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Hundreds of Indonesian campuses inspired by global student protests to renew rallies against Israel

“We strongly condemn Western countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany for their continued support of the Zionist State of Israel. »

Pro-Palestinian student protests have erupted in the United States and other parts of the world, including Australia, Canada, France, India and the United Kingdom. Organizers of the latest protests on Indonesian campuses said they were influenced by their example.

Students at Muhammadiyah University Surabaya hold banners in support of the Palestinians. Photo: Johannes Nugroho

“Inspired by student protests around the world, we chose to act in solidarity with students elsewhere who are fed up with Israeli atrocities against Palestinians,” said Wahyudi Kholilullah, president of the student executive council of the Muhammadiyah University of Surabaya.

“Our hope is that other Indonesian universities will follow suit and organize their own (pro-Palestinian) protests,” Wahyudi said.

Muslim-majority Indonesia has seen numerous large-scale pro-Palestinian rallies since Israel began its war on Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, but campus demonstrations were the most common. most widespread and coordinated that the country has seen in recent months.

In addition to the demonstrations, boycotts goods and services by companies considered affiliated with or supporting Israel have been adopted by large numbers of Indonesians. They have targeted international restaurant brands including McDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks, as well as multinational conglomerates such as Unilever and Danone.

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But aside from Israel and the usual Western targets, Muhammadiyah rallies have also targeted Muslim organizations that protesters say are not doing enough.

Professor Ma’mun Murod Al Barbasy, chancellor of the University of Muhammadiyah Jakarta, said the 10-point demands made during the protests were “fair” as they criticized all stakeholders in the conflict.

“Besides Israel and its allies, we also condemned the Muslim World League (MLL), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as well as Arab countries who acted weakly against Israel. »

Among their ten demands, the demonstrators issued a warning to the Indonesian government against “any attempt to continue or normalize diplomatic relations with Israel”.

This follows reports published earlier this year, which were denied by Indonesian officialsthat the country was considering normalizing relations with Israel as a precondition for joining the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

Radityo Dharmaputra, a professor of international relations at Airlangga University in Surabaya, said the Indonesian university protests “stood distinctly apart” from similar demonstrations because they were “institutionally sanctioned” by Muhammadiyah.

Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a rally and prayer in support of Palestinians in Gaza, in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 7. Photo: AP

“So far I haven’t seen NU (Nadhatul Ulema, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization) doing the same thing.”

According to a 2021 estimate, NU had 95 followers in Indonesia while Muhammadiyah ranked second with 60 million.

NU and Muhammadiyah are also important players in the Indonesian higher education system.

NU runs 274 higher education institutions, while there are 176 under Muhammadiyah. NU-affiliated higher education institutions had around 250,000 students in 2021, while Muhammadiyah had over 500,000.

Wahyudi said the protests also aimed to “send a powerful statement” and “keep up the momentum” of Indonesia’s support for Palestine.

“We cannot let the Palestinian issue recede from public consciousness. We must constantly remind people that the fight is far from over.”

He also said the simultaneous protests on campus were a “follow-up act” to student protests in front of the US consulate in Surabaya last November.

“We must also maintain pressure on Western countries like the United States to stop allowing Israel to continue the war with impunity. »

Radityo praised the students’ strategy of using public protests to “keep the issue alive”, but doubted they would have an impact on Western governments.

“The real problem lies in Israel’s intransigent attitude. Even its allies changed their position and called for a cessation of hostilities, but their pleas fell on deaf ears in Tel Aviv.

While many Indonesians are strong supporters of Palestine, not all share the same feelings on the issue.

Willy Harahap, 20, a non-Muslim student at a private university, said that although he prays for peace in Gaza, he would not join any pro-Palestinian rallies anytime soon.

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“The war is taking place thousands of kilometers from Indonesia. Why get upset about that? We have our own problems at home, with discrimination against minority groups and intolerance.”

He cited an incident on Sunday in which a group of Catholic students in southern Tangerang, just outside the capital Jakarta, were attacked by local residents because they were praying in their own homes. Three students reportedly suffered machete cuts during the raid.

“We have our own conflicts to resolve here. Why don’t we take care of our own problems first?

At the same time, the boycott of products affiliated with Israel remains strongly supported by Indonesians, which would have had a considerable economic impact on the targeted companies.

YUM, the parent company of the Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC brands, reported in early May a global decline in sales ranging from two to seven percent. Pizza Hut Indonesia also claimed to have lost sales due to the December boycott, but did not say to what extent.

Unilever, a producer of consumer goods and beauty products, announced in February that its sales in Indonesia had fallen 17 percent due to the boycott.

“I am fully convinced that my efforts contributed to this result,” said Puspa Retnowati, a 43-year-old housewife from Surabaya who supports the boycotts. She said she would continue to refrain from purchasing the targeted products until the day Palestine achieves independence.

Palestinian student Sondos Jehad Shnewra delivers her poem during the rally at Muhammadiyah University in Surabaya on March 7. Photo: Johannes Nugroho

Tuesday’s gathering on the campus of Muhammadiyah University in Surabaya was filled with emotion when several Palestinian students, who were attending the school on scholarships from the Indonesian government, took the stage to read poems describing the desolation of Gaza.

Palestinian Sondos student Jehad Shnewra said she personally witnessed six instances of Israeli brutality against Palestinians growing up.

“It’s a real genocide what Israeli soldiers are doing in Gaza right now, while Palestinians are being forced to leave their land.”

She said she was grateful to her fellow Indonesians and university professors who organized the rally.

“I hope that Palestine will soon become independent and then Indonesian Muslims will be able to pray freely at Al Aqsa (mosque) with us.”

According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, at least 34,844 people have been killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza since the start of the latest conflict, with most of the victims being civilians, including large numbers of women and children.