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Gaza Solidarity Encampment Regroups Following Arrest of 108 Students at Columbia

The protesters, who are demanding that Columbia divest from Israel, have relocated and rebuilt their encampment.

NYPD officers make arrests of pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the lawn of Columbia University on April 18, 2024, in Manhattan, New York.

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On Thursday, April 18, a swarm of NYPD officers in riot gear arrested 108 students at Columbia University in an attempt to dismantle an encampment of student protesters demanding Columbia’s full financial and academic divestment from Israel.

The move evoked the historic arrest and beating of hundreds of Columbia demonstrators in 1968 after they occupied Hamilton Hall, in protest of the Vietnam War.

The Gaza solidarity encampment has now been reconstituted on the school’s East Lawn, where protesters are determined not to leave until their demands are met. They chant, “Disclose, Divest! We will not stop, we will not rest!”

The protest encampment sprang up early in the morning on April 17, when some two dozen Columbia University students flooded the campus’s Butler Lawn under cover of darkness, stealthily erecting 60 tents in less than half an hour.

The first Gaza Solidarity Encampment held strong for almost 36 hours despite a massive police presence on the scene, including two NYPD Department of Corrections buses waiting outside campus and multiple threats of arrests.

The encampment, organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), was planned to coincide with Columbia President Nemat (Minouche) Shafik’s testimony before Congress on combating antisemitism at the university. Pro-Palestine activists have alleged that rather than focusing on any actual instances of antisemitism, these so-called antisemitism hearings are actually being used by Zionists and right-wing lawmakers as a bludgeon to pressure university leaders into silencing student groups’ legitimate critiques of the Israeli government and military — including critiques coming from Jewish-led groups.

Universities across the country, including Columbia, have been a staging ground for pro-Palestine organizing, with many students facing arrests, suspensions and expulsions, as well as what they describe as targeted violence and harassment by pro-Israel students and faculty.

As April 17 — also observed as Palestinian Prisoners Day — drew on, students flocked to the lawns in support of the camped students. Some crossed the public safety barricades to join them. A moving picket line chanted, “Minouche Shafik, you can’t hide, you’re supporting genocide!”

Columbia chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) were suspended by the university in November; currently, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal are suing the university for these groups to be reinstated. On January 22, at a pro-Palestine rally in front of Columbia’s Low Memorial Library, two pro-Israel students attacked protesters with a putrid chemical spray, resulting in eight hospitalizations. Social media users identified the students as former members of the Israeli military and alleged that the chemical agent was “skunk” spray, an Israeli crowd-control weapon. On February 4, in response to this attack, the Palestinian solidarity organization Within Our Lifetime held a protest outside Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, where the New York City Police Department (NYPD) made several arrests.

The Gaza solidarity encampment has now been reconstituted on the school’s East Lawn, where protesters are determined not to leave until their demands are met.

Maryam Iqbal, a first-year student at Barnard College, a women’s college affiliated with Columbia University, is a student in Middle East and South Asian studies and an organizer with SJP. She was one of the students hospitalized and diagnosed with chemical inhalation from the January skunk attack. She said that there was no response from the university administration after the dean was emailed about the incident. “There was only a response three days after I posted a picture from the hospital,” she told Truthout. The alleged perpetrators were suspended and are reportedly suing the university to reverse the suspension.

Iqbal, who is Muslim, described being followed by NYPD’s counterterrorism unit from a rally at Columbia’s campus to Washington Square Park in February. “The official state account of Israel has tweeted at [Columbia SJP],” she reported. (On January 24, the account cited an SJP protest as evidence that Columbia “has become a safe and open space for students who support terrorism and violence,” tagging the university.) She also described being doxxed on Canary Mission, a pro-Israel website that lists identifying information and pictures of pro-Palestine activists. Iqbal also claims she was personally singled out on social media by Columbia assistant professor Shai Davidai, who has gained notoriety for his extensive pro-Israel social media posts, particularly targeting Columbia pro-Palestinian organizations like SJP. “I am 18 years old and I am on his Twitter every week.” The Intercept and Columbia Daily Spectator both reported that Davidai has faced complaints of targeting individual students on his social media accounts, which Davidai denies.

