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As university says it will call police, students occupying Arts West dig in

On Wednesday, University of Melbourne leadership pleaded with pro-Palestine activists to end their occupation of the Arts West building. By Thursday afternoon, they warned they would call police to remove them. James Costa reports on two days of increasing tensions on campus.

As university says it will call police, students occupying Arts West dig in

Unimelb for Palestine activists vowed to continue their "sit-in" until the university discloses and divests ties with weapons manufacturers involved in the Israel-Hamas war. Deputy vice-chancellor Professor Michael Wesley described the action as “now seriously disruptive and seriously intimidating”. Photo: James Costa

Story and photos by James Costa

Despite repeated pleas from university administrators to student protestors to end their occupation of a major building on the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus over the past two days, and warnings they would otherwise summon police to remove them, about 200 pro-Palestinian students remained resolute on Thursday evening.

At 1:30pm on Wednesday, soon after the pro-Palestine activists flooded into the Arts West building, acting provost Professor Pip Nicholson addressed the sometimes rowdy but mostly respectful crowd.

“I beg of you, in respect of your peers, if not of your leaders, to leave this place, within an hour … this university does not want to see the escalation of, and consequences of, a sit-in that we cannot sanction,” Nicholson said. Protesters responded with cries: “Then don’t escalate!”

“In the event that you are not out of here within an hour,” Nicholson continued, “the university will make a decision that will regrettably, and unavoidably, escalate the tension.

“I leave you to resolve your way forward, but I want you to understand the choices you make this afternoon will have serious consequences.”

In response, protesters yelled “shame” and asked “is that a threat?” “The university is working out what it considers of your claims,” she continued.

“Seven months too late,” some yelled, “years too late,” another yelled, referring to a 2021 Guardian article, in which the World Health Organisation raised concerns about the university’s ties to Lockheed Martin. “Past the due date,” one student quipped.

On Thursday afternoon, the university released a video to media in which deputy vice-chancellor Professor Michael Wesley said that while students have a right to protest, they had crossed a line. The occupation was “now seriously disruptive and seriously intimidating”, he said, and had impacted 6000 students and cancelled 150 classes.

“I would say that all students and staff, all members of our community, must comply with the university’s guidelines and codes of conduct,” Wesley said. “If those codes of conduct are contravened, as they have been now, they will face, the people who are carrying them out, will face disciplinary action and police action.”

A student continues studying while ‘sitting-in’ in “Mahmoud’s Hall”. Photo by James Costa

A student continues studying while ‘sitting-in’ in “Mahmoud’s Hall”. Photo by James Costa

Activists from the Unimelb for Palestine encampment, which was established on the nearby South Lawn on April 25, entered Arts West on Wednesday, 15 May – Nakba day. This is the day Palestinians commemorate the 1948 “Nakba”, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were dispossessed of their homes in the war establishing the state of Israel.  Israel contests the assertion that it forced out Palestinians.

The protestors renamed the Arts West building “Mahmoud’s Hall”, in honour of a Palestinian student who won a scholarship to study in Australia but was killed by an Israeli airstrike, along with 20 family members, in Gaza on October 20, 2023. Mahmoud Alnaouq, 25, had worked as a translator for human rights groups, a journalist and at a Gaza-based think-tank. Last year, he received an Australia Awards Scholarship from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to pursue a master’s degree in international relations.

Students have vowed to host a “permanent sit-in” until the university divests and discloses ties with weapons manufacturers and, in their words, condemns “the genocide in Gaza”. Israel has repeatedly denied claims of genocide.

The “sit-in” marks another escalation in a series of pro-Palestine protests occurring at Parkville since the October 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas militants on Israel, killing about 1200 people and taking 253 hostages. More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, according to local health officials. The UN said on Wednesday that the overall tally was reliable, while it revised down the tally of women and children killed based on identified deaths.

Protesters said on Wednesday their sit-in would be “permanent”, with at least 40 of them, sitting in the middle of a barricade fashioned out of camping equipment, saying they were willing to be arrested if instructed to move on.  By 4pm, there were at least 100 people, who identified themselves as university staff members, forming a picket line around the entrances of the building, in support of the protesters.

Police did attend the scene on Wednesday and Thursday, but not many and briefly.

Some members of the Melbourne University Jewish Student Society (MUJSS) were present outside, and sometimes inside, Arts West, closely observing the sit-in.

MUJSS president Sara Lupton and vice-president Talia Laski said “it’s beyond us now, it is impacting all of university life.

“They were told to move on yesterday … and it has been over 24 hours now, they’ve had a lot of opportunity to move on… but I think that [the protesters] want to escalate the situation,” Lupton said.

“We’ve advised against confrontation … it is not something we’ve encouraged at all.”

On Thursday, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Melbourne University branch passed two motions directly related to support for the Unimelb for Palestine “Gaza Solidarity Encampment”, including calling upon the university to “fully disclose all its ties to weapons manufacturers, militaries and institutions directly implicated in Israel’s violence in Gaza”, each with more than 97 per cent support.

Two other motions were passed, one of which called on the university to repeal the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which the university adopted in January 2023.

The other motion called on the university to join the Scholars at Risk Australian National Section, which advocates for the human rights of scholars around the world, and to provide “placements for staff from destroyed Palestinian universities”.

It follows NTEU members at the University of Sydney, who last week voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion to “endorse the institutional academic boycott of Israeli universities, and to cut ties with the war industry.”

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