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Mass arrests made as US campus protests over Gaza spread

Protests over the war in Gaza have taken hold at a handful of elite US universities as officials scramble to defuse demonstrations.

Police moved to break up an encampment at New York University (NYU) on Monday night, making a number of arrests.

Dozens of students were arrested at Yale earlier in the day, while Columbia University cancelled in-person classes.

The wave of demos has been marred by alleged antisemitic incidents, which have been condemned by the White House.

Demonstrations and heated debates about the Israel-Gaza war and free speech have rocked US campuses since the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, which prompted Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

In the US, students on both sides say there has been a rise in both antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents since then.

When asked about the rallies on Monday, President Joe Biden said he condemned both “the antisemitic protests” as well as “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians”.

The protest movement was thrust into the spotlight last week after New York City police were called out to Columbia’s campus and arrested more than 100 demonstrators.

Rallies have spread since then. In addition to NYU and Yale, encampments have been set up at the University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Michigan, Emerson College and Tufts.

Like their peers, the NYU protesters are calling on their institution to disclose and divest its “finances and endowments from weapons manufacturers and companies with an interest in the Israeli occupation”.

One student, Alejandro Tanon told the AFP news agency that the US was at a “critical moment”, likening the protests to historic demonstrations over the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa.

“We stand with Palestine and we stand with the liberation of all people,” one protester told the BBC’s US partner CBS News.

Meanwhile, another who stood across the street with an Israeli flag said: “There’s one side here and one side of history. This is the right side here.”

NYU said 50 people were involved in the main encampment outside the business school. It described the protest as unauthorised, saying this disrupted classes.

Police started arresting them on Monday evening; they have not provided a number.

Hours before, nearly 50 protesters were arrested at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Authorities said hundreds of people had gathered; many of them refusing requests to leave.

On Monday, Columbia head Dr Minouche Shafik asked students to stay away from campus, citing incidents of “intimidating and harassing behaviour”. Classes were held virtually instead.

Dr Shafik said tensions on campus had been “exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas”.

Authorities at NYU also suggested protesters without links to the university had turned up.

They reported antisemitic incidents on Monday – the first day of the Jewish holiday of Passover – becoming just the latest institution to do so.

Recent videos posted online have appeared to show some protesters near Columbia expressing support for the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel.

Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Manning, who toured Columbia on Monday, said she had seen protesters there calling for Israel’s destruction.

The Hasidic group Chabad at Columbia University said Jewish students had been screamed at and subjected to harmful rhetoric. Meanwhile, a rabbi affiliated with the university reportedly warned Jewish students to avoid campus until the situation improved.

Members of the protest groups who have given public statements have denied antisemitism, arguing that their criticism is reserved for the Israeli state and its supporters.

Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine said they “firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry” and criticised “inflammatory individuals who do not represent us”.

Getty Images Image of two female protesters holding up a signGetty Images
In a statement, Dr Shafik said a working group had been created at Columbia to “try to bring this crisis to a resolution”.

Dr Shafik last week testified before a congressional committee on Columbia’s efforts to tackle antisemitism.

She faces pressure from different sides, including a possible censure resolution from the university senate over the mass arrests on campus that happened the day after her testimony.

A group of federal lawmakers, led by New York Republican Representative Elise Stefanik, has also signed a letter asking for her to step down for a “failure to put an end to the mob of students and agitators calling for acts of terrorism against Jewish students”. Democrats, too, have called on Columbia to ensure that Jewish students feel safe and welcome.

The university’s own staff have been critical of the handling of the protest. In a statement sent to the BBC on Monday evening, Columbia’s own Knight First Amendment Institute called for an “urgent course correction” and said outside authorities should only be involved when there was a “clear and present danger” to people or property.

US student’s speech cancelled in Israel-Gaza hate row

The attack on southern Israel on 7 October saw about 1,200 Israelis and foreigners – mostly civilians – killed and 253 others taken back to Gaza as hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel responded by launching its most intense ever war in Gaza, with the aims of destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages. More than 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza – most of them children and women – have been killed in the conflict, the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry says.

The majority of Americans now disapprove of Israeli action in Gaza, a recent Gallup survey suggested, after a shift in opinions since the outbreak of the present conflict.

bbc

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