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Pro-Palestinian encampment grows at Montreal’s McGill university

More than 2 dozen tents were set up as of Sunday afternoon
Pro-Palestinian student activists in Montreal have set up camp on the grounds of McGill University, following a wave of similar protests on campuses across the United States. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators at an encampment at McGill University in Montreal, Saturday, April 27, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Pro-Palestinian student activists in Montreal have set up camp on the grounds of McGill University this weekend, following a wave of similar protests on campuses across the United States.

More than two dozen tents had been pitched at the school’s downtown campus on Sunday afternoon, with a steady stream of visitors stopping by to drop off donations and supplies.

“Ruth,” a McGill student and spokesperson who didn’t want to give her full name for fear of reprisals from the school or police, said the campers intend to remain indefinitely.

She said student activists from McGill and Concordia universities are demanding their schools divest and cut ties and funding from Israeli institutions and companies in response to Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

McGill issued a statement Sunday saying the university is in talks with lawyers retained by the demonstrators and is working with Montreal police to preserve campus safety, noting the protests have been peaceful and are contained to the lower field.

The encampment spokesperson said the Montreal students have been inspired by the dozens of pro-Palestinian protests that have appeared at campuses across the United States against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war. Critics argue the protests are antisemitic and leave Jewish students feeling unsafe.

“It’s an incredible movement, and we feel like it’s our time to contribute to that movement and try and refocus all our energy on Gaza, in the situation that is still costing thousands of lives as we speak,” Ruth said.

The Associated Press reported that nearly 900 people had been arrested in U.S. college protests since April 18, when New York police removed a pro-Palestinian protest encampment at Columbia University and arrested more than 100 demonstrators.

The tensions are tied to the ongoing conflict in Gaza, which began after Hamas launched a deadly attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking roughly 250 hostages. Vowing to stamp out Hamas, Israel launched an offensive in Gaza. In the ensuing war, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry.

While Montreal police could be seen parked on nearby streets and campus security were present, there were no signs of conflict at McGill on Sunday.

Dozens of supporters clapped and waved Palestinian flags near the encampment as a speaker on a megaphone chanted “Disclose. Divest. We will not stop, we will not rest.”

A number of young people sat in tents and under tarps to hide from the drizzle in the encampment, which was flanked by a large banner reading “Ceasefire!” Someone had written the words “Viva viva Intifada” and “Free Palestine” in chalk on the gates leading to the school.

Intifada is an Arabic word with meanings that include shaking off oppression. In English, it is most commonly associated with two periods of particular intensity in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which included a series of attacks by Palestinian terrorist groups on public venues inside Israel.

In a video published to social media late Saturday, MP Anthony Housefather called on McGill to dismantle the encampment, with the help of police if needed. He said that while people have a right to protest, encampments violate “pretty much every code of conduct,” including McGill’s.

“I call upon the McGill administration in public, as I have in private, to make sure this encampment is removed, according to their own rules, given that we need to make sure students feel safe accessing campus for their final exams that are coming up,” he said in a video on X.

Jewish organization B’nai Brith Canada, meanwhile, urged the public to write to provincial higher education ministers to denounce what it called “a horrifying normalization of antisemitism on university campuses,” including McGill.

Ruth, the student spokesperson, said the campers haven’t yet experienced any reprisals from the police or the school, but are prepared for it to happen.

She said the campers had no intention of leaving, and said their numbers had grown since the encampment was set up on Saturday.

“We just want to make sure that all eyes are on Gaza, all eyes on Rafah, all eyes on Palestine, that is our fundamental goal,” she said.

READ ALSO: Pro-Palestine protests broken up after disrupting B.C. port

— With files from Dylan Robertson in Ottawa and The Associated Press

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press