The University of Manchester has divested over £10 million from companies – Caterpillar, Booking Holdings, Danone, General Motors, General Electric, Allianz – which have links to Israeli human rights abuses in a colossal win for the Palestine solidarity movement in Britain. This follows a 4-year-long student-led Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Campaign which is supported by over 100 academics and over 500 students. 

The campaign targeted the University’s investments in Caterpillar Inc., the American construction company responsible for supplying the Israeli military with weaponised bulldozers for use in its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and its siege of Gaza. Caterpillar bulldozers have been implicated in the illegal destruction of Palestinian homes, agriculture, and other infrastructure as well as the construction of the ‘Apartheid Wall’ in the West Bank, in addition to being used for direct military purposes – all illegal under International Law. 

The University of Manchester has also divested from Booking Holdings Inc. which in 2019 was listed on a United Nations blacklist of companies operating in the West Bank, in addition to General Motors, General Electric, Danone, and Allianz, according to a freedom of information request made by student activists. 

The win for activists has come after a persistent campaign over four years which involved protests, rallies, marches, film-screenings, panel events, street stalls, petitions and other grassroots tactics. In 2016 campaigners succeeded in passing a BDS motion at the University of Manchester Students’ Union. In 2018 there was a successful campaign to stop the sale of Sabra Hummus on campus. In 2019, student activists live-streamed themselves storming a Board of Governors meeting alongside the Fossil Free campaign to demand divestment from Caterpillar, gaining over 40,000 views on Facebook. 

Despite the divestment, the University of Manchester still has many ties with Israel’s apartheid regime, including its exchange programme with Hebrew University of Jersusalem which sends students to study on occupied and stolen Palestinian land, in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention. Student activists recently coordinated the publishing of a letter to management signed by over 100 academics condemning the links to Hebrew University. Additionally, the University’s flagship graphene project has been embroiled in links to the global arms trade and the Israeli occupation, as exposed by a report published by former student Huda Ammori in 2018.

Manchester is the second university to divest from companies arming Israel after the University of Leeds did so in 2018. However, overall UK universities still invest £400 million in companies complicit with Israel’s arm trade and illegal settlement economy. In May 2020, activists at Manchester joined with others around the country to found Apartheid Off Campus (AOC), a new network of students and supporters dedicated to ending all UK universities’ complicity with Israeli apartheid. AOC has gained 300 members and over 4,500 social media followers in its first two months and has launched a national campaign against links to the Hebrew University. In July, SOAS announced that it will be ending its relationship with Hebrew University after campaigning by SOAS students and AOC. 

The divestment victory at Manchester, the largest university in Europe, is expected to be a watershed moment for the BDS movement on campuses in the UK.

Frank Roche, Chair of the UoM BDS Campaign stated “This victory has been hard-won and it is a vindication of our militant, grassroots tactics. We would not have achieved it without the determination of dozens of student activists and hundreds of supporters over the course of four years who dedicated their time and energy to the cause of Palestine solidarity. The BDS movement is going from strength-to-strength, victory-to-victory, despite increasing repression from institutions and the state. As Frederick Douglass said, ‘power concedes nothing without demand’, and we have proved that when we demand, unite, and fight – we win.”

Emilia Micunovic, activist with the UoM BDS Campaign and former Chair also stated: “The successful campaign clearly attests to students’ overall outrage in the business-like functioning of British universities and their subsequent role in upholding Israel’s apartheid system. There is still more work to be done at Manchester with its links to Hebrew University and the global arms trade, and we will continue to fight for Palestinian rights – but we are incredibly proud of this victory which will hopefully herald further change in our institutions.”