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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 14 MAY 2024

US colleges rocked by anti-war protests; Canadian university seeks court order to shut down pro-Palestinian camp

US colleges rocked by anti-war protests; Canadian university seeks court order to shut down pro-Palestinian camp
The student encampment in front of Sproul Hall, the administrative building on the University of California Berkeley campus in Berkeley, California. Nationwide protests against Israel's war in Gaza have sprung up across the US on college campuses. (Photo: John G Mabanglo / EPA-EFE)

US college graduation season is under way and families are descending on US campuses for the festivities, raising the stakes for administrators seeking to ensure public safety amid unrest sparked by the Israel-Hamas war.

McGill University, one of Canada’s most prestigious schools, will go to court on Monday seeking an injunction to shut down a pro-Palestinian student encampment that has been growing on its Montreal campus.

Every year, Israel marks Independence Day with a live-streamed torch-lighting ceremony at its Jerusalem national cemetery. Select citizens light 12 beacons, creating a transition from a mournful 24 hours focused on fallen warriors and terror victims to fireworks and parades celebrating Jewish national sovereignty. This year, as Israel turns 76 in the middle of a ferocious war, things will be different.

Student protesters walk out on Seinfeld as graduations start

College graduation season is under way and families are descending on US campuses for the festivities, raising the stakes for administrators seeking to ensure public safety amid unrest sparked by the Israel-Hamas war.

Smaller demonstrations by pro-Palestinian activists went ahead at weekend commencements, including at Duke University and the University of California at Berkeley. Colleges from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the University of Pennsylvania have taken a hard line against student protesters in recent days — resorting to arrests, suspensions and threats of expulsion.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld avoided addressing the protests at Duke, where about 30 students chanting “Free Palestine” and waving flags walked out as the university president introduced him as keynote speaker.

At the University of California, Berkeley, a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators emerged during commencement ceremonies at California Memorial Stadium on Saturday, waving flags and chanting. A university spokesperson said the protesters left the stadium voluntarily, with no violence or arrests, and the ceremony proceeded as planned.

Meanwhile, a handful of students held a largely silent protest at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium. No arrests were made, the Associated Press reported.

“A small number of the thousands of students who attended Saturday’s commencement chose to express themselves, but the ceremony itself was not interrupted,” UW Madison spokesman John Lucas said by email.

Responses to the turmoil have varied among schools, though most of the richest colleges have signalled they won’t cave to demands to divest from companies with ties to Israel and have cleared student protest camps.

Columbia, where the encampments began, cancelled its main university-wide graduation ceremony last week after protests culminated with a police raid and more than 100 arrests after dozens of people barricaded themselves inside a university building.

The University of Southern California hosted a scaled-down ceremony on Thursday, a far cry from the big commencement that usually brings 65,000 people to the Los Angeles school — after cancelling its 2024 valedictorian’s speech over her social media posts on the Middle East. Comedians Jimmy Kimmel and Will Ferrell chimed in with pre-recorded messages to the graduates.

MIT gave four warnings that protesters would face arrest if they didn’t depart a nearly two-week encampment that ended on Friday morning with the arrest of 10 protesters. President Sally Kornbluth said she had “no choice but to remove such a high-risk flashpoint at the very centre of our campus”.

The University of Chicago declared the “intractable and inflexible” aspects of the demands by protesters incompatible with its principle of institutional neutrality and had a student camp cleared last week after nine days.

Harvard, which began suspending students Friday, has also signalled that administrators are losing patience with protesters who have set up tents at Harvard Yard, where a commencement ceremony with more than 30,000 people is scheduled for 23 May.

Campuses across the US erupted in protests after Israel’s military assault on Gaza, which followed the attack on Israelis by Hamas militants who infiltrated from Gaza. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the US and the European Union. Protesters’ demands include colleges divesting from entities related to Israel, which they say are held in college endowments.

George Washington University in Washington, a school of 26,000 that became the target of politically charged recriminations over pro-Palestinian protests on its campus, has kept its commencement on the schedule for 19 May.

People who disrupt the event on the National Mall in the nation’s capital will be asked to leave or “they will be removed by law enforcement,” according to the university.

Canada’s McGill University seeks court order to shut down protest camp

McGill University, one of Canada’s most prestigious schools, will go to court on Monday seeking an injunction to shut down a pro-Palestinian student encampment that has been growing on its Montreal campus.

The university wants to compel the protesters to take down their tents and leave the property after more than two weeks. McGill’s administration argues that urgent intervention is necessary to ease rising tensions and deteriorating safety conditions in the camp.

“The presence of the encampment has already attracted large numbers of protesters and counter-protesters of different viewpoints, causing tensions to escalate on campus,” McGill President Deep Saini said in an email to students and staff on Friday. “The encampment has the potential to create unsafe situations unpredictably.” There’s a lack of escape routes in the case of a fire, among other safety issues, he added.

The McGill protest site was established on the weekend of 27 April, with some occupants billing the site the Montreal Popular University of Gaza. It began with fewer than two dozen tents, but that number has since risen to about 115, according to the university’s estimates.

