Explainer: What is behind the pro-Palestinian protests at US universities?

May 6, 2024 - 10:38 AM
Protesters link arms outside Hamilton Hall barricading students inside the building at Columbia University, despite an order to disband the protest encampment supporting Palestinians or face suspension, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City, U.S., April 30, 2024. (Reuters/Caitlin Ochs/File Photo)

Student protests over the war in Gaza have swept the U.S. in past weeks, with police clearing a number of encampments, at times after confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters; other tent protests dismantled after universities agreed to protesters’ demands; and some demonstrations continuing.

Here are details on the protests:

What do the pro-Palestinian protesters want?

Across campuses where protests have broken out, students have called for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, an end to U.S. military assistance for Israel, university divestment from arms suppliers and other companies profiting from the war, and amnesty for students and faculty members who have been disciplined or fired for protesting.

The students are protesting Israel’s offensive in Gaza, which it launched after a Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that Israel says killed 1,200 people. Israel has killed over 34,000 people in retaliation, according to Gaza health authorities.

Who are the protesters supporting Palestinians?

Pro-Palestinian protests have drawn students, faculty and outside activists, including of Jewish and Muslim faiths. The groups organizing the protests include Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The encampments have hosted a diverse array of teach-ins, interfaith prayers and musical performances.

Organizers have disavowed violence against pro-Israel counter-protesters, although some Jewish students have said they feel unsafe on campus and unnerved by chants they call antisemitic.

Some city leaders and university administrators have said activists from outside campus have co-opted or orchestrated protests. The University of Texas, Austin, for instance, said of the 79 people arrested on its campus on April 29, 45 had no affiliation with the university.

Who are the counter protesters?

Campus counter protests have been led by Israeli American and Zionist groups as well as fellow students and Jewish-American community members.

Hundreds of people attended a counter rally at UCLA in Los Angeles organized by the Israel advocacy group the Israeli American Council. A Jewish student activist at UCLA posted video of himself being barred from an area of campus by pro-Palestinian protesters.

A scuffle broke out at the University of California, Berkeley on May 1 between the co-founder of Zionist group Students Supporting Israel and a pro-Palestinian protester.

At Arizona State University student counter protesters helped police dismantle a protest encampment on April 27. Hundreds of students at the University of Mississippi, some waving U.S. flags and banners supporting former President Donald Trump, chanted against pro-Palestinian protesters on May 2.

What has been the response from authorities?

Some school administrators have called in local law enforcement to arrest protesters and clear camps and sit ins. Others have let camps operate or reached deals to end protests.

Columbia sent in police on April 18, a day after students set up a camp on the Manhattan campus. On April 30 police again raided the camp and a building occupied by students, making hundreds of arrests. President Minouche Shafik said the camp was an unauthorized protests that had made the campus “intolerable” for many Jewish students.

The University of California, Berkeley has allowed a pro-Palestinian camp so long as it does not disrupt campus operations and there is no threat of violence.

Northwestern University, Brown University and Rutgers University are among colleges that have reached deals to disband camps. Brown will hold a vote on possible divestment from firms connected with Israel. Rutgers agreed to set up an Arab cultural center and look into creation of a Middle East studies department.

What has been the impact on regular campus life?

Columbia has at times had to switch to all-virtual classes.

The University of Southern California called off its main-stage graduation ceremony after canceling the valedictorian speech by a Muslim student and dozens of arrests after police cleared a pro-Palestinian encampment.

California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, canceled in-person classes after students barricaded themselves in an administrative building.

The University of Michigan said it would allow free expression and peaceful protest at its early May graduation ceremonies but would stop “substantial disruption.”

How are political leaders responding?

Democratic President Joe Biden, who has been criticized by the protesters for supplying funding and weapons to Israel, told reporters on Thursday that Americans had the right to demonstrate but not to unleash violence.

Trump, the Republican candidate for the 2024 election, called the campus protests “tremendous hate” and said the April 30 police raid on Columbia “was a beautiful thing to watch.”

— Reporting By Andrew Hay; editing by Donna Bryson and Josie Kao