The Platform

Pro-Palestinian camp at the University of Oregon. (David Geitgey Sierralupe)

The Gaza conflict has sparked widespread pro-Palestinian protests on U.S. campuses, resulting in numerous arrests and calls for divestment from companies linked to Israel.

On May 19, the conflict in Gaza reached a new peak with an intensified campaign of Israeli airstrikes and fighting in northern Gaza. Israeli forces have heavily restricted this area for several months. The United Nations humanitarian chief has warned of “apocalyptic” consequences due to severe aid shortages in Gaza, particularly highlighting the blockade of essential food supplies in the southern city of Rafah.

Since the onset of the conflict on October 7, 2023, more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 83,000 injured due to the Israeli military offensive in Gaza. In the initial attack on October 7, 1,139 people were killed, and 251 individuals were taken hostage, with 120 still unaccounted for.

This conflict has sparked an unprecedented wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and sit-ins, particularly on university campuses in the United States. American university students have been at the forefront of these protests, continuing a legacy of public demonstrations that have historically influenced U.S. politics. The current protest movement is certainly part and parcel of that proud legacy.

By April 29, at least 900 students and faculty members had been arrested as protesters continued to demand a ceasefire in Gaza and divestment from companies enabling Israel’s nearly seven-month war on Gaza. The protests have grown violent as law enforcement agencies have tried to remove students and faculty from encampments and protest sites. Several students had been suspended, put on probation, and, in rare cases, expelled from their colleges. The protesting students received threats, were subjected to abuse, and received no protection from their institutions.

Some universities had to cancel graduation ceremonies, while others have seen their buildings, quadrangles, and courtyards occupied by the protesters. Among an array of demands, several protest movements have called for their schools to divest from Israel or weapons manufacturers related to the war. They have accused administrators across the country of weaponizing public safety and disingenuous claims of “antisemitism” to crack down on protests.

Pro-Palestinian camp at Brown University
Pro-Palestinian camp at Brown University. (Kenneth C. Zirkel)

By May 2, pro-Palestine protests in U.S. universities had intensified, with violence reported on campuses and over 300 being arrested. In recent days, students have rallied or set up encampments at dozens of universities expressing opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza and demanding institutes divest from companies that support Israel’s government. On May 3, Rutgers University leaders agreed to several of a 10-point list of demands from the protesters, including a commitment to explore creating an Arab cultural center, to implement support for 10 displaced Palestinian students to finish their education at Rutgers, and to follow university policy and review the student movement’s main demand that universities divest from companies with business interests in Israel.

President Biden said in a brief statement on May 3. “We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent,” said Joe Biden. “But,” he continued, “order must prevail. Violent protest is not protected – peaceful protest is,” he said. Biden criticized what he called “violent” protests. “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations – none of this is a peaceful protest.” “There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos,” the U.S. president said. In response to a reporter’s question, he said he did not think it was the right time to call the National Guard.

Brown University in Rhode Island was the first U.S. college to agree to a divestment vote in October. It was a rare example of authorities de-escalating protests. Demonstrators agreed to dismantle their encampment at Brown, which had been removed by April 30, and university leaders said they would discuss, and later vote on, divesting funds from companies connected to the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. The agreement came even as scenes of chaos continued to overtake U.S. universities, with protesters at Columbia in New York and Portland State in Oregon occupying buildings, and demonstrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill replacing an American flag at the center of campus with a Palestinian one. More than a thousand people have been arrested over the past two weeks after a crackdown on a pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia in New York resulted in a cascade of student activism across the country.

The University of Southern California told its valedictorian, who publicly backed Palestinians, that she could not deliver her keynote speech at its graduation ceremony because of security concerns. The student-led DePaul University Divestment Coalition, which is calling on the university to divest from economic interests tied to Israel, set up the encampment nearly two weeks ago. The group alleged university officials walked away from talks and tried to force students into signing an agreement, according to a student statement.

After weeks of intense protests, the demonstrations have become less intense. American universities are now on a summer break. However, students remain determined to continue the protests till there is a ceasefire in Gaza. Earlier, the students had built encampments and were demanding that their institutions snap ties with Israeli companies that are funding them.

Experts on protest movements are saying it is difficult to maintain the intensity of the demonstrations after the students are gone from the campus. They are also saying this might lead to a protest on the streets, but the on-campus protests might get a break. Diane Fisher, an academic on protest movements, doesn’t “see enough organizational infrastructure to sustain a bunch of young people who are involved in a movement when they are not on campus.” Fisher has also said the police response to these protests has further fueled the youth on the college campus. Michael Heaney, a researcher on the U.S. protests and demonstrations, said there are more ways to protest and not just on campus. The movement has gone into deep pockets of the country and can take to other public spaces.

