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Australian student protests show US campus divisions over Gaza war are going global

<i>Angus Watson/CNN via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Students say they will stay at the University of Sydney for as long as it takes for their demands to be met.
Angus Watson/CNN via CNN Newsource
Students say they will stay at the University of Sydney for as long as it takes for their demands to be met.

By Hilary Whiteman and Angus Watson, CNN

Brisbane/Sydney, Australia (CNN) — The grassy expanse of the University of Queensland’s Great Court has long been the center of student life at the Australian state’s biggest university.

Now it’s a gathering point for rival camps pitched around 100 meters (328 feet) from each other – one populated by supporters of the Students for Palestine UQ, and another smaller cluster of tents with the Israeli flag among others strung between trees.

In the past 10 days, pro-Palestinian protest camps have appeared at seven universities around Australia – from Melbourne and Sydney in the country’s southeast, to Adelaide in its center, and Perth along the western coast.

They were erected in solidarity with Palestinians under Israeli siege in Gaza and student protesters in the United States.

And it’s not just Australia. Students at some universities in the United Kingdom have also set up pro-Palestinian encampments in recent days. In France, pro-Palestinian protests erupted at the Sciences Po university in Paris last week and at the Sorbonne university Monday.

So far, violent scenes that have erupted at universities across the US involving protesters, counter-protesters and law enforcement have not been repeated in Australia. But some students worry events could move in that direction.

Some Jewish groups say the protests are causing unnecessary tension on campus, and the country’s federal opposition leader has called them “racist” and “antisemitic.”

At the pro-Israel “Camp Shalom” at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Jewish students said they were on edge after strangers came into the camp and spat on a sign attached to a tree that reads “Zionist and proud.”

From the other side of the Great Court, Liam Parry from Students for Palestine UQ camp said, “We’re here to speak up for Palestine and we’re not interested in people trying to provoke a fight or anything like that.” He said there’d been no interaction between the two opposing camps. “We’ve basically been ignoring them,” he added.

Meanwhile, at Monash University in Melbourne, Students for Palestine organizers said in the early hours of Thursday, a group of 12 people wearing Australian and Israeli flags tore down Palestinian flags and trashed the camp kitchen.

“We will not be intimidated by these people,” said Students for Palestine Monash representative Madeline Curkovic.

Tensions build over ‘intifada’ video

About 50 tents line the quadrangle at the University of Sydney, where up to 100 protesters are sleeping each night.

It’s been relatively peaceful so far. The students are mindful of scenes in the US, where police have made hundreds of arrests on campuses across the country and have sent officers to clear camps and building occupations.

“I think we’re very concerned to see a repeat of the scenes in America, which have been truly horrifying,” said Shovan Bhattarai, a 25-year-old USYD history student.

Jasmine Al-Rawi, convenor of the USYD Students For Palestine, said they’ve planned a “peaceful, static demonstration.”

“We want to just stay here, to say that we have a right to protest peacefully, here on our campus, and demand an end to a genocide,” said Al-Rawi, 21, who studies architecture.

But Jewish groups say USYD is not a safe space as long as the protests are allowed to continue, and on Friday called supporters to march against what they call “a disturbing trend of antisemitic and anti-Israel activities” at the university.

More than 200 people, some wearing Israeli and Australian flags, gathered at the Sydney campus, but there was no direct encounter between them and the pro-Palestinian group, which had urged followers to help them “defend” their camp.

In a show of unity, some pro-Palestinian protesters formed a human chain around the camp, but as of mid-morning there was no sign the pro-Israel protesters had any intention of attempting to breach it.

Tali Hamilton, a science student at the counter-rally, said the pro-Israel protesters tried to talk to members of the pro-Palestinian camp, but they walked away.

“The whole thing is horrific, what happened in October is horrific and what has happened after is horrific. We don’t want war, but the perpetrators are Hamas. To look at the news makes me want to crawl into a hole,” she said.

