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Ilhan Omar's daughter suspended from university over pro-Palestine activism

Isra Hirsi was suspended along with two other students and they say the decision only 'galvanises the student body even more'
Isra Hirsi is an undergraduate student at Barnard College (MEE/Instagram)

Three Barnard College students, including US lawmaker Ilhan Omar's daughter Isra Hirsi, have been suspended for participating in a Gaza solidarity protest encampment at Columbia University in New York City.

The suspension of the three students came as university administrators called on the New York Police Department (NYPD) to dismantle the tents that had been set up earlier on Wednesday.

Several students told MEE that heavily armed police dressed in riot gear entered the university lawns on Thursday to tear down the 50-plus tents. By late Thursday afternoon, the camps were gone and at least 108 students were arrested, including Hirsi.

The developments on Thursday followed the revelations that three students - Isra Hirsi, 21, along with Maryam Iqbal, 18, and Soph Dinu, 21 - had received letters earlier in the day informing them they had been suspended, effective immediately, due to refusing to pay heed to calls to end their protest.

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"This decision is based on information received from Columbia University Public Safety that you have been involved in an unauthorized encampment on the Columbia University campus and you have not ceased participation in this unauthorized encampment despite repeated requests from Barnard and Columbia on April 17, 2024 that you do so," the letter to the trio read.

The interim suspension means the students have lost access to their food, housing, and the school's medical centre.

Two of the three live in student housing and have been illegally locked out of their homes with no notice.

The Gaza solidarity encampment at the heart of Columbia University's campus, on 17 April 2024 (Azad Essa/MEE)
The Gaza solidarity encampment at the heart of Columbia University's campus, on 17 April 2024 (Azad Essa/MEE)

The Gaza solidarity encampment at the heart of Columbia University's campus, on 17 April 2024 (Azad Essa/MEE)
Hundreds of students are participating in the protest camp at Columbia University (Azad Essa/MEE)

In an interview with Middle East Eye, Hirsi said she and the other two students were not surprised by the university's decision to suspend them because the institution had repeatedly threatened those protesting with immediate consequences.

"We expected it because they warned us ... the school has threatened everybody here with suspension," Hirsi said.

"We find it very interesting that they've only given it to the three of us," she added.

Hirsi said that given so many of her fellow organisers and peers had experienced disciplinary hearings and repression from the university over the past several months, she felt compelled to "step up".

Hirsi said her background as a daughter of refugees - Representative Ilhan Omar's family came to the US as Somali refugees in 1995 - she had some understanding of what war could to do people and the need to fight for others, especially elsewhere.

"Especially going to a school that is complicit in this genocide, I feel like I have a responsibility to use my voice and my platforms to fight for this cause," Hirsi said.

The students said administrators were targeting individual student organisers because they had lost control of the student body and the narrative.

"They've essentially lost control of the student body. We have not only occupied a lot on campus but we've occupied the entire university," said Iqbal, the second student who was suspended.

Iqbal noted how protests at Columbia have continued despite incessant attempts to shut them down.

"I think that they don't seem to learn from their mistakes and that suspending students or suspending organisations always galvanises the student body even more and causes more rage, and then, in turn, produces more escalation and mobilisation," she said of the university administration.

"I think that sooner or later, it will spiral to the point where Columbia will be forced to divest it because they just cannot keep this up. It's not sustainable," Iqbal said.

The camp set up on the southern lawns of Columbia University was organised by the student-led coalition, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Students said they have been encouraging teachers to hold their classes at the camp.

They would also be hosting discussions about the history of the anti-apartheid movement as well as the role of art, and educating in fighting against oppression.

Tensions are particularly high at Columbia following a congressional hearing on Wednesday into accusations of rising antisemitism on the campus since the events of 7 October 2023, when Hamas-led fighters broke out of Gaza into southern Israel.

The Hamas-led attack killed around 1,200 people in Israel and more than 200 people were taken hostage. In response, Israel launched a full-scale war and its forces have killed more than 33,000 Palestians, the majority of whom are women and children, in what rights groups, UN experts and several countries have said is a genocide.

Israel's war on Gaza led to a surge in pro-Palestinian actions on college campuses. The demonstrations taking place at Ivy League schools have particularly received national attention along with a crackdown from police and university administrations.

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The comments of three Columbia professors following the Hamas-led attacks, including Joseph Massad, Katherine Franke and Mohamed Abdou, came under intense scrutiny during the congressional hearing on Wednesday. But students say the professors have been grossly misrepresented by administrators and pro-Israel groups.

"Everyone who is speaking their mind right now is being targeted and will continue to be targeted because we are the greatest threat to the university," Soph Dinu, the third student who was suspended by Bernard, told MEE.

Dinu said she was particularly disgusted by the way her Jewish identity was being "used as a means through which to weaponise claims of antisemitism" on the campus.

Since the first week of April, eight students have been suspended from Columbia University for pro-Palestinian activism.

The students said the camp-out would continue until the university ended its relationship with corporations that profited from Israeli "apartheid, genocide, and occupation in Palestine".

"Despite the University's threats, the Gaza Solidarity Encampment will remain until Columbia University divests all finances, including the endowment, from corporations that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and occupation in Palestine," the student groups said in a statement.

"We demand they ensure further accountability with complete transparency for all of Columbia's financial investments. Finally, we demand full amnesty for all students disciplined for their involvement in the encampment or the movement for Palestinian liberation," the students added.

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