Columbia University students occupy Hamilton Hall as 1968-style protests spread against Israel

Columbia University students occupy Hamilton Hall as 1968-style protests spread against Israel

Masked protesters in New York early on Tuesday smashed a window and barricaded doors as they occupied a building at Columbia University, the hotbed of US-wide campus demonstrations against Israel’s war in Gaza.

The overnight takeover of Hamilton Hall - one of several at Columbia that was also occupied during anti-Vietnam War protests in 1968 - marked a major escalation after police had tried to clear demonstrators’ tents from the Manhattan campus grounds.

Video footage showed protesters on the campus locking arms in front of the hall and carrying furniture and metal barricades to the building, nearly 12 hours after a deadline for the protesters to leave the encampment or face suspension.

It came after riot police stormed another protest at the University of Texas at Austin, using pepper spray and flash bombs to clear a path through chanting demonstrators as they arrested at least 40 protesters.

Demonstrators cheer on people from the pro-Palestine encampment on Columbia's Campus (Getty Images)
Demonstrators cheer on people from the pro-Palestine encampment on Columbia's Campus (Getty Images)

The US student protests, which have been dogged by alleged anti-semitic incidents, have escalated from coast to coast since erupting at Columbia two weeks ago with a sit-in demand for university administrators to divest from investments in Israel and for the country to end its “genocide” of Palestinians.

They have spread to Canada and Europe. French police on Monday removed dozens of students from the Sorbonne university - which was famously occupied in May 1968 - after about 50 pro-Palestinian protesters had occupied the Paris institution’s main courtyard.

Lorelia Frejo, a graduate student at the Sorbonne, said the students had been inspired by their peers in New York. "They (Columbia protesters) are very strong and want to fight for justice and for peace in Palestine," she said.

Pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Texas (AP)
Pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Texas (AP)

The US protests represent a growing political challenge for President Joe Biden, with students normally a part of the Democratic coalition that he will need to beat Donald Trump in November’s White House election.

Mr Biden said meanwhile that Hamas was now the “only obstacle” to relieving the desperate plight of Palestinians in Gaza after Israel tabled proposals to swap more hostages for prisoners.

The Israeli plan, described as “generous” by both Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, would serve as a staging post to a wider peace deal to end more than six months of war in Gaza.

In separate phone calls to the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, which are mediating peace talks in Cairo, Mr Biden stressed the importance of protecting civilian lives and of increasing the flow of “life-saving assistance” into Gaza, according to the White House.

It said the president urged his Middle East counterparts “to exert all efforts to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas as this is now the only obstacle to an immediate ceasefire and relief for civilians in Gaza”.

A Hamas delegation is in Cairo to deliberate on Israel's response to a ceasefire deal, and the Palestinian terror group has given a cautious welcome to the latest proposals from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Lord Cameron, who like Mr Blinken was in Saudi Arabia for a World Economic Forum meeting, said the plan included a 40-day pause in fighting and the release of potentially thousands of Palestinian prisoners as well as Israeli hostages.

"I hope Hamas do take this deal and frankly, all the pressure in the world and all the eyes in the world should be on them today saying 'take that deal'," the Foreign Secretary said.

Mr Netanyahu, who is still threatening to invade Rafah to wipe out Hamas, has accused the group of being “delusional” for insisting that Israel first commit to ending the war before the fate of the 133 hostages still in Gaza can be discussed.

But the latest proposals are said to include a vaguer commitment by Israel to a discussion about ending the war at a future date, with Hamas promising first to free 33 hostages consisting of women, children, men aged over 50 and the sick.

In return, according to Israeli media, Mr Netanyahu’s government would release a far larger number of Palestinian security prisoners, including some convicted of terrorist offences.

Hamas started the war when it massacred 1,200 Israelis on October 7. Israel retaliated by imposing a total siege on Gaza and mounting an air and ground assault that has killed about 34,500 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities.

Mr Blinken reiterated in Saudi that the US, Israel's main diplomatic supporter and weapons supplier, could not back an all-out assault on Rafah if there is no plan to keep civilians out of harm’s way.