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Sheffield students are transforming their campuses into sites of solidarity with Palestine

An anonymous student activist describes demonstrations that seek to put pressure on the University of Sheffield.

Palestine 1

On Wednesday 20th November, students and faculty disrupted the formal opening ceremony of the University of Sheffield’s newest building, the Wave, to challenge Deputy Vice Chancellor Gill Valentine on the university’s involvement in the global arms trade.

Adorned in keffiyehs and holding aloft Palestinian flags, over 100 people stood outside the Wave in a public demonstration of solidarity and called on the university leadership to divest from their partnerships with arms manufacturers. Shortly after, we peacefully entered the building and made our way to the atrium where the ceremony was planned to take place. There onlookers watched attentively as impassioned speeches were interspersed with traditional chants, whilst banners emblazoned with demands such as, ‘CUT TIES WITH ISRAELI APARTHEID’ and, ‘STOP ARMING ISRAEL’ were held up high.

One speaker, walking back and forth across the stage, addressed the university’s ties to arms manufacturers, asking:

How do you sleep with this blood on your hands?

A recent freedom of information (FOI) request revealed that the University of Sheffield has recorded profits of at least £72 million in the last ten years through investments from arms manufacturers such as BAE Systems, GKN and Boeing. Through its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the university is heavily involved in research and development of the F-35 warplanes used by Israel in the illegal carpet-bombing of Gaza. An impact case study from the university quoted the Technology Delivery Director at BAE Systems as saying that:

research conducted at the University of Sheffield was instrumental in deciding the equipment, tooling and cutting parameters that we used to scale up production rates for the F-35.

The study states that this “has directly enabled BAE to deliver components for over 500 aircraft in the last 5 years.” As a student at the University of Sheffield, I believe we must all do what we can in demanding the university express solidarity with Palestine and acknowledge its ties to modern colonialism.

Colonialism extended

BAE Systems has supplied weaponry for brutal campaigns of neo-colonial violence throughout the Global South, devastating countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria. As Western governments have pursued imperialist agendas through warmongering, arms companies have reaped obscene profits and established an entrenched influence in international relations through their close relationships with said governments. In turn, educational institutions have also profited from and fed into the military industrial complex through research, propaganda and recruitment. The cost has been millions of innocent lives, justified as collateral damage.

Despite the university’s best efforts to present itself as an institution committed to decolonisation, students are demonstrating an inexhaustible determination to hold their educational institutions accountable. From mass emails to peaceful protests, students are embracing grassroots activism and leading the way by fostering connections between student societies, faculty members and community organisations to fight against injustice. Students in Sheffield have been at the forefront of several key events, including the public rally on 1 November which successfully pressured Sheffield City Council to pass a motion on Israel’s illegal bombardment and apartheid regime.


As students have mobilised to campaign for truth and justice, we have experienced increased repression of political speech and student freedoms on campus, coupled with deafening silence from the University.

Events organised by the university’s Palestine Society have been pressured into moving off campus, whilst student activists have been forced to protect their identities for fear of reactionary reprisal. This repression is ubiquitous on campuses across the country, including but not limited to universities in London, Birmingham and Manchester. Our academic institutions have historically reinforced the ideologies of colonialism and Islamophobia, and they will continue to do so as long as they profit from neo-colonial violence.

Despite its complicity, our university continues to project a facade of institutional prestige, ethics and tolerance. Claims of providing safe spaces for student support and concern for student well-being have worn thin. Ignoring demands from students and faculty, the University of Sheffield’s leadership remains conspicuously silent on the issue of Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, a chaplain of the Belief, No Belief and Religious Life Centre who recently travelled to Israel as an IDF reservist. Deutsch is also the chaplain at other Yorkshire universities including Leeds, Leeds Beckett, York, Hull, Huddersfield and Bradford. A letter with over 11,000 signatures from students, faculty and concerned community members is yet to receive a response from the university leadership.

Palestine 2

This severe breach of student trust and the university’s failure in its duty of care are worsened by the revelation that Said Zaaneen, a Palestinian PhD student from the University of Sheffield, is currently trapped in Gaza and trying urgently to renew his student visa. At the same time that the university has permitted one of its chaplains to serve in the IDF, Said is stuck in an open air prison with his wife and three children. Since 7th October, he has already lost 45 relatives to Israeli bombardment.

Said has been in direct contact with a number of students here in Sheffield, and after fleeing from Beit Hanoun in northeast Gaza to Khan Younis in southern Gaza, he and his family have now had to flee further towards Rafah, under intense bombardment. They are currently attempting to build a makeshift shelter, with no access to power or heating. Meanwhile, he says the university has taken no further steps to confirm his status as a student or provide proof of scholarship for his student visa – in spite of their own students' increasingly desperate pleas.

In failing to do so, the university's silence and apparent reticence has demonstrated clearly that they will continue to prioritise revenue over innocent lives, even when one of those lives belongs to one of their students. It’s therefore up to students on campus to pressure their university to take appropriate action, and we will work ceaselessly until Said and his family are returned safely to us.

As long as our universities continue their silent complicity, we will keep exposing and fighting their unethical actions. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.

The University of Sheffield did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Azmat Al-Araji is a pseudonym for a student and grassroots activist studying at the University of Sheffield.

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