Iqbal says that, while Columbia launched the Task Force on Antisemitism on November 1 — which does not disclose its definition of “antisemitism,” a term that has often been disingenuously expanded and weaponized to silence legitimate critiques of the Israeli government and military — no equal protection has been offered to Muslim, Palestinian or Arab students. “It’s very uneven to say the least,” she added.

Iqbal feels that there is “obvious pressure from donors and the board of trustees” to crack down on pro-Palestine campus organizing. “We’ve been planning to escalate,” Iqbal said about the timing of the encampment to coincide with Shafik’s testimony before the congressional hearing. “It was the perfect opportunity to show that there’s no amount of congressional hearings that can deter us.” Iqbal was one of the Barnard students arrested and suspended, along with Rep. Ilhan Omar’s daughter, Irsa Hirsi.

Soph Askanese is a third-year student in religion and radical social justice movements as well as a member of JVP and SJP. They are Jewish and described being raised in a fervently Zionist Jewish household. Askanese said they identified as a Zionist until they began to question the indoctrination they grew up with.

“I’m called a self-hating Jew all the time,” they said. “They say I’m not a real Jew. I get people approaching me on campus to critique me. I’m sick of antisemitism being weaponized by the ADL [Anti-Defamation League], being weaponized by AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], being weaponized by the Zionist lobby to attack majority people of color. All solidarity is intertwined. This discourse distracts from very real instances of antisemitism that we see … like the Tree of Life shooting. I frankly find conflating antisemitism and anti-Zionism to be antisemitic. It’s essentially just a tool of the Israel lobby.”

Askanese says of campus policies like the antisemitism task force, “They’re prioritizing discomfort over actually feeling unsafe.”

Askanese added:

When anti-Zionist Jewish students were targeted by dangerous chemicals, they didn’t call that antisemitic. I’ve been at several of these open hearings that the antisemitism task force has done, and they only take notes when Zionist students are speaking. I asked what they were going to do about the chemical attack, what their definition of antisemitism is … there was no answer.

Iqbal agreed that the charge that Palestine solidarity on campus makes Jewish students feel unsafe is disingenuous. “Are you being made to feel unsafe? Or are you just uncomfortable?” she asked.

“What is happening in Congress is a means through which lobbies can impose their standards onto us, inviting far right Jewish groups to speak rather than interviewing anti-Zionist students,” Askanese continued. “For me, it’s extremely important because I see this hearing as a way to further repress, further silence students. And we are out here to show we can’t be silenced.”

A statement by National SJP on April 4 reported that five Columbia students involved with pro-Palestine organizing were suspended and given 24 hours to vacate their dorms without any due process, which reportedly violates not only Columbia’s own policies, but also New York state law.

According to the statement, “These suspensions came two nights after a Palestinian student was visited at their home by a private investigator hired by Columbia University. After being denied entry to the student’s house, the PI rattled the doorknob multiple times as if trying to break in.… Investigators demanded to see private text messages of the students for them to ‘comply’ with the investigation, and denied them access to legal counsel.” The statement alleges that this maneuver was part of an effort to “boost Columbia’s public image” ahead of the congressional hearing.

At the encampment, Columbia University Apartheid Divest circulated flyers mapping the relationships between Columbia’s board of directors and companies like Lockheed Martin, HEICO, BlackRock, Google and Microsoft, which materially support the Israeli occupation of Palestine through arms and surveillance technology such as Project Nimbus. Board member Victor H. Mendelson is president of HEICO; Trustee Jeh Johnson is on the board of directors of Lockheed Martin; Vice Chair Abigail Black Elbaum is on the board of the NYC Police Foundation and also has ties to BlackRock and Google through Columbia University’s investment company.

The CUAD website lists extensive financial ties between the university and other companies that have been scrutinized for their support of Israel’s occupation, like Caterpillar, Raytheon and Boeing. The Columbia University administration was contacted for comment for this article but did not respond by press time.

As of this writing, Columbia has agreed to one of the protesters’ demands: full financial transparency about Columbia’s operations.

Catherine Elias, a first-year master’s student in international affairs and an organizer with CUAD, draws a direct line from the anti-Vietnam War student occupation of Hamilton Hall in 1968 to the current encampment. After the students shut down campus operations for seven days in 1968, the NYPD stormed the campus and brutally arrested hundreds of students.

“And if they want to arrest me this time, I’ll be right back out here tomorrow,” Elias promised. “They can try to repress us, but we’re not going to stop fighting for Palestinian liberation.”