The other occupation

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Every mass campaign has its symbols. For me the most moving of the Gaza campaign were the dolls dressed in bloodstained baby clothes, carried by children or teenagers, brought up to the front of demos and cradled in people's arms.

Young people have been central to the campaigning since Israel launched its attack on Gaza on 27 December. Young people have been burning the Israeli flag, organising demos, carrying placards, collecting money and organising boycotts.

Most impressive has been the wave of student occupations in solidarity with Gaza. More than 30 colleges have been in occupation since the middle of January. They have broken new ground in a number of ways.

Firstly, they represent a very high level of protest compared with anything else in the student movement for years. Secondly, they are about an issue which does not directly involve British students, and display a high level of international solidarity. Thirdly, many of them have been at least partly successful in winning their demands, including university disinvestments, free scholarships for Palestinian students and public condemnation of the attacks by university authorities.

The occupation meetings are characterised by a fantastic level of debate and a sense that this is the least that students can do to show solidarity with their sisters and brothers in Gaza.

This development has caused some consternation among the national leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS). Its current president, Wes Streeting, wrote a letter to the Independent on Sunday saying that he thought the occupations were not really what should be happening because they stopped other students from working and because he was worried about anti-Semitism in the campaign.

His position is in line with NUS policy, which is to the right of most trade unions in this country in its failure to clearly support the Palestinians. In this, as in so much else, it is also at odds with the opinions of many students. While this position may set Streeting up for a career as a New Labour MP it does little to help lead the student movement or to give a voice to the new surge of militancy.

The charge of anti-Semitism could hardly be more misplaced. At every meeting I have been at, speakers have discussed the role of Jewish people in the solidarity movement and talked about the Holocaust and the role of Zionism. At every occupation Jewish students, academics and speakers have made it clear that they do not agree with what Israel is doing, supposedly in their name.

By my reckoning there were more Jews on the massive demo in solidarity with Gaza on 10 January than there were on the small pro-Israel demo the following day. This shows how Jewish opinion has shifted compared with ten, let alone 20, years ago. Israel's actions have alienated much support from those who would once have looked to it. At one time Zionist student groupings were influential in universities such as Manchester; last month Manchester went into occupation too, backed by a huge union meeting.

Muslims in Britain have formed the backbone of many campaigns locally, and make up a good proportion of the occupations. Young Muslim women are at the forefront of organising, speaking and stewarding demos. This gives the lie to the stereotype that Muslim women are passive and reluctant to be politically involved - leave aside the high level of state surveillance and Islamophobia designed to deter them.

The campaign around Gaza has taken the anti-war movement to a higher level again, with new groups developing, old ones being revitalised and a new generation at their centre - all of which is very encouraging, since the situation in the Middle East remains grim. The recent Israeli elections mean more attacks on Palestinians and threats to Iran. Despite Barack Obama's administration offering more carrots in negotiations with various Middle East countries, it is clearly also prepared to use the stick.

Nato, at Obama's urging, is also pressing for more troops in Afghanistan. This is a war which the US and its allies are losing, but which they still regard as a "good war".

Next month London will be the focus for protests against the G20 summit, primarily meeting to discuss the economic crisis. The TUC demo on the previous Saturday promises to be large (although it has no focus on the "war on terror" or Palestine) and there will also be anti-war and pro-Palestine demonstrations on 1 and 2 April.

Many demonstrators will then move on to the Strasbourg protest to mark the 60th anniversary of Nato. This will all build on what is already the biggest surge in the movement since 2003.