Police clear Columbia University student camp calling for Israeli divestment

More than 100 students arrested after groups set up camp on New York City campus lawn for more than a day

New York Police officers arrest a protester who took part in an encampment on the Columbia University campus on Thursday. AP
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Columbia University on Thursday asked New York City police to clear a protest camp of students calling on the university to divest from Israeli companies and to cut ties with Israeli institutions.

The operation resulted in more than 100 arrests.

A group of students set up tents on one of Columbia University's lawns early on Wednesday to form what they called a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment”.

Overnight, protesters gathered outside the university's main gates to support the campus occupation after the school limited access to its grounds.

“I had to make a decision that I hoped would never be necessary,” Columbia president Nemat Shafik said in a statement, emphasising that safety and learning is her “top priority”.

“Out of an abundance of concern for the safety of Columbia’s campus, I authorised the New York Police Department to begin clearing the encampment from the south lawn of Morningside campus that had been set up by students in the early hours of Wednesday morning.”

Social media posts from the encampment on Thursday afternoon show NYPD officers arresting students involved.

Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia Jewish Voice for Peace, two organisations recently suspended by the university, have posted on social media about their involvement in the camp.

The organisations are also a part of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition, which reportedly includes more than 100 university student groups.

The CUAD's demands posted on its website include Columbia's financial divestment from Israel and occupied Palestinian territories, and an academic boycott of programmes with Israeli universities.

It also calls for Columbia to “release a public statement calling for an immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza, denouncing the ongoing genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people, and call on government officials to do so too".

The National has contacted the organisations involved in the encampment.

Columbia University's school newspaper, the Spectator, reported that police warned protesters that they could be “arrested and charged with trespassing” if they did not disperse.

Some students posted on X sharing the news that they had been suspended.

Isra Hirsi, daughter of progressive Democrat Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, posted on social media that she was suspended from Columbia's Barnard College due to her role in the encampment protest.

A university representative confirmed the suspensions to The National: “Students who are participating in the unauthorised encampment are suspended.

"We are continuing to identify them and will be sending out formal notifications.”

It was not immediately clear how many students had been suspended.

“Students have a right to free speech, but do not have a right to violate university policies and disrupt learning on campus,” Mayor Eric Adams said at a media briefing.

The NYPD said there were 108 arrests made, making for what the Spectator newspaper reported as the largest mass arrest at the university since anti-Vietnam War protests in 1968.

Shortly after the NYPD cleared the encampment, social media posts on Thursday evening showed students gathered on another campus lawn to continue the pro-Palestinian protest, and in support of those people arrested.

Academic and third-party presidential candidate Cornel West also joined the new crowd.

The New York City Legal Union denounced how the university handled the protest.

"Columbia’s move to send in police so quickly after these demonstrations began chills student expression, marks a significant departure from past practice, and raises questions about the university’s disparate treatment of students based on their views," the organisation said in a statement.

Thursday's move to clear the campus occupation comes a day after Ms Shafik testified in Washington about how Columbia has handled reports of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia incidents on campus.

US universities have seen a rise of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel protests, creating conflicts among students and professors, since Israel launched military operations on Gaza after a deadly Hamas attack in October last year killed 1,200 people.

About 34,000 people in Gaza have been killed, according to local officials in the enclave.

Updated: April 19, 2024, 12:18 AM