Biden condemns protesters’ use of the term 'intifada'

Police clear anti-Israel protesters from Columbia U’s Hamilton Hall after standoff

School president said there was no other way to restore order; two other universities reach deals to end encampments, with one agreeing to hear demands for divestment from Israel

NYPD officers in riot gear break into a building at Columbia University, where pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students are barricaded, in New York City on April 30, 2024 (Celine Gesret/CBS/AFPTV/AFP)

Police cleared 30 to 40 people from inside Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall on Tuesday night after protesters against Israel occupied the administration building in New York earlier in the day.

Hundreds of New York Police Department officers acted after the school’s president said there was no other way to ensure safety and restore order on campus and sought help from the police. The occupied building had expanded the demonstrators’ reach from an encampment elsewhere on the Ivy League school’s grounds.

The scene unfolded shortly after 9 p.m. as police, wearing helmets and carrying zip ties and riot shields, massed at the college’s entrance. Scores of officers climbed through a window to enter the occupied building, streaming in over a ramp raised from the top of a police vehicle to get inside. Multiple protesters were taken into custody and taken away from campus on buses.

The confrontation occurred more than 12 hours after the demonstrators took over Hamilton Hall shortly after midnight Tuesday, spreading their reach from an anti-Israel tent encampment elsewhere on the grounds that’s been there for nearly two weeks.

Students had vowed to fight any eviction from Hamilton Hall.

The police action happened on the 56th anniversary of a similar police action to quash an occupation of Hamilton Hall by students protesting racism and the Vietnam War.

NYPD officers in riot gear break into a building at Columbia University, where pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students are barricaded, in New York City on April 30, 2024 (KENA BETANCUR / AFP)

“After the University learned overnight that Hamilton Hall had been occupied, vandalized, and blockaded, we were left with no choice,” the school said of the police action, adding that school public safety personnel were forced out of the building and one facilities worker was “threatened.”

Prior to the arrests, the campus in the heart of New York City, usually accessible to passersby, was sealed off, with police erecting barricades, an AFP journalist saw.

Columbia University officials had threatened academic expulsion of students who seized and occupied the classroom building as the standoff between administrators and activists on the Manhattan campus intensified.

“Students occupying the building face expulsion,” Columbia’s office of public affairs said in a statement, adding that the protesters were provided “the opportunity to leave peacefully,” but instead declined and escalated the situation.

The occupation began overnight when protesters broke windows and entered Hamilton Hall, where they unfurled a banner reading “Hind’s Hall,” symbolically renaming the building for a six-year-old Palestinian child allegedly killed by the Israeli military in Gaza.

Anti-Israel student protestors wave a Palestinian flag as they gather on the front steps of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York City on April 30, 2024 (Emily Byrski / AFP)

Outside the building — the site of various student occupations on the Ivy League campus dating back to the 1960s — other protesters blocked the entrance with tables, linked arms to form a barricade and chanted pro-Palestinian slogans.

A day earlier, the university said it had begun suspending students who defied a deadline for vacating a tent camp that has become a focal point for dozens of student demonstrations around the US expressing opposition to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

“The encampment has created an unwelcoming environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty and a noisy distraction that interferes with the teaching, learning and preparing for final exams,” the university said in a statement on Monday.

After the occupation, a Columbia University spokesperson said the protesters had chosen to escalate an “untenable situation” and that the school’s top priority is safety and order on campus.

“The work of the university cannot be endlessly interrupted by protesters who violate the rules. Continuing to do so will be met with clear consequences,” spokesperson Ben Chang said in a statement.

The October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, and the ensuing Israeli offensive on the Palestinian enclave, have unleashed the biggest outpouring of student activism since the anti-racism protests of 2020.

Protesters are demanding that Columbia meet three demands: divestment from companies that support Israel’s government, transparency in university finances, and amnesty for students and faculty disciplined for their part in the protests.

University President Nemat Minouche Shafik this week said Columbia would not divest from finances in Israel. Instead, she offered to invest in health and education in Gaza and make Columbia’s direct investment holdings more transparent.

Police mobilize near Columbia University on April 30, 2024 in New York City (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images via AFP)

At some recent rallies, protesters have been met with counter-protesters accusing them of fomenting anti-Jewish hatred. The pro-Palestinian side, including some Jewish activists opposed to the Israeli actions, say they are being unfairly branded as antisemitic for criticizing Israel’s government and expressing support for human rights.

In dealing with the protests, university officials have struggled to strike a balance between allowing freedom of expression and stamping out hate speech.

The issue has taken on political overtones in the run-up to the US presidential election in November, with Republicans accusing some university administrators of turning a blind eye to antisemitic rhetoric and harassment.

White House spokesperson John Kirby on Tuesday denounced non-peaceful forms of student protests, calling the occupation of campus buildings “the wrong approach.”

