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Why Gaza protests are gripping US campuses and what it could mean for the rest of the world



Traditionally a strong supporter of Israel, Mr Biden has faced criticism from fellow Democrats over unwavering US support for its ally in the wake of civilian deaths in Gaza.

In late April 2024, Mr Biden condemned “anti-Semitic protests” and “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians”.

He has also indicated that dealing with the protesters is a matter for each university’s leadership.

On Wednesday, Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, said some demonstrations had crossed the line from free speech to unlawful behaviour.

“Forcibly taking over a building is not peaceful,” she said. “It’s just not.”

At a campaign event in Wisconsin the same day, Mr Trump called the protesters “raging lunatics and Hamas sympathisers” and accused Mr Biden of being “definitely against Israel”.

What happened at Columbia University and why does it matter?

A band of keffiyeh-clad students pitched their tents on the front lawn of Columbia’s New York campus in mid-April and refused to leave.

They claimed to be exercising their protected speech rights under the First Amendment which states there shall be no law “abridging the freedom of speech” or “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”.

The university authorities initially allowed the demonstration despite criticism from Jewish groups who said the protest had provoked anti-Semitism on campus.

However, after the protesters stormed a building on Tuesday April 30 and refused to let staff leave, the university said it was left with no choice but to call in the New York Police Department (NYPD) to forcibly remove them.

Images of the police clashing with demonstrators made headlines across America.

Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg said 282 arrests had been made at Columbia and nearby City University of New York campuses.

Universities across the world will be informed by Columbia’s experience

By Tony Diver, US Editor

The decision to by Columbia University to call in the police has secured the protest’s place in history alongside demonstrations over the Vietnam War and South African apartheid.

The protesters got what they wanted in the form of endless media coverage of their antics and a major row over the heavy-handedness of the NYPD, which had already begun as police stormed the building on Tuesday night.

Claims circulated online that the police used tear gas have been denied. One sympathetic professor, posting a video from his window, cried: “These were peaceful protests!”

What is clear is that Baroness Shafik, Columbia’s president, had been left in an impossible position. With dozens of recent examples of anti-Semitism, pressure from the White House and a looming graduation ceremony planned on May 15, she could not allow the situation to continue.

But by acting to remove them, she has added fuel to the protesters’ argument that Columbia is an authoritarian institution that sympathises with what they claim is a genocide-supporting state.

As the dust clears and police officers take up residence to prevent the demonstrators returning, other universities will be watching.

Columbia’s experience may well be instructive to the dozens of institutions in the US, Britain and France that are already facing similar student demands and tactics.

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