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Tensions grow on Melbourne campuses as Gaza protests spark counter action

A heavy police presence, a far-right agitator and a face-off across a moat: Nine days into the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” at the University of Melbourne, tensions rise as a “No Hate On Campus” rally, hosted by the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, spills into a pro-Israel counter protest. James Costa reports.

Tensions grow on Melbourne campuses as Gaza protests spark counter action

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters face off across the reflection pond on the South Lawn at the University of Melbourne. Photo: James Costa

Story and photos by James Costa

Pro-Palestine and pro-Israel activists faced off across the landmark reflection pond on the University of Melbourne’s South Lawn Thursday in a tense, loud, large but mostly peaceful confrontation, overseen by about 70 uniformed Victoria Police and a smaller cohort of campus security officers.

The action began at lunchtime, when around 250 people including Alon Cassuto, CEO of the Zionist Federation of Australia attended a “No Hate on Campus Rally”, organised at nearby University Square by the Australasian Union of Jewish Students.

From there about 60 pro-Israel protesters, wearing and waving Israeli and Australian flags, marched into the heart of the Parkville campus to confront pro-Palestinian protestors. Some identified themselves as students from various universities, but most were aged well above the student demographic.

Pro-Palestine protesters form a line guarding the encampment. Photo: James Costa

Pro-Palestine protesters form a line guarding the encampment. Photo: James Costa

Arriving at South Lawn, they were substantially outnumbered and out-sung by a wall of pro-Palestinian protesters – at least 300 – guarding the ‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment’ now entering its ninth day.

Campers and activists occupying around 80 tents and gazebos, organised by “Unimelb for Palestine” protesters – a “non-affiliated, grassroots” group of students, alumni and staff – are refusing to leave until the university divests and discloses ties with weapons manufacturers and, in their words, condemns “the genocide in Gaza”.

The University of Melbourne campaign continues a wave of actions at various campuses internationally. These were triggered when administrators at New York’s Columbia University called in police to clear a pro-Palestine student encampment on 18 April. Since then, more than 2,000 protesters have been taken into custody on US campuses, the New York Times reported yesterday.

In Australia, camps have also appeared at the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, Monash University, Curtin University in Perth and the Australian National University in Canberra.

Earlier this week, organisers on both sides – Unimelb for Palestine and the Australasian Union of Jewish Students – asked for outside community members to join them.

Among those who responded was YouTube personality, far-right provocateur, and former Israeli Defence Force soldier Avi Yemini, who proceeded from the “No Hate” rally to arrive at South Lawn with a bodyguard, filming and photographing fuelling tensions and shouting across the narrow moat.

Pro-Palestinian protesters hold up a chopping board scribbled with “Avi Yemini is a wife basher”. Photo: James Costa

Pro-Palestinian protesters hold up a chopping board scribbled with “Avi Yemini is a wife basher”. Photo: James Costa

Two pro-Palestinian protesters approached Yemini, who – several witnesses say – placed his microphone close to their faces. Video seen by The Citizen shows a woman moving to brush it out of the way and the altercation ends with her on the ground. This scuffle – the most visible confrontation of the afternoon – quickly de-escalated under a close police presence.

An executive member of the Melbourne University Jewish Students’ Society, which helped initiate the “No Hate” rally, told The Citizen that they were disappointed by the political co-opting of the rally by fringe elements, such as Yemini, which they said was “dehumanising” to both the campers and Jewish students.

“We don’t believe that such a hostile situation would have occurred had Avi Yemini not been there,” they said, requesting not to be named.

“His disruptive … unwanted presence, turned a day that was supposed to be about unity into something that will now be clouded by his image and all the baggage his supposed “support” comes with”.

It was difficult to hear much of what protesters on either side were saying. But shouts of “From the River to the Sea” and “Palestine will be free!” provoked pro-Israel protesters, who yelled “There is no Palestine”, “Go back to Gaza”, and “get Hamas off campus”.

The pro-Palestine crowd had the clear weight of numbers and loudspeakers, leading chants, playing music and performing dabke, a traditional Palestinian dance. A group of high school students, wandering through the campus, slid past protesters and joined in.

Dana Al-shaer, an organiser for Unimelb for Palestine, told The Citizen that her group “[maintained] their cool despite the ongoing verbal harassment and intimidation”.

“We have a no engagement policy with agitators and we successfully implemented that in today’s rally,” Al-shaer said.

Responding to a series of written questions, including whether the University of Melbourne had asked police to come to campus, a spokesperson said the “No Hate” rally on University Square occurred on public land. “Following this gathering, some participants came onto the Parkville campus, accompanied by the police,” the spokesperson said, “The activity on campus concluded peacefully.”

Al-shaer said she was worried about agitators attacking the encampment at night, following an incident at Monash University, early on Thursday morning.

A video posted to social media showed a group of protesters wearing Israeli and Australian flags entering Monash University to confront activists at the encampment – which the university acknowledged in a statement.

Asked whether the University of Melbourne would allow the encampment to continue, a spokesperson referred back to an email sent to all staff last Thursday (25 APR) as the first tents appeared. Vice Chancellor Duncan Maskell, whose surprise resignation earlier this week caused the encampment to erupt in cheers, said that the university respected peaceful protests but would not tolerate behaviours that may breach its policies.

Those policies include the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which the university adopted in January 2023, one of only a handful in Australia. The university has not provided a clear response to questions about whether it would apply the code.

Last year, over 100 Israeli and other civil society groups warned the United Nations that the IHRA code had “often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic and thus chill and sometimes suppress, non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel and/or Zionism”.

In speeches and banners, protesters at the University of Melbourne have described Israel as a “racist” and a “terrorist” state, raising the question of whether these might constitute a breach of the code.

Asked whether it would apply the IHRA code in assessing or responding to statements and chants at campus rallies, the university did not provide a direct answer. In a statement it said it “deplores and actively stands against all forms of racism, including antisemitism and Islamophobia”.

“The way that the IHRA definition has been used is precisely to categorise statements like that as antisemitic when they in fact are not,” says Dr Max Kaiser a historian and expert on antisemitism. He is also an executive officer of the Jewish Council of Australia, a progressive Jewish organisation formed after October 7.

“For any reasonable person, you can see that those sort of statements, some people might find them offensive or uncomfortable … but they don’t really reach a threshold where they are antisemitic or racist,” says Kaiser.

This story is co-published with Crikey.com.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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