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U of A students join worldwide protests of war in Gaza

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University of Alberta students in Edmonton have joined young people around the world condemning the war in Gaza and demanding their institution divest from Israel.

A camp began forming on Thursday on the university's north campus and grew slightly overnight. 

Signs hung by protesters read "Land back" and "Demand the end of genocide in Palestine." 

"Seeing the scenes coming out of Columbia (University) and the students calling out the university for their complicity in the genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza, that definitely inspired me and that made me feel really proud that humanity is not dead," media spokesperson Abraar Alsilwadi told CTV News Edmonton on Thursday. 

"This is just day one and it's already a decent amount. We're expecting a lot more people to come and hopefully we're able to cover the whole quad."

The university said it is in "open and ongoing communication" with the group and that its main concern is safety of its entire community. 

"Academic freedom and freedom of expression are the foundations of the university. The U of A’s Statement on Freedom of Expression reinforces our commitment to free expression in all forms of communication, including non-violent protest and dissent. Even in cases where some may find the expression offensive or disturbing, we recognize the right to criticize and question," president Bill Flanagan said in a statement.

"However, any action that impedes the university’s core business of teaching and learning—or violates the law or policies of the university—goes beyond the parameters of freedom of expression. In particular, the university will not tolerate hate speech or calls for violence."

Alsilwadi told CTV News Edmonton the group's intent is a peaceful protest. 

"We're going to protest through different ways. We're going to rally, we are going to be chanting, and then educational sit-ins. We're going to be talking about the Nakba."

Guidelines posted at the camp and on Instagram direct anyone who joins the encampment to keep its purpose front of mind, wear masks, and to not engage with counter protesters, security and police, or in any discriminatory behaviour. 

Rules are posted at an encampment on the University of Alberta's north campus quad on May 9, 2024. The group of protesters condemned the war in Gaza and called on the Edmonton institution to divest from Israel. (Evan Klippenstein / CTV News Edmon)

A professor and member of the local Independent Jewish Voices chapter who is participating described campus security's behaviour as "hands off" and said while Edmonton Police Service has not yet attended, it served a trespass notice on Thursday. 

"(That's) not a friendly gesture. Not a listening gesture," David Kahane, who teaches political science, said Friday morning of the trespass notice. 

"Think about other very widespread student movements in North America. Have any of them been profoundly wrong? No. Often, years later, people want to pretend they were part of those movements. So people should ask themselves why are our best and brightest students raising the alarm? What are we not seeing that they see?"

In a statement to CTV News Edmonton, EPS said: 

"The EPS is aware of the current protest encampment on campus and has met with the University of Alberta. UofA Protective Services Peace Officers are leading the response to this encampment. The EPS will continue to respond to criminal events, matters of public safety and calls for service on campus. As always in public demonstrations, police must balance individual rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with the responsibility to enforce the law and investigate criminal actions.

"As demonstrations are dynamic situations, EPS will continue to work closely with UofA Protective Services to update our approach if conditions change. Public safety is our main priority."

Police removed protesters demanding the same thing from the University of Calgary on Thursday. 

"I'm glad that the University of Calgary made the decision that they did," Premier Danielle Smith said the next morning at a news conference in the city, commenting, "It's already out of control in Ontario and Quebec and elsewhere and the universities can't allow it to get out of control and they can't allow hate speech." 

She said universities have the lead in responding to protests happening on their property. 

However, she added, "I'll watch and see what the University of Alberta learns from what they observed in Calgary. And we're on standby to be able to provide any assistance should they ask."

According to the latest reporting by The Associated Press, Israel appears to have put on hold a plan for a full-scale invasion of Rafah, a city in Gaza near Egypt's border where more than one million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting elsewhere. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says food and fuel supplies are critically low. 

Israel's surprise incursion into Rafah complicated what had been months of efforts by the U.S., Qatar and Egypt to broker a cease-fire and the release of hostages. Hamas this week said it had accepted an Egyptian-Qatari cease-fire proposal, but Israel says the plan does not meet its “core” demands. Several days of follow-up talks appeared to end inconclusively on Thursday.

Hamas has demanded guarantees for an end to the war and a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as part of any deal — steps Israel has ruled out.

The war began with Hamas’ surprise attack into southern Israel last year, in which it killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another 250 hostage. The militants are still holding some 100 captives and the remains of more than 30 after most of the rest were released during a cease-fire last year.

The war has killed over 34,800 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its figures. Israel’s offensive, waged with U.S.-supplied munitions, has caused widespread devastation and forced some 80 per cent of Gaza’s population to flee their homes.

With files from The Associated Press 

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