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Students launch pro-Palestinian encampment at uOttawa

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A group of students has launched an encampment at the University of Ottawa (uOttawa) calling on the institution to cut financial ties with Israel, despite the school warning that such action would not be tolerated.

Demonstrators have been holding a sit-in in front of uOttawa's Tabaret Hall since Monday. Social media posts by organizers Integrity Not Spite Against Falastin (INSAF) and the Palestinian Students Association show about a dozen tents being pitched along with tarps, sleeping bags and blankets.

Pro-Palestinian supporters take part in a sit-in at the University of Ottawa, in Ottawa on Monday, April 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

As the death toll in the Gaza Strip continues to rise, students are calling on the institution to disclose its investments and divest entirely from organizations that fund Israeli defence and security operations.

Organizers say they escalated the demonstration from a sit-in to an encampment due to a lack of response from the university.

"We have actually been waiting for a response from the administration for a few days now and we haven't heard anything to those demands," said INSAF president Sumayya Kheireddine on CTV Morning Live on Wednesday.

"We're asking for full disclosure of the investment lists and as well as divesting from Zionist organizations, so the ones that are enabling the genocide of the Palestinian people actively right now."

Third-year student Ayham Hakimi said protesters plan to camp out for as long as it takes the university to meet their demands.

"The university would like for us to ease up and to kind of take it easy so that we don't get our demands met, but we're not going to stop until we get our demands right," Hakimi said. "We're going to keep pushing."

In a statement over the weekend, uOttawa said encampments and occupations would "not be tolerated" but did not provide further details on their response if the demonstration escalates.

"As always, our institution supports and protects the right to peaceful protest as a cornerstone of both our university mission and our democratic life," uOttawa said, in part.

"Nevertheless, everyone in our university community has the right to feel safe and respected. We have forcefully and repeatedly affirmed that no incitement to violence or incidents of harassment or hate, including Islamophobia and Antisemitism, will be tolerated on our campuses."

The university told CTV News Ottawa on Wednesday that it is committed to protecting freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate peacefully.

"Our students and staff members have a right to feel safe and to be respected. To this end, we will continue to act in accordance with our policies and regulations to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all members of our community and allow them to move around freely on our campuses. This is our absolute priority. It includes maintaining an environment where no incitement to violence or incidents of harassment or hate, including Islamophobic or anti-Semitic acts, are tolerated. We call on all members of our community to treat each other with respect and empathy," a statement said. 

The Ottawa Police Service says Tabaret Lawn is on private property and is not engaged on the campus at this time.

"We continue to liaise with uOttawa Protection Services. We are also in communication with other post-secondary institutions," an Ottawa police spokesperson said in an email.

The encampment in Ottawa is one of a wave of similar protests across university campuses in the United States denouncing Israel's offensive in Gaza that followed the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. The Israeli offensive has led to more than 34,000 Palestinian deaths, according to the local health ministry.

Encampment organizer Yara Mahmud said one of the main demands is for uOttawa staff to meet with protesters.

"As a first step, we would like to have an in-person meeting with them and kind of discuss their investments and as well as our demands and see if we can work something out," Mahmud said. "The University of Ottawa has various investments. We don't know if they've fully disclosed all their investments, but the ones we do know are invested in corporations that have a big hand in the genocide that is happening in Palestine."

A Pro-Palestinian protester wearing a Palestinian flag walks past a sign reading "We Won't Rest Till uOttawa Divest" near a University of Ottawa encampment at Tabaret Hall in Ottawa, on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (Spencer Colby/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Kheireddine says they intend to stay until their demands are met.

"Though I've heard nothing from the university so far, I do have hope that they won't be one to escalate it negatively towards us," Kheireddine said.

"They emphasize the right to protest and the right to free speech and that's what we're doing today."

Fences up at Carleton University

Carleton University student Lindsay Cogan described the protests in Ottawa as "pretty tame" compared to some universities in the U.S. 

Fencing was erected around the quad at Carleton, though the university said in a statement it is related to planned work. 

"Carleton University has several areas undergoing construction, including the building of our new residence, a parking structure (P9), a Tory building outdoor stairwell, the Quad (for tree assessment), and areas near the O-Train. Timelines vary on all projects," a spokesperson told CTV News Ottawa.

Temporary fencing is seen blocking access the quad at Carleton University on Monday, April 29, 2024. (Patrick Doyle/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Cogan, who is Jewish, said the level of discomfort Jewish students feel depends on how extreme the protests become. 

"I actually think the climate outside of campus is sometimes far more tense than on campus, and that might be a missing link to this conversation of what the whole of Ottawa looks like because it is a government city and people are protesting so regularly," she said. 

"I believe very strongly in free speech and freedom of expression. I think as long as people do not encourage violence or glorify October 7th or veer into antisemitism, that criticism of the war is fair. Whether or not I agree with it, whether or not their encampment becomes trespassing and violates a different set of issues is up to the school to decide."

Students at the encampment at uOttawa say their protest is peaceful. 

"We do have quite a lot of Jewish students here and it's amazing to see them show out and support us and we're all supporting each other," said Hakimi. 

With files from CTV Morning Live Ottawa and CTV News Ottawa's Natalie van Rooy

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