While protests against the ongoing Israel-Hamas war have been occurring since the initial attack by Hamas took place in October 2023, a definite increase in pro-Palestine protests has been observed in recent months. Despite strong international backlash following Israel’s recent airstrikes on Rafah and increased solidarity for Palestine by governments globally, the protests are expected to continue unabated, as many protesters see such actions as ‘empty gestures.’ If anything, the protests have increased in momentum. The ongoing protests have also become more disruptive, employing increasingly polarising rhetoric, and resulting more frequently in law enforcement action. Speculation surrounding the legitimacy of these protests has also emerged, with rogue provocateurs reportedly attempting to hijack legitimate demonstrations for their own purposes, possibly to inspire more violence and distrust. Other reports suggest that the protests are in fact efforts by Russia and China to manipulate public opinion and stoke division.

From civilised protests to riots – escalation of protests at universities and in cities

Mid-April 2024 saw an eruption of pro-Palestine protests across numerous university campuses in the United States and internationally, which still continue today. The protests have been described as the most significant student movement since the anti-Vietnam war protests of the late 1960s, which culminated in violent clashes with the national guard at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The current protesters are demanding a range of actions from a ceasefire in Gaza, to the divestment of university assets in companies they claim are involved with the Israeli military, as well as an end to US military assistance to Israel.

The protests have led to significant disruptions, including the cancellation of in-person teaching and graduation ceremonies, and an increase in antisemitism and hate crime. Some universities have also called in police to clear encampments or to deal with protesters who have barricaded themselves in university buildings and damaged property. Outside of universities, city-wide protests also continue globally, with London a regular spot. The protest marches and associated roadblocks in London have caused regular traffic disruptions, with some activists also causing damage to buildings by spraying or throwing paint, including the building of the Ministry of Defence in central London.

Critics of the pro-Palestine protests include prominent Republicans in the US Congress, who accuse the protestors of fomenting antisemitism and harassment of Jewish students. The perception that pro-Palestine protests are allowed to disrupt the everyday functioning of universities is likely to lead to increased polarisation, with counter-protesters at the US universities having been seen waving banners supporting former President Donald Trump and chanting against pro-Palestinian protesters.

Reports and videos have also emerged of pro-Palestine protesters not respecting the right of counter-protesters to demonstrate. One such video depicts Jewish activists being barred from the areas of pro-Palestine protests or being barred from areas of university campuses. In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently summoned representatives of universities to a meeting after what officials described as an ‘unacceptable rise of antisemitism’ on campuses. A recent YouGov poll in the UK shows that although respondents were divided on how the police has been handling the protests, most people tend to disapprove of pro-Palestinian marches in London. UK officials also fear that protesters could be resorting to and are planning increasingly disruptive tactics, some of them potentially endangering lives. Officials are warning that some of these groups and the actions they are discussing may put lives at risk for the sake of their political cause, and that such plans are nearing the threshold of terrorism. Arrests have taken place over alleged terror-related offences committed either online or during the pro-Palestinian marches, with the conflict in Gaza and the protests triggered by it, alongside a barrage of fake news, reportedly causing increased radicalisation that is more sustained than ever before.

Imposters and influencers – who is really behind the protests?

Some protests have reportedly involved individuals from outside the universities, with several universities blaming the antisemitic rhetoric and disturbances on ‘professional agitators’ unaffiliated with the universities or students. Student leaders have also blamed ‘isolated incidents of antisemitism and harassment,’ on outsiders they say are seeking to hijack their movement. For example, the University of Texas stated that of the 79 individuals arrested on its campus in April 2024, 45 had no affiliation with the university.

