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A student holds up a pamphlet of protesters’ demands during a protest on the American University of Beirut campus, May 7, 2024 (João Sousa)

In Beirut, a Homegrown Student Movement for Palestine

… and how the cause hits close to home.

Words: Madeline Edwards
Pictures: João Sousa
Date:

On Tuesday, a hundred or so students in their late teens and early 20s chanted on the main plaza of the American University of Beirut (AUB), donning black and white keffiyeh scarves, smiling and waving a large Palestinian flag. Behind them stood a statue of Daniel Bliss, the American missionary who founded the institution in 1866.

Nearby, in the library, other students were in the midst of last-minute studying for final exams, while more than a dozen AUB-affiliated security guards kept a tight watch on the shuttered gates into campus, only letting registered students and approved members of the press inside. 

Tuesday’s protest, as well as a larger one last week where students braved an unseasonably late rainstorm, comes amid a whirlwind of global student protests in support of Palestine, calling on school administrators and world leaders alike to help end months of Israeli bloodshed in Gaza that has killed some 35,000 people. 

Students hold up signs at a protest on the American University of Beirut campus, May 7, 2024 (João Sousa)
Students hold up signs at a protest on the American University of Beirut campus, May 7, 2024 (João Sousa)

The movement sparked partly on US university campuses, where police have arrested more than 2,000 people for taking part in demonstrations, including protest encampments at Columbia University, Harvard, and the University of California, Los Angeles, among others. Police arrested some 282 at Columbia alone, according to a CNN count, and administrators threatened students with suspension. 

Students in Beirut say their standpoint is different from those in the US, as Israel has bombed their own country nearly every day since Oct. 7. Israeli bombings in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa valley, and the southern Beirut suburbs have killed nearly 400 people in that timespan, according to a count by local news outlet L’Orient Today.

Calls for Divestment

On Beirut’s university campuses, however, the scene has been markedly calmer than their counterparts in the US.

Thalia Kattoura is a 20-year-old economics and political science student and — since two weeks ago — president of AUB’s Secular Club, a popular, independent campus group that eschews Lebanon’s more traditionally sectarian-based political parties.

Kattoura said she doesn’t yet know of any instances of campus security or Lebanese authorities punishing students or cracking down on the university’s pro-Palestine protests. 

Students are still cautious, however. Tom, who asked that his surname not be published for safety reasons, says he and a coalition of fellow students sent a list of demands to AUB’s office of student affairs this week. Those demands include disclosing the university’s sources of funding and divesting from companies benefitting from Israeli business. 

Students unfurl a Palestinian flag at a protest on the American University of Beirut campus, April 30, 2024 (João Sousa)
Students unfurl a Palestinian flag at a protest on the American University of Beirut campus, April 30, 2024 (João Sousa)

Among those companies: HP, which Tom says provides much of the campus’ computers and which reportedly does business with the Israeli army and police. AUB’s latest Board of Trustees chairman, Abdo George Kadifa, is also former Executive Vice President of HP Software. 

AUB administration has yet to respond to the emailed demands, Kattoura and Tom said. The AUB office of student affairs did not immediately respond to request for comment.

In the meantime, Tom spent much of Tuesday’s protest handing out print versions of the students’ list of demands, in a brochure titled “The Student Intifada for Palestine.”

Close to Home

Though the US rallies have, in some ways, inspired the past two weeks’ demonstrations in Lebanon, students explain that the protests in Beirut aren’t an “awakening” in the same way some portray the US university protests.

Lebanon has long been in a hot-and-cold war of sorts with Israel, with a dedicated United Nations force, UNIFIL, stationed between the two to mediate between both sides as well as monitor a tense borderline.

For us, we are under bombardment here in Lebanon.

– Dalal

The kids here at AUB have already lived through the deadly Israeli bombardment of the 2006 war, and have long existed either side-by-side or within Palestinian refugee camps scattered throughout Lebanon. Their parents and grandparents survived, perished, and in some cases even fought through years of civil war, Israeli invasions, airstrikes and massacres. 

Protesters hold placards at the AUB during a rally in solidarity with Palestine amid Israel’s war on Gaza (João Sousa)
Protesters hold placards at the AUB during a rally in solidarity with Palestine amid Israel’s war on Gaza (João Sousa)

As recently as Sunday, May 5, an Israeli strike on the southern Lebanon village of Mais al-Jabal killed a mother, father, and two sons as they were checking on a local supermarket they owned. 

“Our position here in Lebanon is different from the position of students in the US,” Dalal, a student who requested a pseudonym to protect her safety, said in a cafe a day before the protest. “For us, we are under bombardment here in Lebanon,” she said — not just since Oct. 7, but “historically.” 

Kattoura echoes Dalal’s sentiments: “We know the Palestinian cause, we lived the Palestinian cause.”

“Why Should I Be Silent?”

Rawad Jalloul was just 15 years old in October 2019, when a mass protest movement erupted in Lebanon — sparked by a newly introduced tax on WhatsApp but rooted in deeper economic and political stagnation. 

“I was very excited at the time, and that’s what got me into politics,” he said. “I escaped from the house, I told my family I was hanging out with friends but really I went down to the protests in the middle of Beirut.”

What began as an ecstatic countrywide catharsis deflated as Lebanon entered its worst economic crisis in history, its capital city port exploded, and the government collapsed.  

Rawad Jalloul attends a pro-Palestine protest on the American University of Beirut campus, May 7, 2024 (João Sousa)
Rawad Jalloul attends a pro-Palestine protest on the American University of Beirut campus, May 7, 2024 (João Sousa)

Today, Jalloul is 19, an energetic freshman political science student at Beirut’s Université Saint-Joseph, who was waiting alone outside the gate of AUB for the Tuesday protest to kick off. 

He couldn’t enter the AUB campus proper, as he’s not a student here, though all his friends were inside, just beyond the shuttered metal gate. “But that’s not the point, is it?” he said. “Why should I be silent while all of this is happening in Palestine? And not just there, but in Lebanon, too?” 

But what about the disappointments of 2019? “Any protest with students involved is one that’s bound to have some effect, even if it’s minimal,” he said. “Student protests have an impact.” About an hour later, he’s helping hold up a huge banner outside the AUB gate, chanting with students in support of Palestinians in Gaza.

“More Important than Exams”

For Dalal, who said a slew of upcoming final exams have left her stressed, showing up for the protests feels more important than burying herself in her sociology books. 

She sighed, slumped in a seat at the café near campus, on Monday before the upcoming protest. “Academics don’t matter without action,” she said. She argued that she doesn’t worry about any potential repercussions.

Later, on Tuesday, she materialized from the small crowd of mostly female students to say hello, draped in a Palestinian keffiyeh. She smiled and added, “This is more important than our final exams.”

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards is a journalist writing about society, the environment, offbeat histories and rural life.

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