IDF officer who led Syrian aid effort protested at UK universities

An Israeli military veteran who helped oversee a humanitarian aid effort benefiting victims of the Syrian conflict was protested while speaking at two British universities this week.

By Shiri Moshe, The Algemeiner

As part of Operation Good Neighbor, Lt. Col. (Res.) Eyal Dror established and led a unit that brought in more than 4,000 wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals, secured treatment for hundreds of chronically-ill children, oversaw the evacuation of the White Helmets rescue group, and delivered basic necessities including food, clothing, and diesel fuel to civilians.

Though his ongoing tour of the United Kingdom has attracted considerable interest, he has also faced demonstrators along the way, including while speaking at King’s College London (KCL) on Monday and the University of Warwick on Tuesday.

Albert Tamman, a third-year student and president of the KCL Israel Society, which hosted the sold-out talk with Dror, said some 40 protesters had gathered outside the building before attendees arrived, chanting slogans including “Zionism is a crime” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The phrase is often used by Palestinian nationalists to call for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish nation-state.

David Collier, a Jewish blogger and activist, said he was attacked while documenting the demonstration, which was spearheaded by the KCL Action Palestine Society.

“I emerged relatively unscathed, but a demonstrator clearly intended to deprive me of my camera,” Collier wrote in an account published on Tuesday. “He rushed at me and tried to grab it and run. The force of the attack had left me with slight friction burns on my hands and a broken tripod.”

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Physical Confrontation

Collier also witnessed a protester physically confront Harry Markham, a national director of the Zionist group Herut UK who showed up to the demonstration with an Israeli flag.

“Within the first 10 minutes … that flag [pole] was literally taken apart by someone behind me who grabbed me and grabbed my friend next to me,” Markham told The Algemeiner. He recalled contacting the police after seeing that “David was jumped on and that someone tried to break his tripod in half.”

KCL Action Palestine Society, which did not respond to The Algemeiner‘s request for comment, issued a joint statement along with other Palestine Societies in the UK accusing Dror of attempting “to promote the Israeli state, and in particular its armed forces … as a benevolent humanitarian.”

“Israel’s behaviour towards Syria has been anything but benevolent,” the statement charged, before accusing Israel of pursuing “illegal military practices” against Palestinians since 1948.

Tamman, president of the KCL Israel Society, said the protesters caused a delay as they tried to physically block the entrance to the building and shouted aggressively anti-Zionist slogans. “As the talk commenced, chants could be heard from outside the building, with slurs such as ‘F*** Israel’ and ‘Zionism is a crime,’” he told The Algemeiner on Tuesday. “Bear in mind that these shouts were coming from six floors below.”

Elisha, a third-year student and vice president of the KCL Israel Society, who requested that his last name be withheld, explained that a handful of protesters gained entry to the building as Dror was speaking, “and proceeded to chant and bang on doors before being escorted off campus.”

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Tamman, who saw these protesters chastising some audience members for their attendance, nonetheless said he believed the event was “a huge success.”

“We had approximately 70 attendees, most of them students from various London universities, as well as a few KCL staff members,” he said. “We achieved our goal of promoting and showcasing an unknown aspect of Israel to other students.”

Shutting Down Free Speech?

Protests followed Dror as he made his way to the University of Warwick on Tuesday, where Warwick Friends of Palestine, Warwick Pride, and the University of Warwick Labour Society, among others, banded to denounce his talk as “nothing short of Israeli propaganda,” and to criticize the Israel education and advocacy organization StandWithUs, which sponsored Dror’s tour.

According to video recordings and testimony by attendees, about 20 protesters stood up shortly after Dror began addressing around 100 audience members, loudly chanting while holding signs and Palestinian flags.

“They start to wave flags and shout and make a lot of noise, so I couldn’t continue speaking,” Dror told The Algemeiner on Tuesday. “I stepped aside, and several Muslim students — from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — came over and started to speak with me [about Operation Good Neighbor], while they were shouting.”

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After unsuccessfully asking the protesters to desist, organizers said they and campus security decided to move the event to a second room, where some 50 people had gathered. As the audience members transitioned between the rooms, protesters were recorded chanting, “Shame on you.”

“We fully respect the right of individuals and groups to protest,” Angus Taylor, a second-year student at Warwick and president of Warwick Jewish Israeli Society, told The Algemeiner on Tuesday. “We were particularly saddened that they tried to terminate the event, but were really pleased that we got to reconvene in a different room to hear Lt. Col. Dror’s incredible story.”

Dror himself stressed that he was in the UK in a private capacity, not as a representative of the Israeli military, from which he retired in September after 24 years of service.

“I left my home, my family, to reach the UK with a message of hope, collaboration, and mutual help and understanding,” he said.

Operation Good Neighbor, which ended in 2018 when the Syrian government recaptured territory along the Israeli border, was a clear example of “how we can work together without religious differences.”

“The most important thing is that the students heard the story, heard the message,” he added. “So there was some noise, there was some balagan, but it doesn’t matter at all.”

Dror, who hopes to come to the United States for a speaking tour in February, said he remains committed to raising awareness of all that his unit achieved during their humanitarian mission.

“It’s the best thing I did in life,” he quipped, “after marrying my wife.”