Published May 2, 2024

(Updated) Students set up pro-Palestinian encampment protest at University of Toronto

By Fakiha Baig and Paola Loriggio

Updated May 2, 2024 @ 5:08pm

Tents, banners and flags cropped up at the centre of the University of Toronto's downtown campus Thursday as students set up an encampment to call on the institution to cut its ties with Israel over the ongoing war in Gaza. 

The students said they breached a fence that had been installed around an area on campus known as King's College Circle around 4 a.m. to establish their protest encampment in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

They said they 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.

"We're planning to stay as long as we need to get our demands. What we're doing here is basically nothing compared to what the people in Palestine are going through," Mohammad Yassin, a fourth-year student with relatives in Gaza and a refugee camp in Lebanon, said at the encampment.

"This is not just some some childish thing – we're here just to make our voice heard and we're standing firm and we want our demands to be heard. We want the university to acknowledge that the students are not in agreement with what it's doing."

The encampment at the University of Toronto comes as pro-Palestinian activists have pitched their tents on campuses across the country in recent days, including encampments at McGill University in Montreal, the University of Ottawa and the University of British Columbia. Demonstrations were continuing at all three of those campuses Thursday.

In Toronto, Erin Mackey, one of the protest organizers, said students "from all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of religions" were on site, as well as a number of faculty members. 

"We are all standing together in solidarity, demanding that our university, that we all attend, that we are all part of it, is no longer complicit in this genocide."

The International Court of Justice is investigating whether Israel has committed acts of genocide in the ongoing war in Gaza, with any 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.

Mackey, who is with the group U of T Occupy for Palestine, said students had occupied a space outside the university president's office a few weeks ago and eventually were able to meet with him but were not satisfied with the outcome of that discussion. 

"I have spent four years here and spent a lot of money on tuition and I'm graduating, which is really exciting. But ... there are many, many students who are just like me (in Gaza) who should be graduating and celebrating, but unfortunately they are unable to do so," Mackey said. 

By late Thursday morning, dozens of tents could be seen set up at the centre of King's College Circle – which protesters said they were now calling the People's Circle for Palestine – with a few police cars and private security vehicles seen parked nearby. 

Some protesters held up pro-Palestinian banners and signs were put up in trees. Some people were seen sitting together on tarps laid out on the grass, while others walked around. Several wore keffiyehs, a checkered scarf typically worn in Arab cultures that has come to symbolize, in part, solidarity with Palestinians.

As the day went on, some napped inside the tents or grabbed water, coffee or fruit from a refreshments table, while onlookers peered at the demonstration through a fence. 

Signs announcing the "temporary closure" of the grounds were taped to the fence that protest organizers said was put up last week. The signs said the closure was "for protection due to concerns about unauthorized activity." 

Mackey said protesters had been told they would have to vacate the encampment by 10 p.m. but the group had no plans to leave.

A written notice given to protesters said the university respects its members' right to assemble and protest but unauthorized activities such as encampments "are considered trespassing." 

The university noted that protest activities "must not interfere with the ability of students, faculty, librarians and staff to learn, teach, research and work."

"Our preference is to start with dialogue," it wrote in a statement to media Thursday. "Those who contravene university policy or the law risk the consequences set out in various laws and policies ... which could include suspension."

In an email to students, Sandy Welsh, the university's vice-provost of students, said that while the school welcomes and encourages the exchange of ideas, "we will not tolerate actions that contravene our policies or that break the law, that introduce hate speech or that threaten the physical safety of U of T community members."

Chandni Desai, an assistant professor at the university, attended Thursday's protest to show support. She said many of her students have been affected by the conflict.

"We have international students that are from that region that are watching their entire infrastructure being destroyed," she said.

"Our students are compassionate. Our students are brilliant, critical thinkers. ... They're trying to put into action some of the things that they're learning in their classrooms when it comes to especially thinking about international law, when it comes to thinking about justice, when it comes to thinking about issues around race and racism and colonial violence."  

Ted Turner, a retired electrical worker, stopped by the demonstration to show solidarity and drop off toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

"I may come back in a couple of days to see what else they need. But I'm feeling pretty positive seeing the students here," said the 77-year-old.

In Montreal, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters held duelling protests Thursday on either side of a fence leading to McGill University, where police officers formed a line to ensure the two sides stayed apart.

An hour-and-a-half after they began, the protests were heated but peaceful, as each side blasted music, shouted slogans and waved Israeli or Palestinian flags.

On school property, supporters surrounded the pro-Palestinian encampment that has formed since Saturday. While a group of what appeared to be mostly Jewish Palestinian supporters – including several rabbis – formed a line facing the pro-Israel crowd, organizers could be seen encouraging the rest of the supporters to stay further back.

Mary Ellen Davis, a part-time faculty member at nearby Concordia University, said she came to show solidarity with those protesting Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

“We all have to share the struggle for justice, peace, the end of genocide, the end of apartheid,” she said.

Sixty-year-old Ron Poole-Dayan, who was born and lived most of his life in Israel, said some 100 members of the kibbutz where he used to live had been killed in the Hamas militant attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and he knew others who had been taken hostage.

Poole-Dayan, who has two university-aged children, said things have become “very unsafe and unpleasant” for Jewish students on campuses, and said his property was vandalized after he hung an Israeli flag.

Quebec Premier François Legault said any encampments at McGill would need to be taken down.

"We all worry about what's happening in Gaza. People can show their positions during demonstrations, these are allowed. But they cannot have encampments on university sites," he said.

"The law has to be respected, and I expect the police to dismantle these camps, and it's what McGill asked for. I'll let police decide how and when they do it but the camps have to be dismantled."

A protest encampment at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver had nearly doubled in size since Monday, with the perimeter of barriers previously taking up half a soccer field now occupying nearly all of it.

A spokeswoman for the group said up to 80 people were planning to stay overnight. Protesters appeared to prepare for a prolonged stay, with a small potted-plant garden and arts station cropping up among the tents.

– With files from Morgan Lowrie in Montreal and Chuck Chiang in Vancouver

Banner image: A protester attaches a Palestinian flag to a tent at an encampment set up on the University of Toronto campus on Thursday, May 2, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2024.

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