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Pro-Palestinian encampment remains at University of Toronto despite safety concerns

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Protesters donned rain ponchos and huddled in tents at a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Toronto on Friday as they faced wet and windy conditions during the second day of a demonstration calling on the school to distance itself from Israel.

The encampment — one of several established at Canadian university campuses in recent days — went up early Thursday morning after students said they breached the fence around an area on the downtown campus known as King's College Circle.

The camp remained overnight following an evening rally, and protesters spent part of Friday securing tents and other materials to withstand the wind.

The overnight stay went "quite peacefully," said Mohammad Yassin, a fourth-year student and one of the protest's spokespeople. It was a little bit cold but "generally, everyone was in quite high spirits," he said.

Yassin, who has relatives in Gaza, said the demonstration and its cause are "very personal" to him.

"This entire academic year has been overshadowed by what's going on in Gaza," he said.

"There are a lot of students here at U of T who are experiencing this, and we feel that the administration themselves have been very negligent to our experience ... simply because we have a voice that they're not appreciative of."

The university has said the tents, banners and flags at the encampment are a safety concern, and had asked the students to leave by 10 p.m. Thursday. However, as the deadline approached, administrators went on to say that they didn't intend to remove protesters if their activities remained peaceful.

On Friday, the university said it was “increasingly concerned” about reports of threats, discriminatory language and hate speech, as well as safety, trespassing and “other illegal activity.”

“It remains unclear how many of the protesters are U of T students and how many are members of the general public,” the university wrote in a statement in response to questions about the encampment.

“U of T students who contravene university policy risk consequences, including suspension, as outlined in the Code of Student Conduct. All protest participants who engage in illegal activity are subject to consequences under Canadian and Ontario law.”

In a message to the community, the university's vice-provost of students, Sandy Welsh, raised concerns over fire safety and said there had been reports of protesters “dumping biowaste and other materials” on the campus gardens and grass.

Erin Mackey, one of the protest organizers, said those who stayed overnight were students, faculty members and members of the university community.

Mackey has said demonstrators were joining students at other universities in Canada and the United States in setting up encampments to call on their schools to disclose ties with the Israeli government and divest from Israeli companies.

"If (university administrators) want this encampment cleared, that's what they could do — they could make a commitment to divest," she said Friday.

"This encampment, however long it lasts, whatever happens next, students will be continuing to make this demand and continuing to demand that you have to divest from Israeli apartheid."

Kalliope Anvar McCall, a fourth-year student taking part in the protest, said they were ready to stay “long term.”

While there are some challenges in camping out, those aren't important, McCall said.

“This isn't about us. And we're not asking the community members or listeners here to stand in solidarity with us - we're asking you to stand in solidarity with Palestine.”

The International Court of Justice is investigating whether Israel has committed acts of genocide in the ongoing war in Gaza, with a ruling expected to take years. Israel has rejected allegations of wrongdoing and accused the court of bias.

Israel's campaign in Gaza was launched after Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 men women and children hostage. The Israeli offensive has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials.

The war has wreaked vast destruction and brought a humanitarian disaster with several thousand Palestinians in northern Gaza facing imminent famine, according to the United Nations.

Alejandro Paz, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and a member of the Jewish Faculty Network, said the students protesting were “not obstructing anyone” but rather learning and thinking together outside the classroom or lab.

“It's a little bit weird for the president of the university not to be willing to come here and engage and see what a remarkable set of students at the university that he's president of,” Paz said. “This is really exciting. Students are taking their education extremely seriously.”

Pro-Palestinian activists have also set up tents at McGill University in Montreal, the University of Ottawa and the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver.

The University of Manitoba said it is aware of a planned three-day encampment at its Fort Garry campus in Winnipeg next week.

By Friday, the encampment at McGill's downtown campus had grown steadily from a few tents to several dozen surrounded by metal fencing. But protester Ali Salman, 19, said there is "no plan" to grow it beyond the 100 people he said are camping overnight.

"We've had hundreds of people saying 'we want to camp,' but since we are not growing the camp we couldn't let them in." One hundred campers, he said, "is more than enough."

Salman, a Concordia University political science student, has been at the site since the first tents went up last Saturday. If the encampment grows any bigger, he said, the activists will start having problems managing supplies and taking care of everyone.

"But if we see there is no communication with McGill, then we might reconsider," he said, referencing the demands he and other protesters have made to the university to cut ties with Israeli institutions and to divest investments that are tied to companies supporting the war in Gaza.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault on Thursday said any encampments at McGill would need to be taken down. However, Salman said he has seen no desire on the part of the police or the city to dismantle the encampment, adding he and other protesters will stay there all summer if needed to ensure their demands are met.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the encampments at an unrelated news conference in Hamilton on Friday and emphasized the need to balance the rights of protesters and those of others on campuses.

"I think we have to remember what universities are — universities are places of learning, universities are places where freedom of speech, the freedom of ideas, the challenge of debate, of dialogue, of discussion about how to shape the world, how to see the world ... are a core part of what campuses are all about," he said.

"At the same time, we need to make sure that as part of that everyone can feel safe on campus, whether you're a Jewish student, whether you're Palestinian, whether you have strong feelings on one side or the other. And on that we have to trust both universities to manage their campuses right, and local police of jurisdiction to do their work to make sure that everyone is safe."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2024 

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