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Tensions flare at US universities over Gaza protests

NEW YORK (AFP) – Tensions flared between pro-Palestinian student protesters and school administrators at several United States (US) universities on Monday, as in-person classes were cancelled and demonstrators arrested.

The protests, which began last week at Columbia University with a large group of demonstrators establishing a so-called “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on school grounds, have spread to other campuses, including Yale, MIT and others.

Classes were moved online Monday, with university president Nemat Shafik calling for a “reset” in an open letter to the school community.

“Over the past days, there have been too many examples of intimidating and harassing behaviour on our campus,” she said.

“To deescalate the rancor and give us all a chance to consider next steps, I am announcing that all classes will be held virtually on Monday,” she added.

Last week, more than 100 protesters were arrested after university authorities called the police onto the private campus last Thursday, a move that seemingly escalated tensions and sparked a greater turnout over the weekend.

NYPD officers face protesters after detaining demonstrators and clearing an encampment set up by pro-Palestinian students and protesters on the campus of New York University (NYU). PHOTO: AFP

Mimi Elias, a social work student who was arrested, told AFP on Monday: “We are going to stay until they talk to us and listen to our demands.”

Joseph Howley, an associate professor of classics at Columbia, said the university had reached for the “wrong tool” by involving police, which had attracted “more radical elements that are not part of our student protests”.

“You can’t discipline and punish your way out of prejudice and community disagreement,” Howley told AFP.

There were also demonstrations at MIT, the University of Michigan and Yale, where at least 47 people had been arrested on Monday.

“The university made the decision to arrest those individuals who would not leave the plaza with the safety and security of the entire Yale community in mind,” the Ivy League university said in a statement.

At Harvard, university officials on Monday suspended the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, the student group said on Instagram.They were ordered to “cease all organisational activities” for the rest of the term, or risk permanent expulsion after holding an unregistered demonstration last week, student newspaper the Harvard Crimson reported, citing an email to the group.

Universities have become the focus of intense cultural debate in the US since Hamas’ October 7 attack and Israel’s overwhelming military response, as a humanitarian crisis grips Gaza.