so much support for organising a meeting like this. This Executive Board is committed to academic freedom.” Van Oorschot concurred with those words. “We feel really supported and helped on all sides.” She was also understanding of the fact that the Executive Board had declined the invitation to attend the action day. “They remain involved at an appropriate distance.”

Window dressing

Panelists Jeff Handmaker and Otto Spijkers. Image credit: Daan Stam

Those present in the lecture hall, however, had hoped for something more from the Executive Board. Surely, Spijkers argued, it could not be too difficult to take a stand, as it has done on Ukraine. “Besides, you don’t even really have to take a stand. All you have to say is: ‘I’m against violations of international humanitarian law, and against genocide. Anyone guilty of that must stop’. That may not make a lot of difference, but at least it’s something…”
Handmaker was also ‘sceptical of window dressing’ and felt that actions, such as a boycott, were far more valuable.

Unlike previous meetings on Gaza, this time there was a dissident voice in the room. During the Q&A session, a student asked Khalil if he shouldn’t be a bit more critical of his ‘own’ Hamas government. He also wondered why no dissident voices were present on the panel. These questions remained largely unanswered, except for the fact that Handmaker made it clear to the student that he was still welcome at this meeting with his dissenting opinion and encouraged him to keep asking his questions.

Pulled the plug

In addition, there was to have been a fundraiser outside on the Plaza, organised by STUUR. The Rotterdam student union wanted to sell coffee there to raise money for Gaza. However, security staff literally pulled the plug on the coffee machine before the union members had been able to sell a single cup. The reason: STUUR had not sought prior permission for the event.

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