Gaza protesters defy Columbia deadline to leave campus

Gaza protesters defy Columbia deadline to leave campus
Gaza protesters defy Columbia deadline to leave campus

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Demonstrators at Columbia University picket around the encampment established in support of Palestinians in Gaza on April 29, 2024 in New York City. — AFP pic

NEW YORK, April 30 — Student demonstrators at Columbia University, the epicenter of pro-Palestinian protests that have erupted at US colleges, said yesterday they would not budge until the school met their demands, defying an ultimatum to disperse or face suspension.

More than 350 people were arrested at campuses across the United States over the weekend, with the White House calling on the demonstrations to remain peaceful.

Authorities at Columbia in New York issued a statement yesterday saying the protestors’ encampment must be cleared, and rejecting a call to divest financial holdings linked to Israel — a key demand of demonstrators.

But student protestors pushed back, vowing to defend their camp on the prestigious institution’s main lawn, despite threats of suspensions and disciplinary action after a 2:00pm (1800 GMT) deadline.

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“These repulsive scare tactics mean nothing compared to the deaths of over 34,000 Palestinians,” said a statement, read out by a student at a press conference.

“We will not move until Columbia meets our demands or... are moved by force,” said the student, who would not give his name.

Protests against the Gaza war, with its high Palestinian civilian death toll, have posed a challenge to university administrators trying to balance free speech rights with complaints that the rallies have veered into anti-Semitism and hate.

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For almost two weeks now a wave of protests against Israel’s war in Gaza has swept through US university campuses from coast to coast, after around 100 protesters were arrested at Columbia on April 18.

Footage of police in riot gear summoned at various colleges to break up rallies have been viewed around the world, recalling the protest movement that erupted during the Vietnam War.

At Virginia Tech, more than 90 people were arrested late Sunday after refusing an order from campus police to disperse, while at the University of Texas state troopers in riot gear clashed yesterday with protestors who attempted to set up an unauthorized encampment on the campus.

“No encampments will be allowed,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on social media.

“Instead, arrests are being made,” he added.

Talks break down

Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, in her statement announcing talks had broken down, said that “many of our Jewish students, and other students as well, have found the atmosphere intolerable in recent weeks.

“Many have left campus, and that is a tragedy.”

“Anti-Semitic language and actions are unacceptable and calls for violence are simply abhorrent,” she said.

Protest organisers deny accusations of anti-Semitism, arguing that their actions are aimed at the Israeli government and its prosecution of the conflict in Gaza.

They also insist some incidents have been engineered by non-student agitators.

With the school year wrapping up, administrators are also pointing to the need to maintain order on campus for exam studies.

“One group’s rights to express their views cannot come at the expense of another group’s right to speak, teach and learn,” Shafik said.

One graduate student protester, who asked to be identified only as “Z,” said: “It’s finals week, everyone is still working on their finals, I still have finals to do.”

“But at the end of the day, school is temporary,” the protester told AFP.

President Joe Biden’s White House has also attempted to walk a fine line of defending the right to protest while condemning reported acts of anti-Semitism.

“We get that it is a painful moment that Americans are dealing with, and free expression has to be done within the law,” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said yesterday.

However, Biden’s Republican opponents have seized on the issue, casting the protests as anti-Semitic and threatening to pull federal funding if they aren’t stopped.

“What continues to transpire at Columbia is an utter disgrace. The campus is being overrun by anti-Semitic students and faculty alike,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said Monday on X, reiterating his call for Shafik to resign.

The Gaza war started when Hamas militants staged an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that left around 1,170 people dead, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Palestinian militants also took roughly 250 people hostage. Israel estimates 129 remain in Gaza, including 34 the military says are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed almost 34,500 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry. — AFP

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