‘This is not an occupation but a teach-in,’ shouts student Ghali into his megaphone to about a hundred demonstrators who have come to protest at the Wijnhaven building in The Hague on Thursday. ‘We’re here to show solidarity and to talk about how we can help Gaza.’ Meanwhile, other members of the Students for Palestine action group are handing out flyers calling for a boycott: Leiden University must cut all ties with Israel.
Before Ghali can start his actual speech, two security guards walk up to him and try to take away his megaphone. Ghali evades them and quickly runs into the audience. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game with pushing and shoving at the top of the Spanish Steps. As the crowd is filming the incident, one of the security guards forcefully pushes an onlooking student away. ‘Why are you pushing me?’ she shouts after him.
After a few minutes of bickering, during which Ghali refuses to hand over the megaphone, the security guards apparently receive a signal to stop and the demonstration can proceed.
In his speech, Ghali calls for an end to the violence in Gaza and says that ‘it seems like expressing the suffering of Palestinians is taboo at the university’.
Four more speakers follow, including assistant professor Judith Naeff. She criticises the Dutch government for supplying spare parts for Israeli fighter jets: ‘Not in my name!’ She also thanks the university for ‘allowing this discussion to take place and for not calling the police’.
However, not long after, police appear at the bottom of the steps. In addition, there are at least ten university staff members present who act as security guards. They walk around the audience and film the speakers. Some are dressed in suits, others wear hoodies and appear to be hastily drummed up university personnel: for example, one makeshift security guard later turns out to be an employee of the audiovisual service.
After about 45 minutes, Ghali concludes the gathering with the controversial slogan: ‘From the river to the sea...’, to which the protesters shout back: ‘Palestine will be free!’ Then, he asks the audience through the megaphone to calmly leave the building, after which the attendees leave in groups.
However, not everyone is allowed to leave at the exit. Ghali is briefly detained; a photo has already been taken of his ID. FGGA dean Erwin Muller tells him that ‘there will be a conversation between you and the university’.
The student who was forcefully pushed is also asked for her identification at the exit, by the same security guard who had pushed her earlier. ‘I’ll only show my ID if you identify yourself too,’ she replies. The pushing security guard refuses to show his ID so the student refuses as well. ‘I’m getting the police involved,’ the security guard says. He then walks over to the officer who is standing outside. The officer talks to the student for a few minutes, after which she is allowed to leave.
But even outside the building, security guards keep interfering with the protesters. As lecturer Naeff and Ghali walk away from the Wijnhaven building, two university employees continue to follow them on either side of the street. The security guards do not turn back so Naeff and Ghali address their pursuers: ‘Why are you following us? This is incredibly intimidating.’ The security guards give no response. They also refuse to answer any questions from Mare, only saying that they ‘are very busy’.
In order to escape their pursuers, the lecturer and student flee into a clothes shop. Initially, the pursuing employees remain at the entrance, but then they speak to the shop’s security personnel, who do not get involved in the situation. One of the pursuers enters the shop and observes Naeff and Ghali from behind a clothes rack while the two discuss how to get out.
‘BEYOND ALL LIMITS’
While the student hides elsewhere in the shop, Naeff decides to once again address the pursuers: ‘So what are you going to do when the student wants to leave? We feel extremely unsafe.’ The security guards listen to her but reveal nothing about their motivations. The two pursuers linger in front of the shop entrance for about 15 minutes before leaving without saying a word.
Naeff says she is baffled by the fact that the university has its own people followed. ‘This goes beyond all limits. This conduct is highly intimidating and I’m going to file a complaint.’
Assistant professor Cristiana Strava, who read a solidarity statement from a Palestinian university during the gathering, also expresses her shock over the fact that a peaceful demonstration was thwarted by the university. ‘I addressed the chief security officer who was present about the security personnel’s actions. His response was that I, “as a lecturer and staff member at the university, should try to stop the demonstration instead of participate in it”. Apparently, we have a fundamentally different view of the role of the university and its lecturers.’
Chief Security Officer Leo Harskamp would not comment on the spot and later referred to the university’s statement (see box).
Mare posed a number of questions to the university regarding the actions of the security staff during the demonstration, including why it was necessary to film the protesters and take photos of their IDs.
Mare also asked whether the university considers following employees and studentsm and pushing students an acceptable course of action for security guards, and why random employees were called in as security guards.
Spokesperson Mischa van Vlier informs via e-mail that ‘the security personnel’s actions were aimed at minimising the disruption caused by this illegal demonstration to the other people present. For the safety of all, no attempt was made to end the demonstration prematurely.’ He also refers to the statement the university has posted on its website (see box).
He does not go into further detail regarding the security guards’ actions: ‘We don’t comment on the actions of individual security guards. As usual, an event like this will be further evaluated at a later stage.’
Last year, another Students for Palestine event also sparked controversy and protests. At that time, the university banned a panel discussion organised by the action group because the moderator was supposedly ‘not impartial’.
Update: Assistent professor Elena Burgos Martinez tells Mare that she and another student we're also followed along with Naeff and Ghali.
In a statement on the university website, the Executive Board says it is shocked by the unannounced demonstration that took place on Thursday afternoon, because it ‘was not notified in advance, as prescribed in our regulations on events and demonstrations’.
‘We are shocked by the fact that our students and staff violated the regulations that we so recently shared with our whole University community.’
The board also claims that the character of the demonstration caused other students and staff to feel extremely unsafe. ‘Inciting hatred, violence and intolerance will under no circumstances be condoned by the University: we cannot be clearer about this.’
‘At our University - in Leiden and The Hague - we interact with one another through open debate, dialogue and discussion, which means we also listen to the arguments of the other party.’
The board says it will take ‘appropriate measures’ against anyone who has violated the rules. ‘These rules are in place for a purpose: they are necessary to guarantee the safety of all of us, and to protect the norms and values of our community,’ the statement concludes.