Ghassan Abu-Sittah buries Balfour’s legacy in Glasgow

The election of Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu-Sittah to the rectorship of Glasgow University has been a victory for Palestinian solidarity — and a stunning rebuke of the university’s collaboration with the arms trade.

Three decades before his forty-six-word declaration announcing the British government’s support for the settler colonisation of Palestine, Arthur Balfour was appointed Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. ‘A survey of the world… shows us a vast number of savage communities, apparently at a stage of culture not profoundly different from that which prevailed among pre-historic man,’ said Balfour during his rectorial address in 1891. His words dripped with the hatred that would characterise his government’s 1905 Aliens Act, which sought to stop Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe from entering Britain, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Later this month, a radically different Rector will be installed in Bute Hall. Palestinian surgeon Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah, who worked in Al-Shifa hospital during the latest Israeli onslaught on Gaza, was elected with an incredible 80 percent of the vote by Glasgow University students last Tuesday.

His campaign was clear: a vote for Ghassan was a vote for Gaza. Dr. Abu-Sittah’s manifesto commits him to fighting for the University to divest from the arms trade and stand in solidarity with Palestine. Students responded to his candidacy by burying Arthur Balfour’s legacy in Glasgow.

The position of Rector is almost unique and dates back to the Reformation. Today, Glasgow is one of only five universities with a rector, whose job is to represent students’ views to management on the institution’s governing body, the University Court. Election turnout more than doubled from the previous election, ensuring a landslide victory for Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah and the Palestinian cause — which could not have been more timely.

In October, the Islamic University of Gaza, the oldest in the Strip, was reduced to rubble by the Israeli Defence Force. Founded in 1978, the university housed twenty research centres and educated over 20,000 students. For fifteen years, the University of Glasgow had been one of the institution’s principal academic partners, welcoming Palestinian students to Scotland’s largest city and teaching via video link amidst the Occupation’s blockade.

In January, as Gaza’s displaced families took refuge amidst the ruins, the campus was shelled once again. Bombed during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the latest attacks on the IUG are part of the Israelis’ systematic assault on the Palestinian education system. Denying Palestinians the right to learn and share knowledge has long been central to Israel’s settler-colonial project. 76 percent of school buildings and all twelve universities in Gaza have been destroyed. 4,327 students and 94 University professors — including the IUG’s Sufian Tayeh, Refaat Alareer and Nasser Abu Al-Nour — have been killed.

Confronting the War Machine

Remarkably, the University of Glasgow did not deem the destruction of their twinned institution worthy of comment. When WHO employee and Glasgow alumnus Dima Alhaj was killed alongside her young family in Southern Gaza last December, the University remained silent. As one of the largest academic funders of the arms trade — with £6.8 million invested in weapons companies, including those providing arms to Israel — perhaps that should come as no surprise. Indeed, the share price of BAE Systems, in which Glasgow University has a sizable investment, has risen 39 percent since October 2023.

Dr. Abu-Sittah’s election is a clear rejection of this complicity. Dismantling the war machine and strengthening the movement for Palestinian liberation requires — in addition to proactively engaging with workers in the defence industry — initiating a confrontation with those institutions that reap the rewards of British imperialism. To its shame, Glasgow University is among them. Highlighting why the struggle in Glasgow was crucial during his campaign, Dr Abu-Sittah explained that ‘Israel is just the tip of the genocidal project.’

‘The rest of the iceberg exists elsewhere…What the British government has done, what the American government has done is to protect the continuation of the genocidal project. In addition to this axis of genocide, there is a system of genocide enablers, institutions like Glasgow University that have profited from the sale of weapons. The system that has been created over 75 years does not only function to protect Israel, but actually to ensure the longevity of the genocidal project so that after six months it can continue taking the lives of over 100 Palestinians every day.’

Implicit in Joe Biden’s infamous declaration that ‘if there were not an Israel, we’d have to invent one’ is the recognition of Israel as a regional outpost for Western imperialism. To illustrate this, we can return to Arthur Balfour who served as Chief Secretary for Ireland during his tenure as Glasow University Rector. So brutal was his enforcement of British colonial rule on the island, that he earned the name ‘Bloody Balfour’.

