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Israel’s Rafah attacks engender university disruption worldwide 

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By Pia Comer

In recent weeks, Canadian and American universities including Ottawa, Harvard, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been inundated by pro-Palestinian protests condemning Israel’s war in Gaza (Chaffin, 2024). Unbeknownst to most, the initial pro-Palestinian protests unfolded prior to the current surge of demonstrations with students occupying administrative buildings at Brown University in November and December 2023 (Mukherjee et al., 2023).

The revival of these protests has constituted of a new wave of uproar attracting significant media attention, and commencing at Columbia University on the 17th of April with an encampment of over fifty tents (Egan, et al., 2024). The demonstrations initially expanded across the East coast of America, with protesters beginning to occupy university campuses on the 22nd of April at Yale University, MIT and NYU (Looker, 2024). There have subsequently been protests in 45 of the 50 American states (Faguy, 2024).

Whilst news reports have predominantly focused on the protests occurring in the USA, the demonstrations have spread to Europe following Israel’s continued attacks in Rafah, impacting more than 25 countries worldwide (Faguy, 2024; Oguc et al., 2024). European rallies began in Spain at the University of Valencia on the 29th of April, and have since materialised at the University of Oxford, Cambridge, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham, Lausanne, Geneva and Copenhagen with the recurring demand being to cease collaboration with Israel to various degrees ranging from terminating interaction with education institutions to that with any form of Israeli organisation (Oguc et al., 2024).

Ottawa University Students protest.

Student’s exigencies at Columbia University are analogous, consisting of: supporting a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war; amnesty for protestors; and the disinvestment from Israel, requiring the University halts financial ties with companies who do business in or with Israel, including Microsoft, Google and Boeing (Harte, et al., 2024; Noor, 2024).

There is considerable evidence of external influence and organisational backing within the demonstrations, with known members of far right and white nationalist groups appearing at various University campuses holding protests across America (Binkowski, 2024). During arrests in New York City on the 2nd of May, police reported that almost half of those protestors arrested at Columbia University were unaffiliated with the University (Yu, 2024). Groups organising the protests at Columbia include Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionism endorsement group suspended by Columbia in November 2023 which is supported by the non-profit New York Civil Liberties Union (Allen et al., 2024).

Further evidence of extrinsic leverage is exemplified through the role in counter-protests at UCLA on April 30th of the international, non-partisan group, Stand With Us, who organised a demonstration with pro-Israel groups attacking the pro-Palestinian camp, and was subsidised by the United Jewish Coalition in partnership with the Israeli American Council (Bedi et al., 2024; Binkowski, 2024).

Evident similarities between protests at Columbia University, George Washington University and UCLA are exemplified through persistent rows of countless coloured tents with unused sleeping bags and well-organised meals, further indicating underlying an funding of the demonstrations (Jon Michael Raasch, 2024).

Subsequently, there has been considerable speculation as to who is sponsoring the demonstrations, with evidence that there is an overlap with President Biden’s donors including Soros, Rockefeller and Pritzker as well as the Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow – two organisations both backed by the Tides Foundation (Kapos, 2024).

Given the frequently violent nature of the protests, mass arrests have taken place, with 300 protestors at Columbia University and City College of New York being detained on the 30th of April (Prokupecz et al., 2024). Police responses have also included the use of pepper balls, tasers, and beating both students and professors (Andone, 2024).

The involvement of police in response to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations is notable as the first time Columbia University has authorised police suppression of campus protests since those organised in response to the Vietnam War in 1968 (Mansoor, 2024). This has contributed towards prevalent comparisons between the Israel-Hamas war and the Vietnam War in terms of its impact upon the presidential elections, with Independent Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders, warning that President Biden’s approach to both the war and corresponding protests “may be Biden’s Vietnam” (Ruhiyyih Ewing, 2024).

Demonstration violence has also provoked reactive action from universities, with Columbia University cancelling graduations and both suspending and expelling students involved in the protests (Khalifeh, 2024; Pro-Palestine Protests: How Some Universities Reached Deals with Students, 2024). However, universities are not the only institutions implementing policy in response to the protests: as a result of Jewish students feeling distressed by the demonstrations, which they have accused of being anti-Semitic, Republican Representative, Mike Lawler, of New York and Democratic Representative, Josh Gottheimer, of New Jersey have introduced the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act which, if enacted, would implement a definition of anti-Semitism into federal law, ensuring that universities account for “anti-Semitic intent” (Mathur-Ashton, 2024) when examining claims of discrimination, as in the case of the current pro-Palestinian protests (Harte, et al., 2024).

Relative to the violence exhibited at American university campuses, the student protests occurring in Europe have predominantly been peaceful in nature, such as in the case of those at the University of Edinburgh whereby students are utilising hunger strikes (Kerr, 2024). European  demonstrations appear to be coming to an end, exemplified by the encampment at Trinity College Dublin ending on the 8th of May on the basis of an agreement between the university management team and protestors with the university acceding to divest from Israeli companies (Kerr, 2024; O’Mahony, 2024).

It seems likely that the demonstrations at American universities have also climaxed given that American students are beginning to return home following their commencements, with students at Harvard University halting their encampment on May the 14th following nearly three weeks of protest (Gray & WBUR Newsroom, 2024; Kuper, 2024). Whilst the turmoil of the pro-Palestinian student protests is abating, whether the placation lasts is questionable; through Instagram, the Harvard protestors coalition stated: “encampments are a tactic… we believe the utility of this tactic has passed, and we have decided to re-group and carry out this protracted struggle through other means” (Kuper, 2024).


About | StandWithUs. (2020). StandWithUs.

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Ruhiyyih Ewing, G. (2024, May 4). “Biden’s Vietnam”: Progressive lawmakers warn not to repeat campus protest history. Politico.

Yu, J. (2024, May 2). Protesters unaffiliated with CCNY, Columbia made up nearly half of arrests: police. ABC7 New York.

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