Spring graduation events are scheduled to take place at McGill from 28 May to 5 June. The university says it will have to spend at least C$700,000 ($512,000) to relocate the ceremonies unless the encampment is dismantled soon.

Israel marks 76th Independence Day worried and deeply fractured

Every year, Israel marks Independence Day with a live-streamed torch-lighting ceremony at its Jerusalem national cemetery. Select citizens light 12 beacons, creating a transition from a mournful 24 hours focused on fallen warriors and terror victims to fireworks and parades celebrating Jewish national sovereignty.

This year, as Israel turns 76 in the middle of a ferocious war, things will be different.

It’s not just that the fireworks and air force flyover have been cancelled. It’s that the government is afraid to live-stream the event for fear of disruption from Hamas or citizens furious over the failure to bring home hostages held in Gaza since 7 October. The event will be taped and distributed to TV channels later.

So, while much of the world is focused on Palestinian misery and civilian deaths brought by Israel’s war in Gaza, Israelis themselves will mourn what they’ve lost as a result of Hamas’s attack — hundreds of civilians and soldiers along with a sense of national safety.

“It’s difficult this year to find strength,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Stav in the right-leaning Makor Rishon newspaper. “Despite displays of bravery and determination, our sense of security and stability here has been dramatically reversed.”

Read more: Gazans flee danger of Rafah for uncertainty of crowded camps

Because of 7 October, there’s never been a year in which so many of its civilians died — some 820. And the last year this many security forces were killed — 716 including more than 270 in combat since that day — was 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. With some 130 Israelis still held hostage in Gaza, the mood this year is dark.

“It’s a feeling that I’ve lost my country, that we don’t know what to do with ourselves or who we are,” said Daniel Ben Simon, who served as a Labor Party parliamentarian and has written a book about Israel’s drift to a more insular, religious society. “I fear that the animosity within can’t be bridged by Independence Day.”

While the sense of loss is profound across the nation, at a few rare joint Israeli-Palestinian ceremonies a much higher toll will be invoked — 35,000 dead in Gaza, according to Hamas health officials. For many Israelis, however, the trauma of 7 October has pushed aside any sense of empathy with Palestinians.

And as Israelis plunge into the 48-hour period of Memorial Day with Independence Day, their forces are back at work in Gaza. In the north, centre and south there is heavy artillery aimed at taking out Hamas rocket launchers and fighting forces. Deaths are again mounting.

Meanwhile, some 300,000 Gazans are once again on the move, many of them for the third or fourth time in seven months. They’re filling wagons and trucks with bedding and children, desperately seeking refuge from the building Israeli military operations in the southern city of Rafah.

Rockets and mortars are again flying from Gaza into southern Israel, including to cities like Ashkelon and Beersheba.

The US is trying to keep Israel from waging a full invasion of Rafah. General Michael Kurilla, head of the US Central Command, arrived over the weekend to confer with Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi.

Ceasefire negotiations in Cairo haven’t fallen apart but they’re stuck. Mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar, the goal has been to find a formula that Hamas could interpret as promising an end to the war and Israel could embrace as temporary. The formula has been elusive.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the citizens chosen this year to light the torches, striking a defiant tone seeking to raise spirits. The US is withholding arms and ammunition to prevent Israel from invading Rafah, but Israel won’t let that influence it, he said.

Israel, now with a population just shy of 10 million, had 600,000 citizens at its War of Independence in 1948, he said. It had few weapons when it was attacked then by five Arab armies.

“How did we win?” he asked. “With heroes of the spirit and of action. With the spirit of our people. That was our secret weapon, we have no other weapon.” DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    For every one of these divisive comments from Israeli leaders, DM fails to mention:
    The population of Israel is expected to reach 11.1 million by 2030 and 13.2 million by 2040. In Israel’s centenary year (2048) it is predicted to hit 15.2 million. According to this growth curve – in 2065 Israel will consist of 9,7m secular Jews and non-Arab minorities, 6.4m ultra-orthodox and 3.8m Arabs. As of 2022, 45% of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel. We are going exactly NOWHERE!

  • Charl Van Til says:

    These are not “anti war” protests. Calls to globalize the intifada, praising bezbollah and Houthi terrorists, chants to burn Tel Aviv to the ground… what is anti war in any of that? They are anti one side of the war, sure. Come on “journalists”, do better.

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    If Hamas was purely a resistance army waging a war against injustice, it would get my support 100%. But its conduct on October 7th makes it impossible to grant it such a status, even if much of the world believes otherwise. As along as Hamas remains unequivocally a jihadist force commited to the establishment of another Islamic theocracy, it is understandable that the war carries on. At this stage, if the Hamas leadership really cares about what is happening to the people of Palestine, as any caring person must, they should surrender and let reconstruction begin. There is no way that Netanyahu and his gang are going to survive in charge and given the reaction of the world to their inhumanity and history of oppression, the way now may be open to what is the only sane option for the future, one nation from the river to the sea with a completely secular government and equal rights for all. Apartheid South Africa wanted the world to accept a multi-state solution which was rightly rejected. What is different with Israel-Palestine?

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