In the early years of the British Mandate, the same colonial forces who had followed the orders of the British state in Ireland were dispatched to Palestine. Just as they were in Ireland, these men were advised to repress resistance using ‘whatever measures are necessary’. Historically, as today, the occupation of Palestine has been central to the advancement of imperial interests. That is why we say that no one is truly free until Palestine is free, and it’s why Dr. Abu-Sittah’s election is so important.

A Radical Tradition

In recent decades, the rectorship of Glasgow University has had a much more radical tradition, reflecting recognition of the importance of solidarity at home and abroad. In 1971, amid the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-In, trade unionist Jimmy Reid was elected rector. The New York Times reprinted his rectorial address in full and described it as ‘the greatest speech since President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address’. In a contribution fitting for today’s context, Reid challenged ‘the right of any man or any group of men… to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.’

Fifteen years later, when Dr. Abu-Sittah arrived in Glasgow to study medicine, Winnie Mandela was elected rector during the darkest days of South African apartheid. In 2004, Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician who revealed the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme to the world, was also elected rector. Imprisonment by state authorities prevented either from attending their instalment ceremonies. Last week, Glasgow University students’ historic commitment to peace and justice echoed down the years as Dr. Abu-Sittah won a victory that will resonate on campuses around the world.

To mark the election of Mordechai Vanunu twenty years ago, the great poet and Glasgow University professor Tom Leonard penned ‘Being A Human Being’. ‘The desire for liberty and freedom from mutual destruction that Vanunu stood for, and stands for, cannot be suppressed,’ wrote Leonard of his poem. As we celebrate the victory of Dr. Abu-Sittah, his words are as relevant today as they were then.

‘Being A Human Being’ concludes as follows:

I am a human being

and I exist

a human being

and a citizen of the world

responsible to that world

— and responsible for that world.

This article was first published in Tribune Magazine and is re-produced here with thanks.

Comments (12)

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  1. John Learmonth says:

    So what would a free Palestine look like?
    1. Free and fair democratic elections
    2. Equal rights for women
    3. Equal rights and acceptance for gay people
    4. Equal rights for non-muslims
    5. The separation of religion from the state I.e a secular state.
    Good luck with persuading Hamas to go along with that!
    All these rights exist in the ‘settler/colonialist state of Israel and if
    they existed in Gaza/west Bank and the rest of the Muslim world the region would be at peace.
    The author should spend some time reflecting on this rather than just relying on the same old anti Jew rant.
    Finally if we want to go down the ‘blood and soil route’ Jews have been living in the region since Biblical times, the ‘colonialist Arabs’ arrived in the middle ages which led to the great Jewish diaspora. Surely the indigenous people of the region i.e the Jewish people should be entitled to the same rights as the
    colonialists I.e the Arabs/Palestinians?
    No doubt the anti-israel/Jew haters who for whatever reason seem to infect this blog will respond but if they lived in Gaza they’d be murdered by Hamas without a second thought, whereas if they lived in Israel they be perfectly free to express their opinions without any retribution What a strange world we live in!

    1. Bob says:

      Nobody here has a problem with Jewish people mate. It’s nut job Zionist’s and their industrialised killing that is the problem. That and anti Palestinian haters like yourself.

    2. Frank Mahann says:

      Palestinians aren’t indigenous? What history lesson did you play truant from?

    3. Graeme Purves says:

      The Palestinian people are indigenous, diverse and cosmopolitan, reflecting the history of the wider Levant.

    4. David says:

      This is tasteless satire, isn’t it John? You can’t be that badly informed

  2. SteveH says:

    Luxury beliefs in a dangerous world.

    The naivety of what I read here is mind-blowing.

    “Palestinian solidarity?” Most of the Arab world won’t take Palestinian refugees. Those that have regret it. Why is that?

    1. Martin Coff6 says:

      Not sure, mibees they are concerned that they too will be a target of Israel’s war machine.

