Protesters for Palestine targeted by Group of 8 universities

May 15, 2024
An Arabic woman at the students pro-Palestinian encampment in the grounds of Melbourne University. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Image Alamy/ Michael Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

Fuelled by well armed pro Israel groups and by university administrators’ decision to move police and riot squads to break up peaceful encampments, a terrible thuggery has invaded US universities.

On Australian campuses, despite the arrival of counter demonstrators at Monash and Sydney, university Vice Chancellors appear to have decided that resort to police intervention to destroy student encampments would light a fuse for violence. So far they are keeping force at bay.

But nothing is certain. It depends on how the story is told.

Respect for the right to protest peacefully against the continuing slaughters in Gaza can be easily eroded. Thoughtless, ill informed politicians resort to the familiar claim that destruction of encampments is a law and order issue. Bill Shorten and Peter Dutton have urged university Vice Chancellors to do more to foster a safe campus atmosphere. With a view to keeping a peace by using violence, some police forces will be itching to intervene.

To produce conditions in readiness for a backlash against student protesters, the story about Gaza is being reframed. The bombing, murder, starvation and famine imposed on millions of Gazans is proudly boasted by Israeli army spokespersons as their means of eliminating Hamas.

In the reframing underway in western Establishment circles, only one group of people are terrorists.

Principled students’ protest about this end of time slaughter is being replaced by other issues: claims about the safety of Jewish students, an alleged rise in anti Semitism, even a need to defend Israel and the sensibility of Zionism. And if those issues do not impact on the public mind, there’s always a repetition of Hamas, Hamas, as though decades of slaughters of innocents by the Israeli State never happened, as though appalling terrorist acts only started on October 2023.

The deceit and wilful ignorance of politicians and media commentators promotes the ahistorical picture that Hamas is the only enemy. A whole people, their hospitals, universities, schools, homes, mosques, churches, farmlands and water plants can be destroyed but in the concocted concern about student safety or prejudice towards Moslem or Jewish students, it’s time to overlook the horrors in Gaza.

In readiness for a back lash against students, the primary reason for reframing the story concerns the age old hesitancy to avoid being critical of the policies of Israel, to not even protest the extremist government that now rules that country.

Mass graves found in the grounds of Gazan hospitals can be forgotten or papered over by the nightly denial and lying by Israeli spokespersons. Even when the International Court of Justice made an interim finding that Palestinians be protected from acts of genocide, cowardly western governments including Australia kept their heads down and refused to support the South African initiative before the ICJ.

A polluted way of thinking still insists that Israel should be protected from undue criticism. And be clear, to call that thinking ‘polluted’ is not anti-Semitic.

Western governments feel bound to express iron clad support for Israel. The US suddenly makes a judgement about the electoral damage caused by its Israel all the way policies, and therefore announces a pause in the supply of bombs to Israel, but the Republican right denounces this pause as treason.

In lockstep with the US, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong declares that Israel is ‘a steadfast friend for whom we provide immovable support.’ The ever obsequious Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham insists that Israel deserves ‘the highest levels of support.’

To stifle student protests, the stage has been set for a backlash.

Devoid of the courage of their own convictions, the Group of Eight major Australian universities have written to the Attorney General to ask whether phrases used by students may be breaking the Race Relations Act. Students on some campuses have allegedly depicted their protests as equivalent to an intifada, a reference to two popular uprisings by Palestinians against Israel’s brutal occupation of their territories. It does not appear as though reference to an ‘intifada’ is widespread, but the slightest bit of evidence that some student protesters might be deemed extremist, is convenient ammunition for those whose minds do not stretch beyond law and order perspectives.

The next part of the bubbling backlash concerns opposition to the chant ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. Prime Minister Albanese depicts this as ‘a violent anti-Israel statement.’ He seems to think that repetition of this phrase will sink his claims about a two state solution, even though anyone with modest knowledge of this issue knows that for years the two state proposal has been dead in the water.

It would help the promoters of a backlash against students if they asked astute Israeli commentators what they think of the phrase ‘from the river to the sea.’ Gershon Baskin, esteemed peace negotiator for successive Israeli governments and respected columnist for the conservative Jerusalem Post, explains that ‘from the river to the sea’ means that everyone can be free, everyone will have a right to the same rights..’

The thuggery that passes for policy on American campuses, should not occur at Australian universities, yet the reframing of the Gaza carnage, and the fermented Establishment outrage at phrases ‘intifada’, ‘from the river to the sea’ is crafting an atmosphere ripe for a backlash in which protesting students are the threat and compliance in a genocide can be officially denied or forgotten.

Along with weekly protest marches in major cities, the students’ encampments are the visible and reassuring sign that the death and destruction in Gaza and the West Bank must end and the perpetrators held to account.

Few other establishment figures have dared to condemn Israel’s war of displacement and extermination. The heads of churches, universities and major corporations have stayed silent. With few exceptions, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) is one, professional organisations, for fear of offending their pro Israel members, have been reluctant to take a stand.

In an amoral process of building the conditions for a backlash, the students, their tents, slogans, and requests for some semblance of justice, are to be a target to ensure further protection for a war against humanity. Establishment interests have been fooled, their judgement about the significance of the students’ encampments without merit and so wrong.

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