US student protesters dig in as Israel's war on Gaza grinds on

AFP , Wednesday 24 Apr 2024

Yazen has slept on Columbia University's south lawn almost every night for more than a week now, one of several dozen students living at the prestigious school's "Gaza Solidarity Encampment."

Columbia university
Pro-Palestinian protesters gather outside of Columbia University in New York on April 23, 2024. AFP


The 23-year-old Palestinian-American has been splitting his days between his medical studies at Columbia's historic Butler Library, adjacent to the smooth green lawn, and the upkeep of the colorful tents on the school's main campus, in the heart of New York City.

Since last Monday, dozens of students and alumni have come together to express solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza suffering under Israel's months-long war on the territory.

They are demanding Columbia divest from companies with ties to Israel -- and the demonstrations are spreading to other campuses around the United States.

A burgeoning number of protesters now keep vigil daily at Columbia, though numbers ebb and flow from the dozens to the hundreds as students join just for the day, leave to study -- or, in Yazen's case, go home to feed his cat.

"Millions of Palestinians in Gaza are sleeping out in the cold every single night without access to food and shelter," said Yazen, who did not give his surname.

"We have tents, they don't have tents," he said.

He's determined to stay, even after the university last week called in the police, leading to the arrest and suspension of more than 100 students.

"As a Palestinian, is it my responsibility to be here and show my solidarity with the people in Gaza? Absolutely," Yazen said.

Universities have become the focus of intense debate in the United States since Israel's brutal war on Gaza began on 7 October, as a humanitarian crisis grips the Palestinian territory on brink of famine.



The protest at Columbia has hosted speakers and music performances, Islamic prayers and seder meals for the Jewish holiday of Passover, which began Monday.

But as the death toll in Gaza rises and the intensity of protests increases -- university authorities have allowed police to crack down on the peaceful demonstrators and dismantle the encampment.

This week, in-person classes at Columbia were cancelled.

'What's necessary'

University president Minouche Shafik had set a deadline of midnight Tuesday to resolve the unrest.

Immediately after that announcement, which came near midnight, hundreds more people flocked to the protest, their numbers spilling over the sidewalks and another lawn.

In a frenzied confusion, demonstrators rushed to clear the camp, carrying half-disassembled tents and bags of supplies away.

But then the deadline was extended for another 48 hours, with the school agreeing not to call in the police or the National Guard.

Student organizers called it an "important victory," citing fears of "a second Jackson State or Kent State massacre" -- referring to two 1970 incidents in which authorities faced off against student protesters, with fatal consequences.

By Wednesday morning the encampment had returned to regular programming.

For now -- despite the new looming deadline -- it shows no sign of letting up.

D.P., a 22-year-old student who only gave her initials and works security for the encampment, is among those who've decided to stay.

"It seems clear to me that it's what's necessary for this right now," she said.

"I can't stand the thought of not being at camp," she said. "I think that this whole place is only working because everyone is putting everything they have into it."

*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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