Investigations are ongoing to determine whether any protests receive support, guidance, or money from foreign countries and whether their leaders are connected to terrorist organisations. A recent NBC News investigation into the organisations behind the demonstrations in the US did not find any clear evidence linking the protests to Hamas or any foreign government, however it did find an extensive support network and at least one organisation, called Samidoun, collaborating with the protesters. Samidoun, a non-profit group from Canada, has been banned in some countries for allegedly working with Hamas. The organisation is reportedly comprised of current and former members of the designated terrorist organisation, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

On the other hand, an analysis by Politico found that some of the groups organising pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the US have received financial support from Democrat philanthropists who are, perhaps surprisingly, simultaneously promoting the re-election of President Joe Biden. One of these groups, the Jewish Voice for Peace, has received financial backing from George Soros’ Tides Foundation, and whilst leading disruptive protests against Joe Biden, they have resorted to labelling the President as a ‘genocide supporter’ at his New York fundraiser in March. Although the missions of many of these non-profit organisations are unrelated to foreign policy, several have become involved in the pro-Palestine protests as the conflict in the Middle East increasingly takes centre stage in the US political debates.

The protests have also become a ‘battlefield’ for the manipulation of society. With social media becoming a primary platform for news and information, it has become a preferred field for propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Increased polarisation in society, driven by extremist rhetoric and ideology, combined with little awareness among the general public that they might be deliberately misled on social media, is causing concern among authorities. In fact, research by Cyabra, a company specialising in disrupting disinformation online, has found that one out of four of pro-Palestinian social media accounts talking about the Israel-Hamas war were fake.

An analysis of some of the leading pro-Palestinian social media influencers in the UK, whose popularity has peaked following the October 2023 Hamas terror attack, revealed that a significant number of their followers are also fake. A boost provided by such fake profiles and bots could disproportionately amplify pro-Palestinian voices. For example, some of the leading pro-Palestinian voices on social media have reportedly referred to Israeli soldiers as ‘genocidal sexual perverts’ and ‘baby killers,’ claiming that Israel is a ‘safe haven for paedophiles,’ and that the Israel Defence Forces are comparable to the terrorist group ISIS. Some researchers claim that Russia and China, and to some extent Iran, are likely to be manipulating public opinion by promoting such pro-Palestinian influencers and creating news articles surrounding the protests. One such example is the ongoing Russian Doppelganger influence operation, which has impersonated various legitimate news outlets and accumulated hundreds of social media bot accounts to spread messages related to the ongoing protests – with one such message claiming the protests are financed by Rockefeller and Soros foundations.

Russia’s aim at promoting a pro-Palestinian narrative is underpinned firstly by the county’s need to divert attention away from their invasion of Ukraine – and the international outrage over the war in Gaza provides them with a perfect event that people can focus on. The second aim of both Russia and China is to stoke divisions in society. Russia and China have over the years been increasingly involved in manipulating public opinion abroad, driven by a desire to undermine what they see as a US-dominated world. The aim of such influence campaigns is to weaken Western democracies and shape global narratives, and ultimately create an environment that supports their own interests.

Wider implications of protests on elections

While many of the ongoing protests are attended by individuals genuinely interested in an end to the fighting in Gaza, financial support, and influence from others with a hidden agenda should not be underestimated. Such international protests can have a direct impact on elections globally, with the divisiveness of the issue likely to have an impact on the upcoming US presidential election.

The current Biden administration is arguably less supportive of Israel when compared to previous US administrations, with the US increasingly criticising the continued civilian casualties in Gaza. Nonetheless, the government continues to supply Israel with defensive weapons, with protestors mockingly calling President Joe Biden ‘Genocide Joe’ due to these actions. Some organisations behind the protests in the US have also publicly claimed that their aim is to get Democratic voters to boycott Biden for his support of Israel. As such, the protests are likely to complicate Biden’s efforts to gain support, especially from the US Muslim population and the young people who voted overwhelmingly for him in 2020. This is already evident from the February 2024 Democratic primary in Michigan, with a large Muslim population – where over 100,000 voters marked ‘uncommitted’ on their ballots, compared to under 1,300 voters doing the same in 2020.

Attempts at foreign influence in regard to these protests should also not be underestimated. Countries like Russia and China have historically used divisive issues to push certain narratives and sway public opinion, especially in the run-up to an election, as was seen in the 2020 US Presidential Election. The ongoing Russian Doppelganger disinformation operation has shown its adaptability, with themes regularly changing to current geopolitical issues, including the ongoing university pro-Palestine protests. Such narratives are expected to continue alongside the ongoing protests, with these narratives having the potential to influence certain voters when it comes to election season.