Columbia begins suspending Gaza protesters as US universities re-evaluate graduation plans

About 275 people were arrested at the weekend at various campuses across the country

Student protesters at their camp on the Columbia University campus in New York. AP
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Columbia University in New York began suspending students on Monday after they defied an ultimatum to leave an encampment built in protest against the Israel-Gaza war, as schools across the US re-evaluated plans for spring graduation amid demonstrations.

Columbia president Nemat Shafik said on Monday that talks with pro-Palestinian protesters who began camping on the Ivy League campus had failed, and urged them to disperse or face suspension.

Ms Shafik, who was questioned over on-campus anti-Semitism in a congressional hearing this month, said in a statement that the camp broke university rules.

She said Columbia would not divest assets that support Israel's military, a key demand of the protesters, but the school has offered to invest in health and education in Gaza, and to improve transparency over direct investment holdings.

Students and faculty members then gathered on campus in the afternoon to show support for campers who declared they were not leaving after a 2pm deadline.

Suspensions had begun for those taking part, Columbia's spokesman Ben Chang said.

The UN independent special rapporteur for human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, posted on X that it was "disturbing" to learn of disciplinary action against protesting students.

"This is a clear violation of their right to peaceful assembly," Ms Lawlor said.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden "has always been clear that while Americans have a right to peacefully protest – something we believe here in this administration – he stands squarely against any rhetoric, violent rhetoric, any hate threats, physical intimidation and hate speech".

The number of arrests nationwide approached 900 after New York police first removed a pro-Palestinian protest camp at Columbia University and arrested more than 100 demonstrators on April 18.

Months of turmoil have removed campus presidents, bitterly divided students, upset powerful past students, prompted investigations by Congress and brought accusations of anti-Semitism and concern about suppression of free speech for pro-Palestinian voices.

At George Washington University in the US capital on Monday, students filled the main lawn with tents and set up tables with food and drink to help sustain the dozens of people who have been camping out since Thursday.

The camp now spills on to H Street, where two police vehicles blocked both ends.

"This is a controlled, peaceful movement with a very specific set of demands and we will not leave until those demands are met," Reem Lebabdi, a student designated by her peers to speak with the media, told The National.

Ms Lebabdi said protesters are calling on the university to sever all academic partnerships with Israeli institutions and provide transparency to ensure investments do not "materially" support Israel.

Despite the coming end of the school year, she said demonstrators have no plans to let up.

The site has attracted passers-by for days, including Wasim, a Syrian American who lives just outside Washington. He said he was amazed by how organised the protesters are.

"I'm fascinated by what I've seen and heard," he told The National. "It is unbelievable how convinced they are that this time it's different and unlike any time before."

Wasim said he had given up hope for Palestine during his decades in the US, but that these protesters have helped to change that.

"I feel these young people have stepped up and said, 'No, we're actually going to put our voice out there and we're going to put everything at risk and we don't care, we want to make a difference, we want change'," he said.

"And that's what's giving me a little more hope for the future."

Pro-Palestine protests at US universities – in pictures

At the University of Southern California, where undergraduates pay almost $100,000 a year, two commencement speakers withdrew and urged others to boycott events after the school scrapped its main ceremony, which was scheduled for May 10.

This came after the university decided to cancel a speech by Muslim valedictorian Asna Tabassum, who had been criticised by pro-Israel student groups over her pro-Palestine posts on social media.

University officials cited the unmanageable security situation after police arrested more than 90 protesters last week.

Californian Governor Gavin Newsom summoned leaders of the University of California system last week to discuss graduation security at its 10 campuses, including UC Berkeley and UCLA, where protests are growing.

And at Morehouse College in Atlanta, students and faculty upset over US support for Israel criticised the historically black university’s president for inviting Mr Biden to deliver the commencement address.

Although the weekend was largely quiet on most campuses, small groups of protesters and counter-protesters came to physical and verbal blows at the University of California, Los Angeles, on Sunday.

About 275 people were arrested on Saturday at various campuses including Indiana University at Bloomington, Arizona State University and Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, AP reported.

More arrests were reported at University of Texas in Austin on Monday, while Columbia has reportedly told protest organisers that it would not call city police again.

Ms Jean-Pierre was asked about the choice to use police force in response to the protests.

"These institutions, some of them are private, some of them are public, and it is up to their leadership, university leadership and colleges to make that decision," she said.

"Universities and colleges make their own decision. It is up to their leadership and we're not going to weigh in from here."

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein said in a social media post that she and two of her campaign managers were among those arrested in St Louis at the weekend.

"We are basically in a death watch right now for two million people," Ms Stein told The National in a previous interview at a protest camp in New York.

"So we greatly appreciate what the students are doing to insist that we, as Americans, have the right to stand up and to stop this genocide from rolling forward."

The protest movement continues to spread internationally, with police in Paris moving to clear dozens of protesters who had set up a protest camp in a courtyard at Sorbonne University on Monday.

The demonstration took place three days after protests at the capital's elite Sciences Po university.

“We have every reason, like in Yale, in Columbia, in Sciences Po … to condemn what we can see is happening,” a student, Leonard, told Reuters at a rally outside the gates of the Sorbonne.

Pro-Palestine protests sweep across US campuses – video

Pro-Palestine protests sweep across US campuses

Pro-Palestine protests sweep across US campuses
Updated: April 30, 2024, 8:22 AM