Florida poised to ban pro-Palestinian group at universities

State university system is disbanding chapters of a student organisation it says supports Hamas

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at a New Hampshire event this month. AP
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Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’s administration is taking the extraordinary step of ordering state universities to ban a pro-Palestinian student organisation from campuses, saying it illegally backs Hamas militants who attacked Israel earlier this month.

As Israel’s attacks on Gaza have intensified, some university students expressed solidarity with Palestinians, resulting in swift censure from some Jewish academics and even some prospective employers.

But Florida has gone further, saying Students for Justice in Palestine is supporting a “terrorist organisation”.

State university system chancellor Ray Rodrigues wrote to university presidents on Tuesday at Mr DeSantis's urging, directing them to disband chapters of SJP.

He quoted the national group's declaration that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement”.

“It is a felony under Florida law to ‘knowingly provide material support … to a designated foreign terrorist organisation',” Mr Rodrigues said in the letter.

The US State Department designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1997. The European Union and other western countries also consider it a terrorist organisation.

Hamas won 2006 parliamentary elections and in 2007 violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority, dominated by the rival Fatah movement, administers semi-autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Mr DeSantis, who is running for president, has ramped up his pro-Israel stance since the October 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel, which led to pro- and anti-Israel demonstrations around the world and prompted Israel to respond with air strikes. The governor has sent planes to Israel to provide supplies and return Floridians there who want to come back.

He also is supporting a special legislative session to impose new sanctions on Iran, which supports Hamas, and to express support for Israel. So far, no government has presented evidence that Iran was directly involved in carrying out the attacks.

Students for Justice in Palestine has been on US campuses for decades, with frequent protests calling for the liberation of Palestinians and boycotts against Israel. The loosely connected network says it has more than 200 chapters across the United States.

Palestine Legal, a group that provides legal support for pro-Palestinian groups, said the ban on SJP is part of a broader effort by Mr DeSantis to suppress freedom of speech on campuses.

“Florida, particularly under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, has been actively undermining education, freedom of speech and social justice movements, including by banning anti-racist courses and trying to criminalise protests. It is not surprising that this egregious move to silence the student movement for Palestinian rights is being pursued under DeSantis,” it said on Wednesday.

Under Mr DeSantis, Florida has limited how race can be discussed in schools, prohibited state universities from spending money on diversity, equality and inclusion programmes and taken other actions that critics say limit free speech on campus.

SJP has played a central role in a campus movement known as BDS, calling for the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. The national group did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

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Updated: October 26, 2023, 2:49 PM