Police arrest Columbia University students protesting Israel’s war on Gaza

<span>Police arrest a protester at Columbia University in New York on 18 April 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Joshua Briz via AP</span>
Police arrest a protester at Columbia University in New York on 18 April 2024.Photograph: Joshua Briz via AP

Tensions on Columbia University’s campus continued to rise on Thursday as the New York police department began breaking up student protests over Israel’s war on Gaza, at the direction of the school’s president, and arrests were made.

Hundreds of students pitched tents and began camping out in the center of the famous central campus from early morning on Wednesday in protest, demanding a ceasefire and for the university to financially divest from Israel, prompting Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, to issue a stark warning.

In an email to students, she wrote: “I authorized the New York Police Department to begin clearing the encampment from the South Lawn of Morningside campus that had been set up by students.

“I took this extraordinary step because these are extraordinary circumstances. The individuals who established the encampment violated a long list of rules and policies.”

Students say the lawn was previously designated a “free speech zone” in line with the university’s latest policy on protesting, but several students have been removed, arrested and suspended from campus, and some also evicted from their on-campus housing, the student newspaper reported.

On Thursday, three students – including Isra Hirsi, the daughter of Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democratic congresswoman – were suspended from Columbia and its sister Barnard College for their participation in the encampment.

Meanwhile, in California, students gathered at the University of Southern California (USC) to protest the cancellation of a commencement speech by the school’s Muslim valedictorian, Asna Tabassum. She had posted on social media in support of Palestine, and USC officials said the cancellation was necessary due to “risks relating to security”. The move has since drawn intense backlash from students who say Tabassum, who minored in resistance to genocide, is being unfairly silenced for her views.

New reports and footage on social media showed a large, peaceful crowd on the university’s campus in Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon, holding signs and chanting “let her speak”.

The encampment at Columbia was organized by the student-led coalition Columbia University Apartheid Divest, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace – organizations which have also been suspended for having “repeatedly violated university policies related to holding campus events”, according to the school.

Columbia remains in sharp focus among clashes between university authorities and students over protests calling for a ceasefire and divestment from Israel.

Since Israel’s military offensive on the Gaza strip in retaliation for the 7 Octoberattack on southern Israel by Hamas, tensions have erupted on college campuses across America. Columbia, one of the elite private Ivy League universities, has seen allegations of harassment made by and against both Jewish and Muslim students. There was also an alleged chemical weapon attack on students protesting in support of Palestinians, leaving some injured.

On Thursday, civil rights activist, academic and 2024 independent presidential candidate Cornel West joined in with students camping out. Speaking through a megaphone, he told the crowd: “I stand in solidarity with each and every one of you because we are in solidarity with human suffering, especially when it is imposed by human beings – and I’m talking about the indescribable genocide of our precious Palestinians in Gaza.”

On Wednesday, Shafik testified before the education and workforce committee in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives about claims of rampant antisemitism on campus.

University presidents of other prestigious institutions including Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were also questioned by the committee in hearings on the same subject last year and the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania – Claudine Gay and Elizabeth Magill – later stepped down.