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‘They have crossed a line’: Australian university orders pro-Palestinian protesters to leave building

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Pro-Palestinian protesters occupying a building at the University of Melbourne have been told to leave by university officials, who say they’ve “crossed a line” by entering the building and disrupting class for thousands of students.

“Students have a right to protest but that is not a blank check,” said the university’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Michael Wesley in a video message distributed to media on Thursday.

“They have crossed a line when they have occupied the Arts West building … the university’s patience is now at an end.”

On Wednesday, students at the university were among thousands who rallied across the country to remember the 1948 al-Nakba or “catastrophe,” when around 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by armed Jewish groups seeking to establish the state of Israel.

Dana Alshaer, from UniMelb for Palestine, said after the rally a smaller group of students “independently” decided to occupy the Arts West building, and others supported them.

Several banners have since been hung around the room, including one renaming the building “Mahmoud’s Hall” after Mahmoud Alnaouq, a Palestinian student who had won a scholarship to study in Australia but was killed in Gaza last October.

Around 1:30pm on Wednesday, Deputy Vice Chancellor Pip Nicholson addressed the group inside the building on a loudspeaker, telling them their choices that afternoon would have “serious consequences.”

According to a video posted online, she said: “In the event that you are not out of here within an hour … the university will make decisions that will regrettably and unavoidably escalate the tension.”

On the video, protesters said they wouldn’t leave until the university responded to their demands, which include divesting from weapons companies and condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza.

“We come in peace,” a protester said off-camera. “We came here to learn, to study, to make an impact on the world, and the fees that we’re paying are going towards companies committing an act of genocide right now. Speak to us about that.”

By Thursday, more than 150 classes had been cancelled, affecting 6,000 students and staff, the university said. Victoria Police said it was monitoring the protest activity and hadn’t been asked to intervene.

Alshaer denied reports students had blocked the building’s doors and said the university had disabled them.

“The people here are opening the doors for anyone, students and uni staff to come in and out whenever they want. It’s not closed. It’s not barricaded,” she said.

Tension building after weeks of protest

Since the first tents appeared at universities in Australia over three weeks ago, more students have joined the protest action, demanding the institutions cut ties with weapons companies linked to Israel’s attacks.

More than 35,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched a war against Hamas after its October 7 attack in southern Israel, according to health officials. The Hamas attack killed 1,200 people and saw some 250 others taken hostage. Around 100 are still in captivity and Hamas’ top leadership is still at large despite the Israeli onslaught.

Protests in support of both sides have flared around the world, with a widespread pro-Palestinian movement launching demonstrations at university colleges.

So far, protest sites in Australia have remained relatively peaceful, unlike sister sites in the United States, where police violently evicted some students amid clashes with counter-protesters.

Other universities in Melbourne and Canberra have put students on notice to leave.

“We refuse to obey the directives of a university which is profiting from weapons research during a genocide,” she said.

Meanwhile, at least seven student protesters at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra have received letters from the university telling them to leave the site by the end of Friday.

In a statement, ANU said it supports students’ right to protest but said “these activities must be safe and not cause unnecessary harm or damage to our campus or community.”

One of the letter’s recipients, Nick Reich, said he and others are weighing their options.

“We have to make the decision about how much and to what extent we participate in the protests against the university’s investments in arms companies supplying Israel, but we can be certain that the encampment itself is going to remain set up and will continue to fight this fight,” he said.

In his video message distributed by the University of Melbourne, Wesley called on protesters to “peacefully end the occupation.”

“Red lines have been crossed,” he said. “The occupation is now seriously disruptive and seriously intimidating for the vast majority of our staff and students who have nothing to do with the protests and are not interested in the protests.”

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