Inside Lebanon’s student protest movement for Palestine

‘From Beirut to the Sorbonne, we will liberate our universe’. The slogan – referencing Paris’ world-famous university – has become popular in Beirut in recent months as Lebanese students have joined the worldwide protest movement for Palestine.

Organising weekly rallies, students are “spearheading” the pro-Palestine movement in the country, Yara Assaad, a student organiser, told The New Arab.

“Of course, students should be part of the fight against the [Israeli] occupation, because all our causes intersect, and education, culture, can be a form of resistance when reclaimed,” the 22-year-old student in political science at Beirut’s Saint-Joseph University (USJ) said.

Assaad belongs to the General Student Union, a group founded one year ago that unites students from various Lebanese universities to advocate for student and educators’ rights.

Together with other student clubs, the General Student Union is at the forefront of Lebanon’s pro-Palestine protests. “We are here to remind everyone that students have a vital role in politics, that we are on the right side of history, notably like in May 1968,” Yara Assaad explained.

Students for Palestine

The New Arab has covered several protests in Beirut since Israel launched its devastating war in Gaza, which has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians and seen a genocide case opened at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

From May Day to Nakba Day, from the Egyptian to British embassies, from Hamra to Achrafieh, every week a new protest is organised by the Movement of Students against the Occupation, an umbrella group founded after Israel’s war began which unites pro-Palestinian students from various organisations and campuses.

‘Student Intifada’, ‘Disclose, Divest, Boycott’, ‘Lift the Siege of Gaza’. The placards held by protesters in Beirut unambiguously target Israel’s actions. Students say they cannot just stand by as they watch Gaza, the occupied West Bank, and south Lebanon being attacked.

“Together with other student clubs, the General Student Union is at the forefront of Lebanon’s pro-Palestine protests”

“As a Lebanese, I am affected directly by Israel: although I was only 4 years old, I vividly remember the 2006 war and carry my family’s intergenerational trauma from when our house got bombed by Israel during the civil war,” Assaad said.

“But even if I hadn’t experienced all this, I would have opposed Israel’s settler-colonial expansionism. To not say anything right now, to not be angry, is to be complicit,” she added.

Calls to divest

The 150-year-old American University of Beirut (AUB) has been a hotbed of protests, with students calling for foreign companies to divest from Israel.

They include Hewlett Packard, which provides services and technology to the Israeli army, and whose former Executive Vice President, Abdo George Kadifa, is also AUB’s latest Board of Trustees chairman.

“AUB! You say this is where free minds flourish… then you partner with Zionists?” one placard held by a student read during a protest on 7 May. Numerous private security personnel that day had kept protesters at a distance from AUB’s main building, and later expelled journalists and media workers from the campus.

Pro-Palestine students and demonstrators protest at the Corniche in Beirut on Worker’s Day, 1st May 2024. [TNA/Philippe Pernot]

A coalition of AUB students, together with the Movement of Students against the Occupation, sent a list of demands to the Office of Student Affairs that week demanding divestment from Israeli-linked foreign companies that fund AUB. They have not yet received an answer.

In 1955, Lebanon imposed a total boycott of all Israeli companies and products, but this did not apply to other foreign companies.

The AUB Office of Communications did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Solidarity with Arab students

Sometimes, the protests target more specific causes – and are met with more repression. Last week, anti-riot army units disrupted a weekly demonstration in front of the Egyptian embassy, wounding several protesters, according to videos shared on social media.

The embassy, located close to the Cola intersection, has been a regular spot for protests since the beginning of the war.

“We target Egypt because we have to. Apart from collaborating with Israel to enable genocide, it disappeared and detained at least three students that we know of,” Andres Succar Rahme, a student at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK), told The New Arab.

Pro-Palestine students and demonstrators protest in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Beirut on 23 May 2024. [Getty]

“We’re building an international coalition to apply pressure until it releases the political prisoners,” he explained, adding that the General Student Union was contacting students worldwide, from Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank to Latin America.

