Columbia suspends students after call to end Gaza camp unheeded

The pro-Palestinian encampment at the Columbia University on April 28, 2024 in New York City (Charly TRIBALLEAU)
The pro-Palestinian encampment at the Columbia University on April 28, 2024 in New York City (Charly TRIBALLEAU)

Student demonstrators at Columbia University, the epicenter of pro-Palestinian protests that have erupted at US colleges, began to be suspended on Monday after defying an ultimatum to disperse.

Authorities at the prestigious university in New York demanded that the protest encampment be cleared by 2:00 pm (1800 GMT) or students would face disciplinary action.

"These repulsive scare tactics mean nothing compared to the deaths of over 34,000 Palestinians," said a statement, read out by a student at a press conference after the deadline.

"We will not move until Columbia meets our demands or... are moved by force," said the student, who would not give his name.

A few hours later, Columbia vice president of communications Ben Chang said the university had "begun suspending students as part of this next phase of our efforts to ensure safety on our campus."

He said the students had been warned they would be "placed on suspension, ineligible to complete the semester or graduate, and will be restricted from all academic, residential, and recreational spaces."

Meanwhile at the University of Texas at Austin, police clashed with protesters and made arrests while dismantling an encampment, adding to the more than 350 people detained across the United States over the weekend.

"No encampments will be allowed," Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on social media Monday afternoon.

"Instead, arrests are being made."

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

For almost two weeks, a wave of protests against Israel's war in Gaza has swept through US university campuses from coast to coast, after around 100 protesters were arrested at Columbia on April 18.

Footage of police in riot gear summoned at various colleges to break up rallies have been viewed around the world, recalling the protest movement that erupted during the Vietnam War.

- Talks break down -

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

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

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 some incidents have been engineered by non-student agitators.

With the school year wrapping up, administrators are also pointing to the need to maintain order on campus for exam studies.

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

One graduate student protester, who asked to be identified only as "Z," said: "It's finals week, everyone is still working on their finals, I still have finals to do."

"But at the end of the day, school is temporary," the protester told AFP.

President Joe Biden's White House has also attempted to walk a fine line of defending the right to protest while condemning reported acts of anti-Semitism.

"We get that it is a painful moment that Americans are dealing with, and free expression has to be done within the law," Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday.

However, Biden's Republican opponents have seized on the issue, casting the protests as anti-Semitic and threatening to pull federal funding if they aren't stopped.

"What continues to transpire at Columbia is an utter disgrace. The campus is being overrun by anti-Semitic students and faculty alike," House Speaker Mike Johnson said Monday on X, reiterating his call for Shafik to resign.

The Gaza war started when Hamas militants staged an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that 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.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed almost 34,500 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.