Dozens of police officers were called to UCL last night to control a protest organised by a pro-Palestinian student group. Accusations of violence, racism, and anti-semitism have been made by both the protesters, and UCLU Friends of Israel – who organised a talk hosted by Hen Mazzig, a former Israeli Defence Force Lieutenant.
I found myself being pushed by a UCL security guard and pulled out by a dozen police officers, accompanied by passionate chants such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and screams of “Shame! Shame!”. I noticed that the protest’s initial spontaneous and explosive nature had evolved into a kind of back and forth, almost ritualistic, as attendees to a UCLU Friends of Israel event shouted ripostes back to the ever growing crowd of protesters organised by UCLU Friends of Palestine society.
After asking a source if he could get me in to the Haldane room, in the North Cloisters of UCL, I was hauled in. The shouting followed us, as determined students maintained their chanting through a sound system and then by gathering around the windows armed with posters and Palestinian flags. Inside, a number of members denoted their actions as “barbaric” and “fanatical”. However, the aggravating behaviour was not just on the Palestinian side, one person who wanted to attend the talk launched a tirade of insults claiming that a chanting student should be sent “to the home office” as he was “at risk of radicalisation”. With reports of physical assaults and phones being knocked out of hands, one has to ask; how on earth did this happen?
This is the first time in a long time that there has been physical clashes between the two societies at UCL, of course, the Israel-Palestine question is a controversial one but it is a particularly fervent one in student politics internationally.
Today’s protest was sparked when a talk by Hen Mazzig, a former IDF humanitarian officer and an Israel Education Director for ‘StandWithUs’, was cancelled by UCLU as the organisers had omitted information on the form applying to have the event. However, an unknown person high up at UCL insisted that the event be allowed to continue, UCLU Friends of Palestine heard about this and decided to oppose the event.
Mazzig is associated with a group called ‘StandWithUs’, a non-profit organisation that is ‘is dedicated to educating people of all ages about Israel and to combating the extremism and anti-Semitism that often distorts the issues.’ However, it has also been criticised for alleged deep ties to the Israeli foreign ministry and has been accused of promoting ‘pro-settler’ views.
Initially, the event was supposed to be held in the archaeology building, but this had been changed last minute to Bedford Place. Outside the lecture theatre a crowd had already appeared brandishing both Israeli and Palestinian flags, it was clear tensions were brewing. The situation hit a boiling point as the protestors stormed the lecture theatre and on to the stage. As they prepared for Friends of Israel to enter, one woman told her fellow protestors to “Stay calm, no matter what they say”, it was evident that this was not going to be an evening of polite discourse.
I asked one of the activists why they were protesting; they said ‘we will not have a war criminal speak at our university’, Mazzig denies such accusations and claims to have never killed anyone. However, one protestor said that Mazzig’s alleged support for the illegal settlements was tantamount to war crimes. Another said that she would be willing to engage in a debate with an Israeli perspective but not one from a “soldier” or someone who spouts “violent rhetoric”.
The police arrived and the crowd dispersed, but this was not the end of the evening. Rumours spread around the group of protestors (which included a number of sabbatical officers from UCLU, such as Zakariya Mohran and Mehj Ahmed) that the talk was being moved to the Haldane room. They subsequently marched to the North cloisters, where another clash erupted, it was clear on both sides, the immense emotions they felt for their cause. One student got visibly upset when I asked them about their motives for protesting, others held up the Palestinian flag contorting their faces with disgust as they shouted “Israel is a terrorist state” and “down with state terror”.
The duel between the two groups became more heated as members from both sides started filming the event via various online streaming services, with the hope that they catch the other out and thereby further their own cause. People from either side asked if I had seen various acts of verbal and physical abuse from the opposing group, insisting that they were going to prosecute.
This eventful evening reached its terrifying peak when protestors opened the window of the Haldane room and jumped in, causing an intense level of fear to resonate around those already inside. All of this was lived streamed on Facebook by Hen Mazzig himself.
After the police allowed us entry, the talk went ahead, albeit with the backing track from the protestors outside, who had gathered around the windows. Mazzig only talked for a short time and most of the discussion revolved around the events that evening.
One attendee asked Liora Cadranel, President of UCLU Friends of Israel, what the knock on effect is for students on campus, she responded that she was ‘wary’ of it as people had seen her face and know she is the President of the Friends of Israel Society.
During the meeting I asked Mazzig if there was a way to initiate peaceful discussion, he gave an example at Bristol University where they were able to talk with Friends of Palestine supporters and have a debate.
There was a sense of comradery on both sides, the Friends of Israel ended the night with a song and dance whilst holding hands and the Friends of Palestine were unified in their chanting and cheering. Both felt they had got one up on the other side, they felt like they won the battle and were eager for the rest of the war. Despite both societies claiming they wanted to have civilised debate and discussion, there was always some caveat, some uncompromising detail that they would not move on, always blaming the other side.
Instead of their supposed mutual wish to engage in discussion and dialogue, they shared a mutual vocabulary of conflict. Inside the meeting, one man said that they should create more events and provide more support to students who are on the ‘frontline’. Sharon Klaff from ‘Campaign 4 truth’, in reference to the protestors, said that they needed to help the students to ‘combat this’ and not be ‘under siege’ talking quietly in a room. Another claimed that “Jewish students are muted and scared to stand up for who they are’. Throughout the duration of the protest, Friends of Palestine were using a similar rhetoric repeatedly shouting ‘Israel is a terrorist state”.
When we left the talk, we were flanked by protesters shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!”, Hen Mazzig and the committee of the UCLU Friends of Israel left by another door, with Mazzig disguising himself in a UCL guard fluorescent jacket.
I asked various members of the Friends of Israel society why they didn’t invite a Palestinian perspective to debate with Hen Mazzig. One student at the talk told me that he would be willing to let people in to ask provocative questions but the protests had stepped over a line. Whereas, a supporter of Friends of Palestine, armed with a loudspeaker and wearing a Palestinian Keffiyeh, told me that there is “no dialogue with soldiers, there is no dialogue with killers, there is dialogue with academics that is fair enough and we are willing to have that debate, but don’t bring killers on to my campus” another asked me if “can you genuinely expect me to have dialogue with someone who has the blood of my family on his hands?” She continued “I will not debate with officials, I will not debate with ambassadors I will not debate with anyone who represents the Israeli government, the fascist government that kills my people.”
I conducted this last interview amongst a circle of protestors that had gathered around whilst I was asking questions. A pertinent moment occurred when I asked if I could shake the hand of one of the people I had interviewed, she pulled her hand away and asked if I was a Zionist. Another stark reminder that the intense emotions on either side of the conflict continue to put up barriers between rational debate at University campuses and in the wider world.
With more events being organized by the Friends of Israel society at UCL and SOAS, we are left to wonder if this protest will have a sequel and if it will ever be possible to resolve this emotionally charged Israel-Palestine question.
A moment of clarity and wisdom ended the evening when a UCL security guard came up to the protestors and said jovially; “why don’t you go to the student’s union? There is a nice bar. Come on guys, come on guys, let’s go!”
Perhaps he had a point.
Do you have an opinion on the protest? Do you think that anyone should be able to speak on campus? Any comments or complaints? Please leave them in the comment section.