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      How did you acquire your expert knowledge of the Palestinians, Steve? Have you ever been to Palestine or, indeed, any part of the Levant?

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Philosopher Susan Neiman writes that she has not found equivalent terms for the German words meaning “working-off-the-past” (Vergangenheitsverarbeitung, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Erinnerungskultur) in English or other languages. Any suggestions for Scots or Gaelic?

  4. John says:

    The Israeli government and military are now in full revenge mode on Palestinians. This has gone way beyond justifiable defence after 7th October atrocities.
    The suffering of Palestinians is evident on our tv screens every evening and the denials and propaganda of Israeli government and there right wing supporters in this country are increasingly at odds with the evidence of independent agencies and media.
    This is becoming more and more apparent to many of us in Scotland and beyond who were previously ambivalent to Palestine.
    The longer the death, starvation and destruction is inflicted by Israel on Palestinians the more the cheerleaders of Israel will be out of step with public opinion and trying to defend the indefensible.

  5. John S Warren says:

    The Israeli investigation into the World Central Kitchens disaster (a highly approved aid agency by the Israelis, with agreed and closely established protocols with the IDF for everything the did), has produced this response from Israel’s official sources:

    “The IDF said: “Following a misidentification by the forces, the forces targeted the three WCK [World Central Kitchen] vehicles based on the misclassification of the event and misidentification of the vehicles as having Hamas operatives inside them, with the resulting strike leading to the deaths of seven innocent humanitarian aid workers. [The soldiers’] belief that the attacked vehicles were carrying Hamas gunmen was based on operational misjudgement and misclassification of the situation,” said Major General Har-Even.
    “As a result, and based on the radio communication, we assessed the state of mind of the IDF Forces that conducted the strike was that they were striking cars that had been seized by Hamas.” ……. In the opinion of the IDF investigation, it was the decision to launch the second and third strikes that broke “operational procedure”. It was, in the words of the general overseeing the inquiry, “a grave mistake. …….. The IDF soldiers involved have been suspended from duty. The Military Advocate General is yet to decide whether a criminal case should be launched. It’s a tragedy, it’s a mistake, actually it’s not a mistake, it is a serious event that we are responsible for,” the IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said. “One thing we are sure of: there was no intentional harm here directed towards World Central Kitchen employees or other civilians.”” (Sky News).

    Israel has already officially acknowledged that WCK was an especially highly regarded aid agency by the Israelis. WCK operated with high levels of cooperation with Israel and the IDF, by all accounts.

    Here is my single thought about this matter. If this is what happens (three strikes, that caught and killed innocent WCK people in three vehicles in three separate strikes, including those who ran for safety to the next vehicle, only to be taken out); when the attacked are working under special protocols for an approved, agreed aid agency, and for a route that is monitored; than this incident alone, then more generally, how often could this type of grave mistake happen where other innocent people/aid agencies may have been targeted in error? How general is the risk of error here? These may not always be aid agencies that were operating with the similar level of assistance, protection and priority awarded WCK by the IDF, but neither necessarily guilty of anything, but perfectly innocent and responsible aid agencies; because the real difficulty here is not just the strike and deaths in the WCK incident, but the special close cooperation awarded to WCK that may not have been available to protect (or fail to protect) others. Note also that WCK alone was not capable of feeding the whole need in Gaza. It becomes a matter of whether the “grave mistakes” were in fact systemic in the protocols routinely being operated where aid was being distributed.

    In this sense, it seems reasonable at least to consider the wider implications of the admitted failure; whether such a grave mistake here, is not at least as likely to have occurred elsewhere, or even more likely on many other occasions when fast decisions were being made by the IDF, but with other aid agencies operating in Gaza, innocent of wrongdoing but without the close protection and supervision provided by the protocols awarded to WCK; and how much IDF activity of this kind may have happened, and how often; when clearly the protocols were not applied without “grave mistakes” even when under close, direct IDF control and supervision.

    1. John says:

      John – you are not alone in wondering this especially in light of the high number of aid agency workers killed in this conflict.

      It should also be noted that this investigation was carried out by Israel and World Central Kitchens requested an external, independent investigation.

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