The invitation to Friday’s counter-rally – organized by Together for Israel and Stand with Us – pointed to a video that circulated on social media last week that showed children attending an excursion to the pro-Palestine camp, during which a child led chants of “intifada,” the Arabic word for uprising, and “from the river to the sea.”

“This is unacceptable and we cannot allow universities to condone such actions on their campuses,” the invitation said.

The chant “from the river to the sea” has long been heard at pro-Palestinian rallies around the world and is often accompanied by the phrase “Palestine will be free.” The phrase demands equal rights and the independence of Palestinians, although in some cases it is intended to call for the abolishment of Israel.

In response, pro-Palestinian groups rallied behind the organizer of the children’s event, author and academic Randa Abdel-Fattah, with more than 1,100 people signing a letter of support.

Abdel-Fattah said in a lengthy statement on social media platform X that children were offered the megaphone “to lead chants of their choosing, hoping to give them a sense of agency in a moment of distress.”

Those that “jumped at the opportunity had been to the weekly rallies for over 7 months, observing and participating in chants and calls for justice, freedom and an end to the slaughter,” she wrote.

She said attempts to depict the children as “radicalized and violent extremists” was “reprehensible.”

Members of Students for Palestine told CNN on Thursday their protest includes a diverse array of students and does not tolerate any form of discrimination.

Calls for universities to cut ties with Israel

Scenes of violent clashes at US colleges have made the protesters in Australia even more determined to dig in – and for now, Australian universities have not signaled any intent to remove them.

Mark Scott, vice chancellor of the University of Sydney, suggested a US-style police response was unlikely to unfold on campus.

“I am not convinced what is happening on US campuses demonstrates a pathway to greater safety and security for any students or staff, nor helps to build a community committed to free speech and thoughtful exchanges of divergent views,” Scott said.

He said he was “shocked” to see children involved in the protest last week, and understood how upsetting it was for some people. “You will get moments in protests that can be uncomfortable and upsetting,” he added.

In a statement, the University of Queensland said it’s “committed to freedom of speech and is reiterating expectations that while expressing their views, people treat one another with dignity and respect to ensure our community can go about their studies, research, work or other activities.”

Similar to demands from protests at other universities, Students for Palestine UQ want the university to disclose all links to Israeli companies and universities, and cut ties with weapons companies.

This week they yelled slogans outside the Boeing-led Research Center, which opened on campus in 2017 to allow the aircraft manufacturer’s staff to collaborate with university researchers and students.

Boeing has links to Israel that date back “more than 75 years” and supplies the Israel Defense Forces with nine products, according to its website. Its involvement in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has also angered student protesters in the US.

The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN) has called on Australian universities to protect the right of students to peaceful protest, saying their action is justified.

“It is unconscionable that our educational institutions are cultivating relationships with a genocidal regime and companies and entities that profit from Israel’s brutality towards Palestinians,” said APAN President Nasser Mashni.

But Danny Channan, a member of the small Queensland Jewish community, said allowing protesters to camp on site created a culture of fear among Jewish students.

He and others set up “Camp Shalom” as a safe space for students and staff to gather and discuss what’s going on, but he says they’ll respect the wishes of the university if they’re asked to leave.

“At the moment we see no purpose in encamping other than as a reactionary element, to provide a different sentiment, a different feeling and to provide a safe space,” he told CNN.

So far, he says there’s been no meeting across the path that cuts through the lawn on the Great Court that separates the two camps – something he hopes might change in time.

“I would love a world where instead of instead of, ‘I’m on Team Israel’ or ‘I’m on team Palestine,’ we’re just waving two flags and saying, I’m on ‘Team let’s figure this out.’”

This story has been updated with additional information. Alex Hardie and Catherine Nicholls in London; Joseph Ataman, Julen Chavin and Chris Liakos in Paris; and Teele Rebane in Hong Kong contributed reporting.

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