An afternoon at the pro-Palestine student encampment at University of Edinburgh (2024)

You hear it before you see it.

Walking down South Bridge in Edinburgh the steady beat of a traditional Arab drum makes itself known over the mid-afternoon traffic, some distant chanting escaping from behind the thick stone walls of Old College at the University of Edinburgh.

It's here that a group of students have, for more than a month now, been camped on the quad in protest at the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip.

Around the tents are images of Palestinian children as young as two who are among the more than 30,000 killed since Israel launched its invasion in response to the October 7 attacks.

An afternoon at the pro-Palestine student encampment at University of Edinburgh (1)(Image: Newsquest)

The wall at the western end of the quad contains more still, flags, flowers and candles illuminating a poignant memorial to the martyred - a word that is used in Palestine to mean anyone who dies at the hand of an aggressor.

To see their faces - a family celebrating a birthday here, a young man posing in sunglasses in front of his car there - says more than mere statistics could, yet they are only a fraction. To represent all would cover the quad.

An afternoon at the pro-Palestine student encampment at University of Edinburgh (2)(Image: Newsquest)

It's a Wednesday, the day on which the students hold their weekly rally. Near the back some older men in keffiyehs pray quietly, hands raised in front of them. A young student hands out umbrellas from a carrier bag, the heavens having opened.

So far more than 20 of those whose tents sit on the central lawn have engaged in a hunger strike, consuming only electrolytes for a seven day period.

Orlando, who is in the midst of his own, tells The Herald: "The hunger strike feels like the final medium for protest and also honours a long tradition of hunger strike protest in Palestine, for many Palestinians in Zionist jails it’s the only and final means of protest available to them.

“For us it’s an important form of protest that we can share with fellow students, but ultimately in solidarity with Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza who are surviving on less than 300 calories a day.

"The support from the community has been overwhelming.

“It’s happened every single day, whether it’s donations of food – or electrolytes for the hunger strikers – or just general support."

An afternoon at the pro-Palestine student encampment at University of Edinburgh (3)(Image: Newsquest)

They certainly don't appear anything like the intimidating mob Rishi Sunak et al have portrayed such students as. A bin on the quad has been daubed with a friendly message about picking up after themselves, complete with smiley face. A surreptitious cigarette is about all the rule-breaking apparent today.

Leading the chanting and speeches is Zaa'ter, a Palestinian, behind him a whiteboard spelling out Arabic resistance chants phonetically.

He tells The Herald: "My father’s from Palestine, from Gaza.

“We have distant relatives there, my immediate family left in the 50s and 60s before the 1967 war and they haven’t really been back since.

“We set up the encampment to stand in solidarity with students across the world, and of course with Gaza.

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“We feel it’s important because universities are an important litmus in public opinion and where universities and educational institutions stand is a very important indication of where policy at a governmental level might go in the future.

“Policy makers start off here, especially prestigious universities like Edinburgh, so we want to give that indicator from the education sector that we’re not interested in being complicit in apartheid, genocide and settler colonialism in Palestine.

“Some people over the past seven months have said, ‘well you’ve said plenty about Palestine’ but in 76 years we haven’t had the spotlight on us, the world has turned away and that’s how Gaza became vulnerable to genocide in the first place.The world let this happen.

“If it means we have to be out here every day and chant the same things over and over for them to change then so be it.”

At the far end of the quad a large banner accuses the establishment of being 'complicit in genocide' and referring to it as 'Balfour University'.

An afternoon at the pro-Palestine student encampment at University of Edinburgh (4)(Image: Newsquest)

Arthur James Balfour, the university's longest-serving chancellor, was the eponymous author of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which declared British support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" and pledged to use its "best endeavours" to "facilitate the achievement of this object".

When the declaration was made Palestine was largely a Muslim country. In 1920 the British government, which controlled the territory following the First World War, published an official report which found the population to be around 700,000, with 'four-fifths' Muslim, around 77,000 Christians and a similar number of Jews.

