A law enforcement officer detains a protester at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), during a pro-Palestinian protest in Los Angeles, US, May 2, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES: Hundreds of police cleared a sprawling protest encampment early Thursday at the University of California, Los Angeles, tearing down barriers and arresting students in the latest clash on US campuses over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

Officers in riot gear ripped down a wooden barricade around the UCLA protest site and dragged tents away in the fresh round of university unrest.

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For weeks, authorities on campuses from New York to California have tried to thread the needle between the right to protest and complaints of violence and hate speech, resulting in hundreds of arrests and chaos as university terms end.

UCLA students clad in white helmets linked arms and formed a line facing off against officers, who were detaining protesters and leading them away.

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Police used flashbangs to disperse the crowds gathered outside the encampment who chanted “Let them go!” as helicopters hovered overhead.

Officers blocked stairs accessing the site, with students dressed in yellow jackets and serving as medics telling AFP they were being largely prevented from reaching the area.

In another part of the encampment, students carrying umbrellas, helmets and plastic shields squared off against police in mostly tense silence, with sporadic chants of “Free Palestine!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”

Image Credit: AFP

“This is a peaceful protest, there are no counter-protesters tonight, so to call the police on them is despicable. This city should support them,” LA resident Jack Bedrosian, who came along to show support, told AFP.

The large police presence, including LAPD and California Highway Patrol officers, comes after law enforcement were criticized for being slow to act during violent clashes late Tuesday when counter-protesters attacked an encampment of pro-Palestinian students.

UCLA said classes would be remote on Thursday and Friday due to the “emergency on campus,” and warned students to avoid the protest area.

Wave of unrest

Demonstrators have gathered on at least 30 US university campuses since last month, often erecting tent camps to protest the soaring death toll in the Gaza Strip.

Officers also detained several people at Fordham University in New York and cleared a protest set up inside a school building, officials said.

Image Credit: Reuters

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, protesters dug in, blocking an avenue near the center of the campus in Cambridge during the height of Wednesday afternoon’s rush hour commute.

The University of Texas at Dallas saw police remove an encampment and arrest at least 17 people for “criminal trespass,” the school said.

Police said about 300 arrests were made at Columbia and another New York university.

New York Mayor Eric Adams blamed “outside agitators” for ratcheting up tensions. Columbia students have denied outsiders were involved.

Balancing act

The protests have posed a thorny challenge to university administrators trying to balance free speech rights with complaints of criminal activity, anti-Semitism and hate speech.

The administration of President Joe Biden - whose support for Israel has outraged many protesters - has also tried to walk that line, emphasizing the right to protest, but his Republican election rival Donald Trump has voiced his full-throated support for a crackdown.

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Image Credit: AFP

“To every college president, I say remove the encampments immediately, vanquish the radicals and take back our campuses for all of the normal students,” Trump told a rally in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

The Gaza war started when Hamas militants staged an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that left around 1,170 people dead, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also took about 250 hostages.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed more than 34,500 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.