Australian university students are camping out in support of Gaza. Here’s what you need to know

<span>The pro-Palestinian student protesters who set up the camp at the University of Sydney want disclosure of and divestment from all university activities that support Israel, as well as a ceasefire and the end of government ties to Israel.</span><span>Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian</span>
The pro-Palestinian student protesters who set up the camp at the University of Sydney want disclosure of and divestment from all university activities that support Israel, as well as a ceasefire and the end of government ties to Israel.Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Protests in support of Gaza have spread to about 50 US universities and are now in four Australian universities, with students committed to permanently occupying university land until their demands for divestment are met.

What are the Gaza encampment protests?

Columbia University in New York has become the centre of a spate of pro-Palestinian camps in universities across the US. The camps are an extension of protests that have been taking place on campuses since 7 October, with students demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and a complete divestment of university ties to Israel.

Hundreds of US university protesters have been arrested. On Monday Columbia protesters rejected an ultimatum to disband the camp, with university management suspending students in response.

The US demonstrations have triggered allegations of antisemitism amid reports by Jewish students that they have been subjected to threats and slurs. Protest activists in the US, in response, have asserted that the charges of antisemitism have been ramped up in an effort to silence criticism of Israel.

When did the movement start in Australia?

University of Sydney students set up a camp last Tuesday. The camp has consistently had more than 40 and up to about 60 campers each night, with a rally last Wednesday drawing about 200 people. The movement has since spread – the University of Melbourne joined on Thursday, while camps were established on Monday at the University of Queensland and the Australian National University in Canberra. A camp is expected to be set up at Curtin University in Perth on Wednesday. Protesters say the camps will remain until their demands are met.

The movement’s Australian branches have been applauded by US protesters, including those from the New School in New York and from New York University.

Who is protesting?

Students, staff and the broader pro-Palestinian community. One of those is Shovan Bhattarai, 25, who is studying history and is an organiser of the camp at the University of Sydney.

“We see ourselves as part of this global wave,” she said. Bhattarai said genocide and the indiscriminate killing of people was happening, and claimed that was backed by the Australian government and Sydney University.

The camp is serving as a hub for other Sydney universities that do not have their own encampments. A Macquarie University student, Malak Aldabbas, 19, has been visiting on a daily basis. “As a Palestinian, it is my cause, I have to fight for it,” she said. “I can’t stay silent.”

A University of Sydney staff member, Linda Koria, 35, is from Iraq and lost her father in the Iraq war. “As someone who lived through [war], I can’t help but empathise with the Palestinian cause,” she said.

What are protesters demanding?

The students want disclosure of and divestment from all university activities that support Israel, as well as a ceasefire and the end of government ties to the Jewish state.

“We want the University of Sydney to completely cut ties with weapons companies,” Bhattarai said, referencing the university’s “memorandum of understanding” with the French multinational Thales, and links to the US defence contractor Raytheon. “Most blatantly,” she said, the university’s chancellor, Belinda Hutchinson, is one of the directors on Thales’ board.

A high school student, Ewan Polios, 16, began camping at the University of Sydney last week and left when school term began on Tuesday. He said it was “awful” that the university administration considered it normal to have ties to weapons companies supplying to Israel. “I will give up my holidays [to demand an end] to that,” he said.

At the University of Queensland, protesters are demanding the institution close its Boeing Research and Technology Australia Centre and divest from companies with “direct and indirect ties to Israel”, including BAE and Northrop Grumman.

University of Melbourne students are taking aim at the institution’s links to defence companies including Lockheed Martin, which has given $3.5m towards PhD scholarships and research projects since 2016.

ANU students are demanding an end to the university’s investments in BAE, Lockeed Martin and Northrup Grumman amounting to $479,000, and to cut ties with its exchange partner the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

What is happening at the University of Sydney?

About 40 tents sit in the university’s most prominent spot, under the shadow of the historic clock tower, with views of the city. There are also larger communal food and meeting tents. Talks are hosted and sessions have been held in which messages from US camps are read out. The camp is peaceful, with routine checks by campus security.

Many non-protesting students appear to support the camp, with donations of hot meals and cash pouring in. A tent full of food has everything from two-minute noodles to biscuits, popcorn and trays of fruit. Other donations include a shisha pipe, tents, mattresses, camping chairs, tables and waterproof boxes in preparation for bad weather this week. “We’ve been overwhelmed,” Bhattarai said.

Students on campus who were not part of the demonstration supported the protesters’ rights to establish an encampment, despite graduation ceremonies scheduled later in the week.

The president of the Students Representative Council, Harrison Brennan, 21, said the camp was “spectacular” despite being a “highly disruptive action by virtue of how we’re set up”.

“This can be a really long-term thing,” he said. “And I think the university would get a lot of criticism from the broader community who have come out to support us if they were to dare [to] call police [in].”

What is the reaction of Jewish university students?

Some are part of the protests but many are not – and increasing antisemitism is making many avoid campus, according to Zac Morris, the vice-president of the Australian Union of Jewish Students NSW.

He said the University of Sydney encampment was “concerning” because the protests were inspired by the US, where Jews have been violently targeted and the terrorism of 7 October has been praised.

“Jewish students are scared to come to [the University of Sydney] campus,” Morris said.

Even before the encampment, University of Sydney students had received death threats and been advised to stay at home by police, had food thrown at them and doxed, with photos taken and circulated of them, he said. He said university management was in a “difficult” position but had responded “inadequately”.

“It’s really different to what things were like before [7 October],” he said, describing Jewish students who were opting to attend lectures online. “There’s this feeling of having to kind of hide. Things have progressed and are well past the point of what should be acceptable.”

During Tuesday’s encampment rally at the university, the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network president, Nasser Mashni, said antisemitism had no place in the movement.

How have university administrations reacted?

A University of Sydney spokesperson said the institution was “carefully monitoring the gathering at our quadrangle in line with our crowd management protocols to ensure a safe environment for our community”.

They said any slogans, chants or actions that could be reasonably interpreted as implying support for violence, terrorism or infringing the rights of others or threatening the wellbeing of staff or students would not be tolerated. Graduation ceremonies were expected to go ahead this week as planned.

All four universities said they supported the rights of staff and students to peacefully protest in line with Australian law.

Echoing other universities, the University of Melbourne said it “deplores and actively stands against all forms of racism, including antisemitism and Islamophobia”.

“The university does not support the exercise of freedom of speech when the speech undermines the capacity of individuals to participate fully in the university, is unlawful, prejudices the fulfilment by the university of its duty to foster the safety and wellbeing of staff and students, or unreasonably disrupts activities or operations of the university,” a spokesperson said.

The University of Queensland vice-chancellor, Prof Deborah Terry, said the university “has robust processes for assessing and managing research partnerships that consider the ethical implications and their alignment with our core values”.

Additional reporting by Andrew Messenger