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‘We’re not going to change the world’: Inside a Brussels campus pro-Gaza occupation


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A group of students is quietly working on laptops in a study room on the second floor of a university campus building in Brussels, with several sleeping bags at their feet.

Rather than preparing to pull an ‘all nighter’ ahead of their coming exams, they are part of a group of pro-Palestine activists who have been occupying the Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) building.

Every day since the occupation began last Tuesday the protesters have gathered around noon to divvy up tasks. Some students take on cleaning duties, others cooking, security, art or press relations.

When The Irish Times visited the building on Friday there was a relaxed atmosphere inside. Most activists were sitting on the grass in front of the building enjoying the sunshine, as a speaker played music from a second-floor window.

The entrance is plastered in “Free Palestine” posters and stickers calling for the university to cut links with Israel. A lecture hall in the building has a rota on the wall of the different jobs to be done. Under a table at the side of the room there is a substantial stockpile of toilet and kitchen roll.

There are artistic workshops being held in one room upstairs, where a wall is covered in pro-Palestinian art and drawings. Another small group is making posters and protest placards. The activists had planned a yoga session for later on Friday evening. Previously they put on screenings of documentaries and organised lectures from academics.

The catalyst for the occupation was the start of Israel’s offensive on Rafah, a city at the southern tip of Gaza. Several students are wearing keffiyehs, a traditional Palestinian scarf, as well as sunglasses or Covid-19 face masks, for fear they could face retribution from the university, or be targeted online if photographed.

One of the students involved in the occupation, who does not wish to be named for similar reasons, said the group had received several donations of food and other items. “The response of the [wider] population has been actually [re]assuringly great and sweet and more than motivating,” he said. “We have the humility to say, we’re not going to change the world basically, but we are going to [try to] do it on our very own small level,” he said.

“We want this to be as open and welcoming as possible … As you can see there is no violence. Everyone just wants to put out a message of peace,” he said. “We have an extremely strong policy against anti-Semitism, it has no place in the collective, especially as we have multiple Jewish students in the collective,” he said.

In a statement after the occupation began, the university said it was “currently in discussions with representatives of the movement”. The university had already started “a screening of its partnerships and agreements linking it to Israeli universities”, it said.

At the other side of the campus outside the university president’s residence, several hundred people attended a demonstration organised by the Union of Jewish Students in Belgium on Friday evening.

A senior figure in the union and ULB student was attacked on the campus in recent days, according to co-president of the group Gabrielle Piorka (23). “Since the 7th of October life has been very difficult for Jewish students. We are walking on campus and we see anti-Semitic tags, we hear anti-Semitic slogans,” she said.

Ms Piorka, who is a masters student in a different Brussels university, called for the ULB pro-Palestinian occupation to be cleared out. The Jewish student group had been pushing for university presidents to be more responsive to concerns raised about anti-Semitism, she said.

Tensions had flared on campus and led to a sense of “insecurity” among Jewish students, who felt others looked at them “with a lot of hate in their eyes,” she said.

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