Gaza protests: Columbia on edge as talks collapse

Protest organizers deny accusations of anti-Semitism, arguing that their actions are aimed at the Israeli government


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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Published: Mon 29 Apr 2024, 8:06 PM

Tensions rose Monday at Columbia University, the epicentre of pro-Palestinian protests across US campuses, with college authorities and student demonstrators in open conflict after negotiations broke down.

Across the United States, police arrested around 275 people on four separate campuses over the weekend, with the White House calling on the growing protests in recent weeks to remain peaceful.

Columbia University, which said many Jewish students have left its campus, on Monday demanded that the protestors' encampment must be cleared, and added that Columbia would not divest financial holdings linked to Israel -- a key demand of demonstrators.

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Students pushed back, vowing to defend their camp on the New York institution's main lawn, despite the threat of suspensions and disciplinary action from the college.

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

"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," said Columbia University president Minouche Shafik in a statement announcing talks had broken down.

"Anti-Semitic language and actions are unacceptable and calls for violence are simply abhorrent."

"One group's rights to express their views cannot come at the expense of another group's right to speak, teach, and learn."

Protest organizers 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 the more threatening incidents have been engineered by non-student agitators.

One student protest group called for demonstrators to gather on Monday "to protect the encampment" ahead of a reported 2pm deadline to clear the tents or face disciplinary action.

The university had been in talks since last week with protest leaders over clearing the encampment but "regretfully we were not able to come to an agreement," said Shafik.

The university said it offered to speed up a review of student proposals for divestment and to improve transparency.

Israel's retaliatory offensive, in response to a Hamas attack, has killed almost 34,500 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to Gaza's health ministry.

The attack on Israel on October 7 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.


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