by Anna Violante

“We urge the Italian government, through the MUR (Ministry of Education, Universities and Research), to immediately terminate the cooperation agreement between the Italian government and Israel in the field of research and industrial, scientific and technological development, and to establish a fund to finance support measures for Palestinian students, researchers and teachers to carry out their activities in Italian universities, institutes of higher artistic, musical and choreographic education and research centres.”

The pro-Palestine student encampment at the university of Milan (photo by Anna Violante)

The demands of the Palestinian Youth in Italy (GPI giovani palestinesi in Italia), who are leading the Italian student intifada, are similar to those of university students in the United States, Europe and India. Students from around the world are camping out on the green campuses of their Unis to call on their professors and rectors to end relations with Israel, with their universities involved in the occupation of the Palestinian territories and with departments specialising in military technology research, as well as all links between academia and arms companies.

The Italian encampments began in March, first in Turin, where teachers joined the campaign to divest from Israel under heavy criticism from the press and politicians, and then in Rome, where students clashed with the police.

Among the many cities where the movement has spread is Milan. The encampment, here called ‘acampada’ was set up on 10 May at the main university, the Università Statale, followed the next day by the Politecnico (Polytechnic School of Science, Medicine, Architecture and Engineering). The protest has so far been peaceful and productive, with tents placed in the main courtyard when the weather is good and indoors when it rains.

The days and nights are full of activities, from ethnic dinners to public talks and meetings with the university authorities to convince them of the need to cooperate for Gaza. The campus was dedicated to the activist, writer and academic Refaat Alareer, who died under Israeli bombs in December. A delegation of students was able to speak about the killing of doctors and the destruction of hospitals in Gaza at a conference organised by the Veronesi Foundation for Cancer Research, and on 15 May the anniversary of the Naqba (the Palestinian exodus from their homes and land in 1948 ed) was commemorated with the online participation of students from Ramallah university.  The rector and the faculty council have so far not called for police intervention, while divestment plans have only been thought of towards two controversial Israeli universities, where an exchange programme has been agreed with the Milan Law School.

The pro-Palestine student encampment at the university of Milan (photo by Anna Violante)

It’s Monday afternoon, 20 May. “We have been fighting for the boycott of Ariel University since 2020,” Luca, a protester, tells Atlas of Wars. “It was founded in 1982 in the city of Ariel in the occupied West Bank. Over the years, many petitions have been signed to close it, the most significant of which was in 2019 by 1200 professors from all over the world, including Israel. Finally, two months ago, our new Rector, Marina Brambilla (who will be in office from October 2024) and the current Rector, Elio Franzini, came out in favour of severing academic relations between the two universities. The second is Reichman University. An army base until 1994, it was founded as the first private university in Israel. It’s famous for its International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and is a magnet for future intelligence agents, not only for the Mossad but also for the CIA.” Luca concludes.

“We want to stop the announcements made by the MAECI (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation) concerning industrial and scientific cooperation between Italy and Israel,”  says Jessica.  “In particular, joint research in optics, water and soil technology. There is no clause preventing the dual use of these research areas, which could be applied to the genocide of the population of Gaza. We want our Faculty Council to follow the example of their colleagues in Turin, who suspended all cooperation agreements with Israel in March.” She adds.

“Get the war industry out of the university,” Marco interrupts. “Leonardo’s cannons are firing on Gaza and its foundation, Med’or, has university rectors on its scientific board.” “There have always been contacts with the arms industry”. Francesco Vignarca, coordinator of the Italian Network for Peace and Disarmament (Rete italiana pace e disarmo – a branch of Control Arms), tells Atlas on the phone: “It was a direct and explicit collaboration.” He adds: “Now the strategy is different, Leonardo (the state-controlled company that has almost doubled its exports in the last five years, ed) has created Med’or, a foundation that interacts with academia. Its members include former politicians, journalists and academics. As a cultural organisation, it is easy to convince the public of your good intentions, to accept the over-proportional increase in arms production and to forge links with politics and science, both in terms of relations and cultural projects.  Indeed Med’or is part of Leonardo, which specialises in space defence and security, and therefore in armaments. The students are now protesting because there is active cooperation between Leonardo and Israel. But the protest has taken its cue from Israel to spread and now aims at the total independence of academia from the arms world”.

ENI (the Italian state-controlled multinational oil company ed) has won a tender to extract gas in Gaza’s territorial waters. It’s not fair,” Marco is about to continue, when out of the blue Jamal, a Palestinian student whose father was a long-time member of the PLO, arrives with a piece of paper in his hand: “Today our delegation was received by Rector Franzini. This is what we got: Franzini will take the demands of the student ‘acampada’ to the CRUI (Conference of Italian University Rectors). On Monday the 27th, an extraordinary academic senate will be held to examine the agreement between UNIMI and Reichman. The Acampada does not stop! United we will win!”

On the cover photo, the pro-Palestine student encampment at the university of Milan ©Anna Violante