How Colombia's Opposition to the Israel-Hamas War Sparked a National Movement

NEW YORK (AP) — Months before they pitched their tent on Columbia University's main lawn, an inspiration struck. A wave of protest camps On college campuses across the country, a small group of pro-Palestinian student activists met privately and mapped out the logistics of the 24-hour occupation.

During hours of planning sessions, they discussed their desire to be arrested, along with communication strategies and more intelligent questions about bathroom access and trash disposal. Then, after scouring online retailers and Craigslist for more affordable options, they ordered the tents.

“There was a lot of work, a lot of meetings, and when we finally pulled it off, we didn't know how it was going to happen,” said Columbia graduate student Elijah Sun. “Nobody thought it would pan out like that.”

Inspired by the protests in Columbia, hundreds of students have set up protest camps on at least a dozen college campuses across the country to protest Israel's actions in its war with Hamas. Among other requests, they call their schools Cut financial ties Israel and corporations support the conflict. The protests come as universities wrap up the spring semester and prepare for graduation ceremonies.

Those involved in the Colombia protests, also known as the “Gaza Solidarity Camp,” describe their organizing efforts as meticulously planned and heavily improvised. They say the university's aggressive tactics to suppress the movement have given it more momentum.

Basil Rodriguez, a Columbia student affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine, said the group, which the university suspended in November, said organizers had contacted students at other schools about how to set up their own camps. About 200 people joined A call with students at other campuses.

To attract more media attention, organizers postponed the Columbia camp University President Minuch Shafiq Testimony to a congressional committee last Wednesday Examining concerns about anti-Semitism In elite colleges.

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The next day, officers from the New York Police Department flooded the campus and removed the tents. More than 100 activists were arrested, and threw out their food and water. Shafiq said he took the “extraordinary step” of seeking police intervention as the camp disrupted life and created a “harassing and intimidating environment” for many students.

The decision sparked outrage across the country, prompting students on other college campuses to set up their own protest camps.

“We are standing here today because we are inspired by the students at Columbia, who we consider to be the heart of the student movement,” said Malak Afaneh, a law student and spokesperson for the 100-student-strong camp at the university. Berkeley, California, said Tuesday.

Hours after the arrests last week, some Columbia students jumped a fence to a nearby lawn and wrapped themselves in blankets until a new arrangement of tents finally arrived. In the week since the police cleared the first camp, the second iteration has grown not only larger, but even more organized.

“The university thought they could call the police and get the protesters to leave. Now we have twice as many protesters,” said Joseph Hawley, an associate professor at Columbia and a supporter of the camp. “Students have experienced repression, which has now prompted them to escalate with their own tactics.”

The mood on Wednesday was upbeat and excited, with some students leaving matzo, Passover seder and gnafe, a Middle Eastern pastry dropped off by a supportive Palestinian family from New Jersey.

Others, who attended a lecture given by a Columbia alumnus who was involved in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, pulled books from the shelves of the “people's library” and helped retrieve art supplies from the craft table. Those who spent the night in one of about 80 tents said they used bathrooms in nearby university buildings. (An earlier experiment with a “camp toilet” was soon abandoned.)

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At a nearby law library, a negotiating team representing the protesters has been meeting intermittently with university administrators since Friday to discuss their demands and amnesty for students and staff who face discipline for participating in the protests.

Those talks broke down Tuesday night, when the university threatened to send in police and the National Guard if the camp didn't go by midnight, chief negotiator Mahmoud Khalil said. Hundreds of students and teachers quickly filled the lawn in large numbers since the demonstration began.

Overnight, the university backed down, giving protesters a 48-hour extension if the group agreed to bar students from the camp and remove a certain number of tents. A spokeswoman later denied the university suggested calling in the National Guard.

Despite clashes and allegations of anti-Semitic activity outside the university's gates, police have described students inside the camp as peaceful and harmonious.

Organizers said they had removed a few tents for fire safety reasons, but outsiders were allowed to camp as long as they followed social guidelines, including taking photos, littering or engaging with protesters. They said they had no intention of leaving until their demands were met.

Opponents of the camp say it has disrupted campus life, forcing many of the university's entrances to be closed to non-students, to the detriment of Jewish students.

Israeli graduate student Omar Lubedon Granot, who is studying for a master's in public administration at Columbia, said the university should have taken “more decisive action” in removing the camp. He accused the protesters of adopting an aggressive anti-Zionist stance.

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“They cancel my identity, they threaten me as an Israeli and as a Jew,” he said.

Officials including President Joe Biden and Democratic New York Gov. Cathy Hochul have also condemned what they described as anti-Semitism associated with the protests. On Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson held a news conference in Columbia to condemn the camp, drawing jeers from many students.

Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, noted this week that many of the students were sleeping in identical tents, which he said could indicate that “outside rebels” were responsible for organizing the camp, an unsubstantiated claim that had previously circulated among some. Right-wing news media and New York police officers.

Laila Saliba, a Palestinian American graduate student at Columbia School of Social Work, rejected the idea. The students leading the protest were often “nerds” who enjoyed long meetings and consensus building.

“To say it's AstroTurfed or paid for, when the students are laying the groundwork for it from the beginning, is ridiculous,” he said.

As for the unity of the tents, he said the brand was ordered in bulk by student organizers. As the camp has expanded, students have brought their own camping gear, he said, pointing out the various sleeping arrangements on the bustling lawn.

“There are a lot of people here who want to camp in Columbia,” he added. “I admit it was a bit surprising.”

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This story has been edited to correct that Saliba, a graduate student at Columbia School of Social Work, did not attend Barnard.

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