Police called after pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students clash at UCL event

Students arrived at the UCL talk with banners chanting anti-Israeli slogans

‘I was afraid for the safety of the students and myself,’ says former IDF officer

Police were called to an event at University College London after violent clashes between pro-Palestinian protesters and members of a pro-Israeli group.

Officers entered the lecture hall to accompany members of UCL’s Friends of Israel society away when a talk by a former Israeli Defence Force (IDF) agent was disrupted by demonstrators.

Footage taken of the event on Thursday night shows crowds of pro-Palestinian protesters at the university venue, holding banners while chanting “shame” and “free Palestine”.

Metropolitan Police said they were investigating an alleged assault on one woman at the event, but that no arrests had been made.

Former IDF intelligence officer Hen Mazzig had been due to give a talk on his experiences.

Speaking to The Independent, he said the pro-Palestinian student group had contested the university’s decision to allow him to speak for several weeks.

“I don't think any speaker from any country no matter his background, ever faced something like this,” he said.

“It was one of the worst events I have ever held. Being rushed in by security and spending half an hour inside the room while angry mob is banging on the doors, screaming outside, chanting terrible things against me. I was afraid for the safety of the students and myself.”

Student members reported that UCL’s student union (UCLU) had made the decision to “no platform” Mr Mazzig earlier this week, meaning he would not be allowed to speak.

But UCL management overruled the decision – leading some protesters to complain the judgement was “anti-democratic and illegitimate”.

Two hours before the event, those with tickets were sent an email by the Friends of Israel society stipulating a last-minute change of location in an attempt to avoid friction. 

Around 60 protesters filled the new venue to oppose the talk, however, and police were called to the scene.

“This was a terrible night for me, for the Jewish students and for free speech and democracy,” said Mr Mazzig.

Serving in the IDF for five years as an openly gay commander, Mr Mazzig is a former lieutenant who worked as an intermediary between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority, United Nations and other groups in the West Bank.

Shortly after being taken out of the room at around 9pm, he tweeted: “I had to be rushed out of the event at @ucl with security. The campus was the war zone and the streets are the safe place. I'm out. My god.”

The clash follows a similar incident at King's College London (KCL) earlier this year, when a talk given by Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli secret service, was stormed by pro-Palestinian protesters.

Organisers reported that student group KCL Action Palestine threw chairs, smashed windows and set off fire alarms in objection of the talk.

Responding to Thursday’s events, a spokesperson from the Union of Jewish Students said: “There can be no excuses for the events that took place at UCL last night.

“The fact that such violence and hostility took place only nine months after the incident at KCL, with police having to once again be called, is an absolute disgrace.

“UCL Friends of Israel were simply trying to engage students in discussion on Israel, but instead were met with a wall of intolerance and intimidation aimed at shutting down free speech.

“It is reassuring however that, despite the acts of the protesters, the event went ahead as planned with around 50 engaging in peaceful and positive discussion on Israel and Palestine… It is imperative that UCL and UCLU take action following last night's events and we will be working with UCL Friends of Israel to ensure just that. 

“Whatever your position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no place for intolerance and intimidation like was seen last night at UCL on university campuses.“

A statement from the Metropolitan Police confirmed officers were called to the venue at Gower Street following reports of violence.

A spokesperson said: “It was understood the demonstration related to a speaker attending a meeting within in the building.

“Officers spoke to security at the university who were happy to let to demonstration go ahead on its grounds.

“They provided a policing presence during the demonstration. Police remained at the venue until the meeting ended safely.

“Following this, a woman made an allegation of common assault to officers and this is currently investigated by Camden police.”

Responding to the incident, UCL said: “UCL and UCLU do not condone acts of intimidation or violence under any circumstances and, as a university with a longstanding radical history, we fiercely support the right to exercise free speech within the law. 

"The freedom to debate and challenge views is fundamental to the nature of a university. We also acknowledge the right to peaceful protest.

"On 27 October, we did all we could to ensure that the UCLU Friends of Israel Society event could go ahead at UCL, working with our Security team and the Metropolitan police. 

"It was widely advertised and open to the public, and as result a small but noisy group of protesters attended and occupied the rooms where the event was originally meant to take place. 

"We are aware that the Metropolitan police attended following accusations of assault and support them fully in their investigations."

Additional reporting by Jacob Diamond and Craig Dillon