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War on Gaza: Why are students protesting at campuses across the US?

Hundreds of students and faculty have been arrested by police for participating in protest encampments on university campuses in support of Palestinians
Mounted police were mobilised against demonstrators protesting Israel's war in Gaza at the University of Texas at Austin on 24 April 2024.
Mounted police were mobilised against demonstrators protesting against Israel's war in Gaza at the University of Texas at Austin, on 24 April (Brandon Bell/AFP)

Students at the Columbia University encampment protesting against Israel's assault on Gaza have over the past week sparked a wave of similar actions on college campuses across the US.

The students all have similar demands, one being that their institutions divest from companies linked to Israel's human rights abuses against Palestinians, and an end to the war in Gaza, which has been deemed a genocide by rights groups, UN experts, and several sovereign countries.

The demonstrations have, meanwhile, recently been called "antisemitic protests" by US President Joe Biden and some American lawmakers and media pundits.

So why have these protests recently erupted at American universities and what do their demands for divestment mean exactly?

Why are students protesting on US college campuses?

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Demonstrations have been taking place on college campuses since Israel began its war on Gaza in October.

The protests were a reaction to Israel's military response to the 7 October Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, which has so far killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children.

US universities have become a central point of the wider pro-Palestinian protest movement in the country, which has among other demands called for an end to US military support to Israel, an end to Israel's war on Gaza, as well as an end to what several rights groups have deemed an apartheid system of Israeli control over the occupied West Bank.

These encampment-style protests first began at Columbia University in New York City, where students had set up around 50 tents on the campus' south lawn.

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MEE visited the encampment at Columbia University last week, where students said they would also be focusing on building a community around their activism and demands.

Since then, these encampments, set up in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, have popped up at more than 30 universities in every corner of the country.

The protests have been staged for many reasons and have numerous demands around the issue of Palestinian rights.

"We decided to reclaim the space as a liberated zone and rename it the Popular University for Gaza," Aditi Rao, a student-protester at Princeton University, told MEE.

One of the major demands of these protesters is for their respective schools to divest investments from Israel or from companies that are profiting off of Israel's war in Gaza and Israel's wider abuses against Palestinians.

Another one of the demands is for schools to cut ties with Israeli academic institutions, which they say have played a key role in Israel's occupation of Palestine. Pfizer College in California recently shut down its study abroad programme with the University of Haifa after concluding that the partnership did not align with the college's core values.

What do we know about US university investments in Israel?

In terms of divestment, students at these demonstrations have called for their university administrations to divulge their finances and be more transparent about their investments in weapons manufacturers and Israeli companies profiteering from Israel's occupation and war in Gaza.

There is some information  – though available data is limited – surrounding the investments that schools have in Israel-linked companies.

At Columbia, for example, students are demanding the university end its investments in businesses linked to Israel, including tech giants Amazon and Google, which has a $1.2bn cloud-computing contract with Israel’s government. The students have also demanded an end to investments in US defence contractors profiting from Israel's war, such as Lockheed Martin.

At Yale University, students told MEE that they are demanding the institution divest from "all weapons manufacturing companies contributing to Israel’s assault on Palestine".

Yale University has student exchanges and collaborations with seven Israeli universities whose presidents signed a letter accusing US university students and faculty of supporting terrorism.

Harvard has programmes with three of these universities, while Columbia has longstanding relations with at least four of these Israeli universities.

Are these demands for divestment from Israel new?

No. University students in the US have long protested against their institution's investments in Israel's military or its occupation of Palestinian lands.

Over the past several years, there have been a number of different student bodies, faculty groups, and colleges within universities that have adopted the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In May 2022, the faculty of the City University of New York's law school passed a resolution endorsing BDS.

A month prior, the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, the Ivy League school's student newspaper, similarly endorsed the BDS movement, saying "we are proud to finally lend our support to both Palestinian liberation and BDS — and we call on everyone to do the same".

And that same month in April 2022, the Middle East Studies Association voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution backing BDS.

In addition to divestment, calls for boycotting Israeli academic institutions in US universities have grown. Last year, the American Anthropological Association passed a resolution backing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

How have universities responded to these protests?

Many of the student-led protests have been met by their universities with force, while repression from administrations and police brutality against students and faculty is on the rise.

Columbia University president Nemat Minouche Shafik ordered the New York Police Department to disperse the south lawn encampment, leading to the arrest of 100 Columbia and Barnard College students, including the daughter of US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

In addition to being arrested, the students were suspended from school and told they would not be able to finish the academic semester.

Over the past few days, videos shared on social media have shown police violently arresting both students and faculty who were peacefully protesting on campuses.

At Yale University, around 50 protesters were arrested by police on charges of "aggravated trespassing" for their participation in the protests on campus.

Organisers at Ohio State University said that pro-Palestinian demonstrators were beaten and tased by police.

Police have also arrested others, including journalists covering the ongoing demonstrations. At the University of Texas-Austin, video footage shows police grabbing a journalist from the crowd, and then throwing him onto the ground before arresting him.

The widespread police response to these demonstrations has raised fears of a possible repetition of the Kent State Massacre in 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student protesters demonstrating against the Vietnam War.

The shootings by the US forces at Kent State killed four and injured nine others.

To protect their students, some faculty members have joined the protests and created human chains around the tent encampments in order to prevent police encroachment.

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