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No relief

 Image: WAFA [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Alison Phipps says UK university support structures are inadequate for academics working with Gaza

Since the end of January 2024, and the ruling by the International Court of Justice that there was a plausible risk of genocide of the Palestinian people living in Gaza, I have written short, spare verses to help me move from day to day. I have led projects in the Gaza Strip with colleagues at a number of universities for 15 years. Every university there has now been destroyed.

Working in the field of refuge studies, intercultural studies and peace-building, I am no stranger to conflict, ethnic cleansing or the risk of genocide. Through the Tigray War between 2020 and 2022 I had family members conscripted from Eritrea to fight as cannon fodder. The reports written on gender-based violence in Tigray by Human Rights Watch made me throw up. I studied the Holocaust as part of my undergraduate and postgraduate studies of German and of post-conflict reconstruction and restoration through the arts and performance. I understand the dynamics of genocide and denial and its stages intimately. I also understand why the Holocaust and African slavery are imprescriptible. But I have never known anything like Gaza.

This is not my first experience of aggressions conducted by the State of Israel under the orders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2012 I was evacuated from the Gaza Strip with two other colleagues during fieldwork when there was a rapid build-up of forces, and we experienced several drone attacks and bombing raids, including from the sea. Now is the fifth time that I have been leading projects when major aggressions have been perpetuated in Gaza, each including plausible reports of war crimes.

I am also intimately acquainted with the Rome Statute listing of war crimes and what constitutes a breach. I know that the hostage-taking and attacks by members of the Al-Qassam Brigades on 7 October plausibly constitute war crimes and should be tried in the International Criminal Court. I know that every day I hear reports from Gaza of war crimes on the Rome Statute list being perpetrated. These come directly from colleagues living, working, and forcibly displaced from Gaza.

Indelible trauma

I know I am not alone in knowing this and that the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Francesca Albanese, in her report to the 55th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Committee—The Anatomy of Genocide—states that: “The survivors will carry an indelible trauma, having witnessed so much death, and experienced destruction, homelessness, emotional and material loss, endless humiliation and fear.”

How have institutions supported us? Mostly, UK higher education institutions have not. There has been a wall of silence from institutions, royal societies and academies—barely a word or a statement. Anything that has been said has had to be dragged out through persistence and protest.

My own institution—the University of Glasgow—has been an exception. From the outset I have had assurances from senior managers that my freedoms are protected and that hate speech—whether Islamophobic or antisemitic—will not be accepted. Early on, the institution called for a humanitarian ceasefire and the release of hostages, following the lead of the United Nations and its agencies.

Of course, the situation is difficult for higher education leaders who see UK leaders backing Israeli actions and who are trying to balance obligations to academic freedom, freedom of scientific inquiry, religion and expression. It is different from standing proudly with Ukraine, when the UK is actively supporting that country in its war against an illegal invasion by Russia.

What is clear is that the structures in our institutions and in our funding bodies are woefully inadequate.

AI counselling

In the online chat in the counselling service platform, which is free to use for staff, I enter my needs in the chat box as asked by the chat assistant: “My colleagues and projects of 14 years were destroyed by the Israeli attacks in Gaza. I am leading multimillion-pound international development projects with many people depending on me and they are dying of lack of water under siege. I am re-living my own experience vividly of being bombed in Gaza. Many thousands of people look to me for leadership as a public intellectual and I know I need supervision or counselling to do an extremely difficult job at present.”

The chatbot, replies: “Thank you for contacting XXX. My name is Cher, and I am one of the counsellors. We can definitely explore what support is available to you.”

I am asked to supply my date of birth, gender, address, name of department and “insight regarding what is happening for you at the moment?” Counselled by bot, I find myself laughing hysterically. The gulf between the problem and the solution available is so wide it is impossible not to be consumed by the glorious absurdity. It works. For me. I am no longer in despair.

I am asked by funders to account for my work in Gaza according to my risk assessments as principal investigator (PI). What were my mitigations against the entire destruction of the universities my partners are employed in? Against a plausible risk of genocide? Answer: the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and the International Court of Justice. What happens when that fails? Answer: we grieve, daily; we publish posthumously; we try to find effective ways to protest and make the killing stop; we organise; and, for me, we write spare words of poetry from the heart, daily.

Editing posthumously the work of colleagues in the Gaza Strip with whom I have worked for 15 years continuously has been a ghoulish task. Every day we hear of more people killed—people we knew, family members, friends of colleagues. It’s normal to hear of death. It’s elating to see the single grey tick on the WhatsApp move to two green ticks that says someone is touching, breathing, communicating.

Search for courage

Every morning and every evening I write to my colleague of 15 years. We used to write of survival, of horror, of movements towards justice. Now we have resigned from the possibilities—if not from the hope—of justice. We write instead of sunrise and sunset—two constants of life not determined by constant violence.

This is the work. It’s work others are doing who have worked in Gaza. There are not many of us and the majority are medics. The arts and humanities work in softer ways around humanitarian relief—and critically too. It’s been lonely. For months no one would speak out, colleagues crept furtively into my office or inbox or messages to let me know they were so sorry, they were thinking of me, they had no words, they were scared—to hug me, to be kind, to struggle with their own want of courage.

In recent days, as campus protests have escalated in the US, with some exhaustion and a cautious relief, amidst horrifying levels of implacability, I am also seeing fresh courage coming into being.

Alison Phipps is UNESCO chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and Arts

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe