The student-led protests demanding universities cut financial and academic ties to Israel have led to unprecedented support for the Palestinian liberation struggle, and have propelled the divestment debate into the mainstream, according to the co-founder of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights defender who helped launch the BDS movement almost 20 years ago, said the students’ solidarity had helped educate the world about the Israeli occupation and “apartheid” while exposing the hypocrisy – and repressive tendencies – of some of the world’s most prestigious universities with investments in corporations which put “profit before people and the planet”.

“The current student-led uprising on campuses in the US, Europe and globally is a sign of Palestine’s South Africa moment, as the support for ending complicity in Israel’s genocide and underlying 76-year-old regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid is reaching a tipping point in the struggle for Palestinian liberation … the ‘B’ and ‘D’ in BDS have gone much more mainstream than before.

“This student uprising has been a crash course on Palestine for millions in the west in particular, undoing many years of silencing and erasing Palestinian voices, Palestinian history, Palestinian culture [and] aspirations … it gives us hope and inspiration in these dark times of Israel’s ongoing genocide against 2.3 million Palestinians in the occupied and besieged Gaza Strip,” Barghouti told the Guardian as Israel continued to defy a ruling by the UN’s top court to stop its assault on Rafah – the southern city of Gaza where Palestinian refugees have painted messages of gratitude to the students on their tents.

Palestinians in Rafah express their gratitude to students who set up encampments across the US on 27 April. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Across the world, students have been demanding an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, as well as greater transparency and divestment from defense-related companies and weapons manufacturers arming the Israeli military. Since Israel started its retaliation over the Hamas attack on 7 October which left almost 1,200 dead, it has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians with thousands more missing under the rubble and presumed dead.

The student movement at Columbia University is among those also demanding the college disclose and offload investments in a broad set of companies with ties to Israel including Google, Amazon and Airbnb. Some campus movements also want to cut partnerships with Israeli academic institutions that operate in occupied Palestinian territories or support/sustain what human rights groups describe as the state’s apartheid policies and the current war on Gaza.

Barghouti was a student at Columbia University in the 1980s, when anti-apartheid protesters blockaded Hamilton Hall for three weeks as part of a campaign to force the Ivy league school to divest from South Africa. Launched in 2005, the BDS movement is inspired by the South African anti-apartheid struggle and US civil rights movement.

The recent pro-Palestinian student protests grew after the president of Columbia University authorized New York City police to forcibly evict the student encampment in April, which ended with more than a hundred arrests and several students suspended.

With few exceptions, university administrators have called in police, who have been accused of using excessive force against students and faculty.

“The violence deployed by police to repress the student-led protests has been shocking, yet indicative of the power of these mobilizations. Such grave violations of freedom of expression, academic freedom and the civic right to peacefully protest attest to the fertile potential of this uprising to pave the way to cutting ties of complicity with Israel’s regime,” said Barghouti.

Over the past few weeks, BDS says dozens of universities across the world have committed to preliminary steps towards at least discussing divestment from companies and/or cutting ties with Israeli universities which protesters say are “complicit”. Many encampments have been shut down due to the summer vacations, but students and a growing number of faculty, staff and alumni have protested graduation ceremonies and pledged to not back down.

The Israeli government has long rejected allegations of apartheid – and the mounting allegations of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza by South Africa at the international court of justice, UN experts and human rights groups. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and others including Republicans in the US, have condemned the campus protests as “antisemitic’ – an allegation widely rejected by the students and staff including Jewish participants.

In many cases, the same prestigious universities have also faced mounting pressure from students, faculty and staff, to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry which is driving the climate emergency and has a long track record in funding academic programs and researchers, as part of its strategy to deny and delay meaningful climate action.

Students call on Harvard University to divest from fossil fuels in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 28 March 2017. Photograph: Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Last year, the Palestinian climate minister told the Guardian that the biggest existential threat facing Palestinians before 7 October was the climate crisis, and their ability to mitigate and adapt has long been hampered by Israel’s blockade.

“The struggle to dismantle Israel’s decades-old regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid in Palestine goes hand in hand with global struggles for justice, including climate justice. The catastrophic climate crisis is exacerbated by global inequality and oppression and mainly caused by complicit governments and corporations that put profit before people and the planet,” said Barghouti.

“With Israel monopolizing resources, destroying agricultural land, denying access to water, rising temperatures are exacerbating desertification as well as water and land scarcity, entrenching climate apartheid [in Palestine].”

The first 60 days of the conflict generated more planet-warming emissions than the total annual carbon footprint of 23 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries.

And while the full extent of the environmental devastation is yet unknown, satellite imagery provided to the Guardian in March showed the destruction of as much as 48% of tree cover and farmland. Israel has also destroyed greenhouses, water, sewage and renewable energy infrastructure, while the munitions have left behind “hazardous materials that contaminate the soil and groundwater, posing a significant threat to the ecosystem”.

International legal experts have said Israel is committing domicide – the mass destruction of homes and living conditions to make a territory uninhabitable – and ecocide.

A common mantra by student protesters has been: “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest.” Disclosure is something universities have long sought to avoid, Barghouti says.

A student holds a banner that reads ‘divest now’ during George Washington University’s commencement ceremony in Washington DC on 19 May. Photograph: Carol Guzy/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

After successful student-led campaigns forced major US universities to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, many universities started shifting their investments from direct stock ownership to pre-packaged funds, private equity and private credit. This has made disclosure more difficult and divestment less attainable – by design, according to Barghouti. While it may take time, universities could begin disentangling from such opaque investments and choose to have direct ownership of underlying assets.

Still, the recent student protests have also exposed the lengths academic institutions were willing to go to hide – and quell dissent – over their ties to corporations and other universities involved in human rights violations and environmental harms, said Barghouti.

“Large universities, especially in the US and UK, have become akin to large investment firms, with massive endowments, yet with students, faculty and workers that often do not like to see their institution investing in companies that harm humans and the planet. This tension has with time led to heightened repression, silencing and sophisticated methods of censorship to minimize the influence the [wider university] community may accumulate.”

“This violent and often racist repression aims to achieve two main goals, first, to colonize the minds of the protesting students with despair, to dismiss their inspiring uprising as futile, and second, to distract from the demands of the movement. [But the] creative, fearless and selfless students are amplifying the demands for boycott and divestment like never before, inspiring us greatly and, at a personal level, filling me with a warm sense of deja vu.”

In 1985, after occupying Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, the Black student-led demonstrations morphed into a mass social movement that eventually led the Ivy League college to fully divest from South Africa – the first major US university to do so. This year, police evicted and arrested almost 300 protesters from Hamilton Hall – a day after it was occupied and renamed Hind Hall, in homage to Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian girl killed by the Israeli military in Gaza in January.

Barghouti said: “Everyone who participated in that fateful [1985] protest and thousands like it worldwide will always cherish that we were part of a righteous struggle that triumphed over a seemingly invincible regime of oppression. It always seems impossible until it’s possible.”