“Hate speech and hate symbols have no place in this country,” Kirby added. “A small percentage of students shouldn’t be able to disrupt the academic experience… for the rest of the student body.”

Biden against ‘intifada’

US President Joe Biden condemned protesters’ use of the term “intifada” during the latest spate of demonstrations, the White House said.

For Israelis, the Arabic word “intifada,” literally “uprising,” evokes memories of mass waves of deadly terror attacks in 1987-1993 and again in the early 2000s.

Extremist protesters have regularly called for a renewed intifada against Israel and for “globalizing the intifada” in protests that have wreaked havoc across campuses in recent weeks.

Biden “condemns the use of the term ‘intifada,’ as he has the other tragic and dangerous hate speech displayed in recent days,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement. “President Biden respects the right to free expression, but protests must be peaceful and lawful.”

President Joe Biden speaks before signing a $95 billion aid package that includes support for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan, and other allies, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Forcibly taking over buildings is not peaceful – it is wrong. And hate speech and hate symbols have no place in America,” Bates added.

Biden also opposed the takeover of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University by anti-Israel protesters, the White House said.

“The president believes that forcibly taking over a building on campus is absolutely the wrong approach. That is not an example of peaceful protest,” Kirby said during a press briefing.

The College Democrats of America, the US Democratic Party’s student organization, released a statement in support of the protests, calling the actions of the protesters “heroic.”

“There is nothing more American than the right to protest peacefully for what is right,” the statement read, commending “the bravery of students across the country who have been willing to endure arrests, suspension and threats of expulsion to stand up for the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.

“Our position is clear: We stand with those protesting for peace and we find all calls for violence, such as those against Jewish and Muslim students, wrong,” the statement said. “Those spreading hate have no place in the movement for peace.”

Arrests in California, deals elsewhere

Students at dozens of campuses from California to New England have set up similar tent encampments to demonstrate their anger over the Israeli operation in Gaza.

At Cal Poly Humboldt University, police early on Tuesday swarmed the campus, where students were occupying a school building, and starting detaining people, local media reported. Some 25 people were said arrested.

Police on Monday had declared the protest an unlawful assembly and warned people they faced arrest if they did not disperse.

According to The New York Times, protesters at Humboldt had taken over Siemens Hall and redubbed it “Intifada Hall,” spraying graffiti inside and vandalizing the campus president’s office.

Civil rights groups have criticized law enforcement tactics on some campuses where police have clashed with protesters and have used chemical irritants.

Police detained about 30 protesters at their encampment at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill early on Tuesday, according to a university statement, noting that students had trespassed into classroom buildings overnight.

At the University of Texas at Austin, police arrested dozens of students whom they hit with pepper spray at a pro-Palestinian rally on Monday.

Northwestern University reached an agreement with demonstrators that will see them take down their “Gaza solidarity encampment.” The students agreed to take down all but one of the nearly 100 tents erected on the school quad since Thursday. In exchange, Northwestern agreed to take several steps to expand student engagement in the school’s financial investments.

Tents, flags and other supplies remain at Deering Meadow on Northwestern University’s campus in Evanston, Ill. on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, a day after the university and protest organizers announced an agreement which largely ended anti-war demonstrations that have lasted days. (AP Photo/Melissa Perez Winder)

Northwestern also agreed to fund the tuition of five Palestinian undergraduates and hire two visiting Palestinian faculty members in addition to providing a temporary space on campus for Middle Eastern and Muslim students until their existing house finishes renovation.

Jewish and pro-Israel groups slammed the agreement.

“Today, Northwestern University declared itself a safe space for antisemitism,” the Israeli Consulate in Chicago tweeted. “We are appalled by Northwestern’s decision to turn its back on Jewish and Israeli students who have been targets of hateful harassment and intimidation. This decision rewards the pro-terror, anti-Israel, and anti-America aggressors on campus.”

Brown University in Rhode Island also reached a deal, with students removing their encampment from school grounds in exchange for the institution listening to their arguments for divesting from Israel.

The move represented a first major concession from an elite American university.

In a statement, Brown President Christina Paxson said students had agreed to end their protests and clear their camp by 5 p.m. local time Tuesday and “refrain from further actions that would violate Brown’s conduct code through the end of the academic year.”

Demonstrators unfurl a banner on a lawn after an encampment protesting the Israel-Hamas war was taken down at Brown University, Tuesday, April 30, 2024 (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In turn, “five students will be invited to meet with five members of the Corporation of Brown University in May to present their arguments to divest Brown’s endowment from ‘companies enabling and profiting from the genocide in Gaza,” she said.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that a Jewish student is suing Columbia University for failing to provide adequate protection for Jewish students. According to the report, the lawsuit claims Columbia allowed the protests to drive Jewish students off campus rather than take steps to ensure their safety.

The decision by the faculty to offer remote learning for students who felt unsafe as a result of the protests created “two very different educational experiences for Jewish and non-Jewish students,” the report cited the lawsuit as stating.

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