London Student

Free Palestine protesters clash with pro-Israel students at society event

Free Palestine protesters clashed with students attending a UCL event where an IDF soldier gave a speech yesterday evening.

Hen Mazzig, who served as an Humanitarian and UN liaison officer in the Israeli Defence Force, was due to give a speech in the Institute of Archaeology earlier at 7pm, invited by the UCL Israeli Society.

Mazzig initially meant the speech to focus on his experiences in the IDF and Israeli-Palestinian politics. However, protesters claiming to be pro-Palestinian turned up to oppose what they saw as the college’s platforming of a “war criminal”.

UCLU initially refused to allow Israeli Society to hold the event, leading some to believe Mazzig had been no-platformed. However once some procedural errors had been corrected and extra security had been organised, it went ahead, leading some protesters to call-out an “anti-democratic and illegitimate decision” by staff.

But 2 hours before the event, at 5pm, those with tickets were sent an email by the society stipulating an emergency change of location to a room in the UCL building on Bedford Way.

As prospective audience members gathered in the reception outside the lecture theatre, pro-Palestine student protesters entered the building. The university had heightened security with approximately 6 members of staff positioned around the theatre. Following initial quiet and patience from all present, a few female student activists placed themselves directly in front of the theatre doors blockading the main entrance.

Arguments began to break out, with one student from the Israeli Society alleging she had been assaulted by another girl.

As psychology students began to leave their lecture theatre, many complained that the latter half of their lecture had been severely disrupted by the shouting outside as university security escorted those not involved out of a different exit from the room.

At this point around 60 protesters rushed into the theatre, holding critical placards and Palestinian flags – easily outnumbering Israeli members and others who initially came to watch Mazzig speak. Cameras and flags were shoved in each sides faces by the opposing group.

One member of the Israeli society claimed she was assaulted and rang the police minutes after people stormed the room. Police arrived at 7.30pm, took command of the situation and settled the dispute.

Meanwhile Israeli society members, determined to see Mazzig speak, secretly organised another emergency change of location to UCL’s main building in a room facing the famous college quad on Gower Street.

Those intent on watching the talk, with the right tip-off from senior members of the society, ran quickly and discreetly through UCL’s campus to the Haldane room where Mazzig was gearing up ready to speak. It was only a few minutes later until even more protestors followed in their wake and began shouting “shame,” “Free, free Palestine,” and “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free”.

Activists quickly contacted friends and allies, which saw 100s eventually barricade against the doors of the room, with only a few members of the security on either sides of the doors keeping society members safe, preventing anyone, with a ticket or not, from entering the room.

As activists continued to shout expletives and bang against the windows, Mazzig finally spoke to the audience of 50 about his experiences and about the “expected behaviour” on the part of what the room termed “anti-Israeli protesters”. Following Mazzig’s speech about his time in the IDF and his and others present safety on campuses across the UK, others made small comments all of which saw the room erupt in applause.

Most of the remarks concerned how to mobilise more Jewish and Israeli groups on UK campuses to protect against what they saw as aggressive intimidation of their members. Mazzig emphasised what he saw as hypocrisy in UK university politics where “safe spaces exist, for some groups but not for others like the Jews…”.

At least an hour and a half had passed and neither side backed down. Those outside the room continued shouting amplified by the quick introduction of a sound system. Those inside stood up, applauded one another, and took to Jewish songs and dances, with activist onlookers watching through the windows.

More police arrived to provide protective escort to Hen Mazzig and others inside. The former IDF lieutenant, disguised as security staff with a hi-vis jacket, left the room first without any intervention from the students outside. Others anxiously waited longer, on instruction from the police.

Later, as more police collected outside the exit to the room, members were asked to move with the police outside the building. A police officer warned that whilst the students had agreed not to push or assault, they continue verbally attacking those who exited.

A similar event took place in KCL in November 2014, where Mazzig successfully spoke to the KCL Israeli society despite outside disruption, and alleged assault and vandalism from protestors outside thought to be representing the KCL Action Palestine society.

Protesters maintained their right to protest the “anti-democratic” and “abhorrent” presence of the IDF soldier, who many claimed to be “complicit in war crimes” due to his involvement in Operation Protective Edge.

After Mazzig’s audience left the room safely, both groups slowly separated and dispersed from the quad.

One of the apparent leaders of the pro-Palestine group shouted into the megaphone to everyone across the quad, calling for those who want to leave, to leave, but for those who want to stay, to join him in “celebratory drinks”.

UPDATE: UCLU has released a statement which says it never no-platformed Mazzig, and initial refusal was due to procedural errors in the Israeli Society’s organisation of the event. The union also says the counter-protest was not organised by any UCLU society. This article has been amended to reflect the  new information.

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Jacob Diamond

jacob.diamond@londonstudent.coop