'I’m very weak, very cold, very tired': Edinburgh University hunger strikers escalate action as 'extreme' protest grows

Several more students embark on hunger strike as protesters plan to join forces across Scotland

The sun is shining on Edinburgh University’s historic Old College, but that is not the reason why the students there are covering their faces and clutching bottles of water.

"I am currently on hunger strike,” explains one who goes by the name “Nevis”, after the nation’s highest peak.

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"I’m just on day four, which is not that much really. But I can still very much feel in my body that I need to sit down. I can’t sit up for very long, I can’t carry my bag, I’m very weak, very cold, very tired. So it does take a toll on the body.”

Old College protest camp at Edinburgh University.Old College protest camp at Edinburgh University.
Old College protest camp at Edinburgh University.

Nevis is among the group of students who set up camp at the site on South Bridge on Sunday in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and in protest at Israel’s ongoing military action.

They will not reveal their names, and most cover their faces with masks or scarfs, as they fear their participation in the protest will be used against them by the university.

The students will not even say how many are involved, although when The Scotsman visited on Thursday close to 20 tents filled the lawn at the quadrangle, with dozens of students said to be taking it in shifts to occupy the site, with many more visiting to “show solidarity”.

The area remains open to the public, but security personnel have apparently been brought in to control access to the buildings overlooking the anti-war protest.

Entrance to Old College protest camp at Edinburgh UniversityEntrance to Old College protest camp at Edinburgh University
Entrance to Old College protest camp at Edinburgh University

"They have upped security. They have hired private security as well,” says Nevis.

"Outwardly they are being friendly and peaceful, but obviously in the background they are doing all they can to really secure the place as much as they can, and try to ensure that we don’t cause trouble.”

Similar encampments have been established at several universities across the UK in recent days, including Aberdeen University.

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The action follows a wave of protests at universities in the US in the last few weeks, leading to more than 2,400 arrests on 46 campuses.

Nevis says there are five people on hunger strike across the Old College camp and another at the Scottish Parliament, with four of the five being Edinburgh University students. The action is poised to escalate over the coming days.

"There’s actually two more students who I think will be starting today. And there are a few more who will be starting next week,” she says.

He explains why the campaigners, who are mainly members of the university's Justice for Palestine Society, felt “compelled” to take “extreme” action.

The protesters have several demands but suggest the action is particularly linked to recently published data outlining the university’s multimillion-pound investments in companies and funds they see as linked to the Israeli military.

“They are basically spitting in our faces,” says Nevis. "So this encampment was obviously in solidarity with what is going on in the world, and because the university has been consistently not listening to our demands.”

She later adds: “This action of hunger striking is basically to me – we all have different reasons but we all act together as a group – but to me personally it was really that need of making management face their failure to care for their students.

"It’s kind of insane that they are pushing us into taking these kinds of actions, because they are just not listening to us otherwise. It is kind of insane that we have to go to that length to be heard.

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"They are quite worried about the hunger strike, they have been engaging with us and sending emails much more than they have in the past. But it is completely crazy that this is the length we have to go to to get them to care, to listen.

“We’re just trying to get them to show humanity in the face of a genocide, but we can’t do that until we endanger our health.”

Another student, one of several Jewish participants at the encampment, said the students from Glasgow’s universities have been at the Edinburgh camps.

"We are working on building a broader Scottish movement, coming together with our various groups,” he said.

Sir Peter Mathieson, the principal of Edinburgh University, issued a statement this week in response to the protest.

He appealed to them and others “not to take risks with their own health, safety and wellbeing”, urging the hunger strikers to make themselves known to the university at any point “at which we may be able to direct you to support”.

He added: “We are in daily contact with the protesters to ensure they are aware of the health and wellbeing support available to them.”

Sir Peter also highlighted “inaccuracies in some of the assertions made” by the students, including stating that the university does not invest in controversial weapons.

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A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: "The continuing violence and loss of life in Palestine is deeply distressing and we understand that members of our community are rightly concerned about the devastating toll of this ongoing conflict.

"We have been engaging with student and staff groups on this issue for several months and we are committed to listening to their concerns.

"We are deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the students taking part in this latest action and we urge them to prioritise their health.

"We steadfastly support the right to take part in lawful, peaceful and respectful protest and we are monitoring the situation to ensure the safety of the protestors, while also working to minimise disruption to staff, students and visitors to our campus."



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