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School students marching for Palestine

School students marching for Palestine. Photo: Ricardo Esteban Pineda / Counterfire

The resurgence of the Palestine solidarity movement has extended to school grounds but the government is trying to stop students speaking out, writes Jamal Elaheebocus

The recent bombing of Gaza by Israeli forces has sparked a global wave of protest in solidarity with the Palestinians and expressing opposition to Western backing of Israel. This mood of outrage has been particularly strong in schools, with many students across the country holding protests, sticking up posters and raising awareness about the oppression of the Palestinians.

Students at Clapton Girls’ Academy in East London staged a sit-down protest, refusing to go to lessons and chanting “Free Palestine”.

Students at Loreto College in Manchester also planned a pro-Palestine protest, which was set to have 200 students take part, but senior leaders closed the school to prevent it, with students instead joining a march into the city centre.

Protests like this have been seen at schools across the country.

The number of protests in schools and their scale represents another resurgence in school student activism, following the huge climate strikes in recent years and strikes over the Iraq War. It demonstrates that there is a real awareness of the oppression of the Palestinians and that students are rightly outraged at Britain’s support for Israeli apartheid and the horrors of the occupation.

However, in many cases schools and headteachers have responded with crackdowns on protests and threatened suspensions and exclusions.

The headteacher of Allerton Grange high school in Leeds was recorded saying in an assembly that the Palestinian flag can be seen as a symbol of antisemitism and a call to arms. At the same school, Palestine posters were torn down and ripped up in front of students’ faces and students had lanyards with Palestine flags on taken from them.

This fits with the trend seen across the country of clampdowns on students speaking about Palestine, protesting or even just wearing Palestine badges. Pupils have been threatened with exclusion, punishment and reports to the government’s notorious anti-radicalisation programme Prevent.

One student at a school in West London said:

"The posters were torn down and binned, the students were told to remove their badges at the threat of suspension from school and all 'flags and symbols' were removed from sight at the threat of detention."

This kind of repression is nothing new in schools. Ever since its inception, the Prevent programme has targeted activism around Palestine in schools and sought to prevent it.

In response to the protests during the bombing of Gaza in 2014, students were targeted for wearing Palestine badges or even raising money for charities helping Palestinian children. One student, who was handing out Friends of Al-Aqsa leaflets, was accused of holding “terrorist-like views”.

In 2016, the Government released materials as part of the Prevent programme for schools, within which it compared Palestinian activism to support for Isis, as issues which needed monitoring. This has now manifested itself in the draconian responses of schools to Palestinian activism.

This is yet another attempt to ban activism and campaigning around Palestine in schools and universities, through the use of Prevent, forcing universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the usual methods of conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism and portraying Palestinians as terrorists.

While students have been attempting to resist this crackdown, this week Gavin Williamson wrote a letter to headteachers claiming there has been a rise in “antisemitic incidents” in schools, claiming Palestine protests had created an “atmosphere of intimidation or fear” in schools and warning schools of their “legal duties regarding political impartiality”.

The timing of this, coming days after student protests occurred, suggests once again a cynical conflation of criticism of Israel and antisemitism. While Jewish students and teachers should absolutely not be targeted or made responsible for Israel’s actions, the letter is designed to force schools into banning discussion about Palestine, let alone protest.

The government will hope that this attempt to nullify and criminalise Palestine activism in schools will put students off protesting for Palestine in the future, particularly when they get to university where the attempts at repressing discussion about Palestine become even greater, especially as many universities have now adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

However, students have shown that they are not willing to accept British complicity in Israel’s atrocities and will resist the attempts to prevent them from speaking out. The horrific violence in Gaza has mobilised a whole new generation of students, who will continue to demand freedom for Palestine.

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