The Balfour declaration was seen as a betrayal by Arabs, who had been promised by the British an independent and unified Arab state in return for revolting against the Ottoman Empire during the war. However, the British had already agreed to divide up the territory with France following victory over the Ottomans.

The inter-war period and Second World War saw displaced Jewish people from Europe move to British mandatory Palestine, with their numbers increasing from around 90,000 in 1931 to more than 500,000 by 1945.

At the same time the Muslim population close to doubled, largely due to natural population growth but also with around 25% coming from neighbouring Arab countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

In 1947 the United Nations passed a resolution to divide the land into Arab and Jewish states, with the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem to be international zones. The plan was rejected by the Arabs, leading to a civil war which ended with the establishment of the state of Israel and the fleeing or expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians on the territory it made up, an event which is described as the 'Nakba' or 'catastrophe' in Arabic.

It is, to be sure, a complex history but not one the students - many of them Jewish - do not understand.

An afternoon at the pro-Palestine student encampment at University of Edinburgh (5)(Image: Supplied)

Orlando says: "First and foremost this is an anti-colonial learning space alongside an active protest.

“The point of this encampment is that it’s an open one, people can come and learn about the university’s complicity and its historical legacy in the colonisation and oppression of Palestinians.

“This space represents the openness for community engagement."

It is also clear that, whatever outsiders may say, the group are not simply using the term 'Zionist' as an acceptable way of saying 'Jew'.

In Zaater's opinion: "Zionism itself is an antisemitic ideology.

“Zionism relies on Jews feeling like they need somewhere safe to go.

“Back when Zionism first emerged that was definitely the case, it came after thousands of years of Jewish persecution,whichhasn’t ended.

"(But) if you look at Israel today it’s a European state that tries to coalesce Jewish identity – which is inherently diasporic – into European Ashkenazi Judaism.

“Yemeni Jews, for example, have nothing to do with Jewsin Europe but they’re put under the same model.

"You look at the attacks that happen on Israel from Hamas, Hezbollah et cetera – is that a safe place for Jews? They have to put in billions and billions of dollars just to maintain the occupation under this notion of Jewish safety, and that isn’t sustainable either.”

An afternoon at the pro-Palestine student encampment at University of Edinburgh (6)(Image: Supplied)

As well as calling for an end to the war and the liberation of Palestine, the students are calling on the University of Edinburgh to divest from operations which they say uphold the occupation.

That includes investment in Google and Amazon, both of which are involved with Project Nimbus, a $1.2bn scheme to develop cloud and AI software for the Israeli military. Campaigners fear facial detection could be used for further surveillance of Palestinians in the West Bank.

The University of Glasgow, meanwhile, has investments in arms companies including BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin.

Zaa'tar says: "The question you have to ask is: why?

"What business do educational institutions have being involved in the arms trade?"

The University said it does not invest in weaponry, and "on these and other contested issues, we maintain a regular dialogue with student and staff representatives and we will continue to work in this way".

These students, and others like them, have been dismissed in some quarters, outright vilified in others.

It must be said though, that whether apartheid, the Vietnam War or civil rights, those opposing the student body often end up on the wrong side of history.

Zaa'tar says: "Grassroots activism is just that, you start from the most immediate institutions around you and eventually it will build to a national consensus – and I do believe we’re on that path.

“The students have always been at the forefront of where public opinion will probably be in the future, which should be an indication that you should listenbecause we’ll be the next generation of voters.

“I really wonder how it’s going to be for the election, seeing how Keir Starmer is going to try and inspire this generation given his disgusting stance.

“In fairness though that applies to all the politicians, that’s the problem – the governing institutions aren’t capable of handling this issue in the way it needs to be handled, the rules were not written to advocate for a liberation cause.”

The University of Edinburgh said: "We all deeply regret the loss of innocent lives anywhere in the world. We fervently hope for a peaceful solution to the current conflict in Palestine and other conflicts around the world.

"We will support the right to peaceful and lawful protest, and we have no current plans to disrupt theencampment provided that it does not unduly interfere with the activities of the University and its community."

An afternoon at the pro-Palestine student encampment at University of Edinburgh (2024)
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