“As Arab students, though we are not seen as the face of this ‘student Intifada’, we have been on the streets since 8 October and are now showing up to call for the immediate release of our peers everywhere,” Succar explained.

More than 3,000 protesters have been arrested in the US alone in recent weeks, while 3,714 students have been killed by Israel in Gaza and the West Bank. In Egypt, meanwhile, more than 100 people, most of them university students, have been detained for their role in solidarity protests with Gaza.

“I have no words to describe my disgust towards Egypt’s complicity with Israel,” Noor Sarraj, a 20-year-old student at the University of Tripoli Lebanon, told The New Arab during one of the protests in Beirut.

“The Egyptian authorities have closed the Rafah border, and Palestinians have nowhere else to go. Anyone who wants to escape has to pay thousands of dollars, which is practically impossible in the conditions Gazans are living in. They’ve turned this genocide into a business,” she added.

“Students say they cannot just stand by as they watch Gaza, the occupied West Bank, and south Lebanon being attacked”

Ghosts from the past

Sarraj lives in Tripoli, the largest city in north Lebanon, where she also co-organises protests at the university.

“In Tripoli, everyone is united for Palestine, we have very few dissensions. The protests are very energetic, people join us spontaneously,” she said. “But here in Beirut, the atmosphere is way more divided. There are some people that extract themselves from what’s going on, saying they don’t want a war with Israel.”

Indeed, most protests in Beirut are surprisingly small – especially compared to their international counterparts.

Many believe this is a legacy of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) when Beirut was divided between pro-Palestinian progressive factions and right-wing Christian militias. The latter were backed by Israel, which invaded south Lebanon in 1976 and Beirut in 1982.

Pro-Palestine students and demonstrators protest at the Corniche in Beirut on Worker’s Day, 1st May 2024. [TNA/Philippe Pernot]

These fault lines are still visible today. The Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces (LF), Lebanon’s two main Christian parties since the civil war, are staunch critics of Hezbollah’s entanglement in the conflict.

Since 7 October, 65 civilians and 352 fighters have been killed in Lebanon, as daily clashes pit Hezbollah, Hamas, and their allies against the Israeli army.

“Today, we are still suffering from the intergenerational trauma of the civil war and its political ramifications,” Rawad Jalloul, a first-year student in political science at Saint Joseph University (USJ), told The New Arab.

Lalloul’s campus at Huvelin Street, in Beirut’s upper-class, Christian Achrafieh district, is a stronghold of the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb Party, he explained.

“The administration bans all political or religious events on the campus – they justify it to protect the sensitivities of the students, but deep down we know it’s for the LF,” Jalloul said indignantly.

“When we tried to protest in front of the campus, the administration even called the army, police and intelligence services on a few peaceful protesters” on 15 May, he added.

Professor Nadine Riachi Haddad, USJ’s Secretary General, responded to The New Arab’s request for comment via email. “The USJ students are in no way prohibited from demonstrating on or in front of campuses, and in fact often do so; they just must submit a request. (…) Of course, we are not responsible for the security services,” she stated.

“No movement is suppressed; every student has the right to express his or her views democratically within the University,” Haddad added. “We follow and respect the law and do not invest in any Israeli company. (…) We support all good causes, especially the Palestinian cause.”

Pro-Palestine students and demonstrators march through Hamra in Beirut on Nakba Day on 15 May 2024. [Getty]

Education in crisis

Saint Joseph University (USJ) is one of Lebanon’s many private-owned universities, just like AUB. Political divisions, however, are not the only problem students face, as tuition fees in dollars have become inaccessible to the huge majority of the population because of Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis.

Before 7 October, students were already protesting actively against the “systematic mismanagement” and “undermining” of Lebanon’s universities.

“Education is Lebanon has become totally commodified, privatised and inaccessible,” Yara Assaad said. “Most students are in survival mode now, this probably explains why not many show up to protest.”

Philippe Pernot is a French-German photojournalist living in Beirut. Covering anarchist, environmentalist, and queer social movements, he is now the Lebanon correspondent for Frankfurter Rundschau and an editor for various international media. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PhilippePernot7

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