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Campus Protests Against Gaza Conflict Surge Across US Universities

US universities have witnessed a surge in protests against Gaza conflict, prompting tensions and arrests amidst campus activism.

Protests against the war in Gaza have spread from Columbia and Yale to other universities as officials scramble to defuse a burgeoning protest movement.

On Monday night, police moved to break up a protest at New York University and made a number of arrests.

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

Similar “encampments” have sprung up at Berkeley, MIT and other colleges across the country.

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.

About 1,200 Israelis and foreigners, mostly civilians, were killed and 253 others were 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.

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

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

The campus protest movement was thrust into the global spotlight last week after New York City police were called out to Columbia University’s campus in the city and arrested dozens of demonstrators.

In a statement on Monday, Columbia announced that all classes would be held virtually, with Columbia President Minouche Shafik citing incidents of “intimidating and harassing behaviour”.

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”.

At New York University, protesters set up tents across from the Stern School of Business.

As was the case in some of the other universities, the NYU protesters are calling on the school to disclose and divest its “finances and endowments from weapons manufacturers and companies with an interest in the Israeli occupation”.

As night fell on Monday, police began arresting protesters there.

Hours before, nearly 50 protesters were arrested at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where demonstrations had swelled to several hundred people over the weekend.

The university said those taken into custody had ignored “multiple requests” to leave.

Protest encampments have also been established at the University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Emerson College and Tufts.

The campus protests, however, have been marred by accusations of antisemitism.

In one example, videos posted online appeared to show some protesters near Columbia expressing support for the Hamas attack on Israel.

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

And the Hasidic group Chabad at Columbia University said Jewish students had been screamed at and subjected to harmful rhetoric.

A rabbi affiliated with the university also reportedly sent a message to 300 Jewish Columbia students, warning them to avoid campus until the situation “dramatically improves”.

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

In a statement on Sunday, 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”.

In her statement, Dr Shafik said a working group had been created to “try to bring this crisis to a resolution”.The university and Dr Shafik – who last week travelled to Capitol Hill to testify before a congressional committee on the university’s efforts to tackle antisemitism – are being urged to resolve the situation.

A group of federal lawmakers, led by New York Republican Representative Elise Stefanik, on Monday signed a letter asking for her to step down for what Ms Stefanik said was a “failure to put an end to the mob of students and agitators calling for acts of terrorism against Jewish students”.

The protests in New York also attracted the attention of Democrat Representatives Kathy Manning, Jared Moskowitz, Josh Gottheimer and Dan Goldman.

Congressman Gottheimer said Columbia would “pay the price” if it failed to ensure Jewish students felt welcome and safe at the university.

Meanwhile, in a letter posted online, North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx – the chair of the House Education Committee – wrote that “Columbia’s continued failure to restore order and safety” constituted a breach of obligations on which federal assistance was contingent and must be “immediately rectified”.

The protests also prompted Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriot NFL team and a prominent Columbia alumnus, to warn that he would stop supporting the university “until corrective action” was taken.

Some faculty members at the university, however, have faulted Columbia for its handling of the protest and for calling in the police.

In a statement on Monday evening, Columbia’s own Knight First Amendment Institute called for an “urgent course correction”.

It quoted university rules to argue that outside authorities should only be involved when there was a “clear and present danger to persons, property or the substantial functioning of any division of the university”.

“It is not evident to us how the encampment and protests posed such a danger, even if they were unauthorised,” the statement said.

There have also been wider demonstrations in the US over the events in Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian protesters recently blocked major roads across the country, restricting access to airports including Chicago’s O’Hare International and Seattle-Tacoma International, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and Brooklyn Bridge in New York.

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