Pro-Palestinian camp at the University of Oregon
Pro-Palestinian camp at the University of Oregon. (David Geitgey Sierralupe)

Pro-Palestinian college protests have been making headlines recently as administrations take action to break up demonstrations and manage the unrest on their campuses. In May, 763 current full-time U.S. college students were surveyed to understand how they feel about the pro-Palestinian protests happening on college campuses. The survey disclosed that: 55% of college students say there are pro-Palestinian protests on their campus; 65% of students are very supportive (36%) or somewhat supportive (29%) of the protests happening on college campuses; more than one-third of protest supporters are in favor of the use of violence and hate speech; more than half of protest supporters say they sympathize with Hamas; 1 in 10 protestors admit to having an unfavorable opinion of Jewish people; 9% of college students don’t believe Israel has the right to exist; 19% are unsure, and 71% say it does.

Meanwhile, in response to ongoing student-led protests, police departments conducted violent, and, in many cases, tear gas-filled raids of anti-genocide encampments. In addition to the arrest, many students are facing suspension from their universities for participating in demonstrations. Since the initial arrest of 108 students in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University on April 18, police in the U.S. have arrested over 2,800 people. However, the mass arrests and attacks on students have not stopped anti-genocide encampments and anti-war protests from forming. An analysis by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) found that pro-Palestine demonstrations involving American students had nearly tripled in April compared to March. Student protests since October have remained peaceful 99 percent of the time, with the only notable exception being the UCLA encampment from April 30 to May 1.

To understand the protest phenomenon, one must try to know the context of these student demonstrations, which is only possible by carefully listening to the arguments available from the participants themselves. After all, something very significant had galvanized them into the serious action they have taken to be effective, as they see it. Perceptions matter in politics as they shape the reality of participants in complex ways.

In a changed tone, President Joe Biden told a graduation ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, that he would listen to “non-violent” protests after demonstrations over Israel’s war in Gaza roiled U.S. campuses in recent weeks. “I support the peaceful non-violent protest. Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them.” Biden said, “What’s happening in Israel and Gaza is heartbreaking.” In his address, Biden called for an immediate ceasefire and said his administration is working on a deal “as we speak” so that Israelis taken hostage can be returned home, and more humanitarian aid can get into war-torn Gaza. Biden said he’s also working on a two-state agreement to create “everlasting peace” between the Israelis and Palestinians in the region in a post-Hamas era so that both sides can have “security and dignity.”

Given the strong sway of public opinion in support of Palestine in the world, the global leadership is expected to act. However, it remains to be seen whether the world’s leadership can meet these extraordinary challenges, and the world is watching how the leaders act to meet them, or otherwise. Given the large scale of the student protest phenomenon, it can have influence now as it is becoming increasingly popular with the people. It will be more effective in the West, as the policymakers succumb to sheer political pressure from within. Also, the leadership of the Arab and Muslim world is apt to listen increasingly to their people who are making a strong statement in favor of Palestinian independence. Some recent developments lead to hope that a tipping point of sorts has indeed been reached on the Palestinian issue.

On May 16, the Manama Arab League summit produced good ideas about a UN conference to be followed by a new UN peacekeeping force. Therefore, the global leadership must now follow up on the Bahrain Summit at the level of experts to formulate an action plan to first end the Gaza war, and then establish an interim setup to rule the enclave, as per the aspirations of the Palestinian populace. Nothing else will be sufficient to meet the rising expectations of the world public. It is global public opinion that has galvanized in an unprecedented manner against the atrocities and callousness of Israel in Gaza.

For the first time in history, student demonstrations have simultaneously shaken up the ruling elites of so many countries to do something for the Palestinians in their hour of intense suffering and need. It is hoped that the Bahrain summit will be the catalyst for robust united global action leading to an effective outcome leading to an eventual two-state solution. It is earnestly hoped that this time around there will be serious action by the global leadership. Given the troubled history of the Middle East region, only an independent and sovereign Palestine can bring the volatile region to peace and security. Nothing else can work.

Much depends on the next steps taken to achieve tangible outcomes of the Bahrain Summit declaration. The impetus of the whole new movement rests on just a few countries, the U.S., the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Qatar. The leadership of the new effort rests on the shoulders of two world leaders: Primarily, President Biden and secondary Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman alone.

Whether they will be able to deliver remains to be seen. The world anxiously awaits their arrival and hopes they will succeed somehow. Bold action and single-minded focus are now needed to bring an end to the Gaza war and establish an independent Palestine, ushering in regional peace and security.

Sohail Mahmood is an independent political analyst focused on global politics, U.S. foreign policy, governance, and the politics of South and West Asia.