Pro-Palestinian protests heap pressure on Biden from left and right

Protesters wave Palestinian flags on the West Lawn of Columbia University on April 29, 2024 in New York.
Protesters wave Palestinian flags on the West Lawn of Columbia University [AFP]

An outburst of pro-Palestinian protests and clashes with law enforcement on US college campuses has dominated headlines, and started conversations among diplomats scrambling to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East.

It puts US President Joe Biden in a new kind of domestic political bind.

He is caught between a left flank that is demanding peace, and Americans concerned that the unrest is disrupting university education and posing a threat to civil order.

A message scrawled on a tent at a refugee camp in Rafah, the beleaguered southern Gaza Strip city, captured exactly how far word of recent US campus protests has travelled.

“Thank you students for Columbia,” it read. “Thank you. Thank You. Thank you.”

Other tents had similar messages of gratitude and solidarity, captured in video and photographs by American journalists on the scene.

Over the past several weeks, police have arrested more than 2,000 protesters on dozens of college campuses across the US.

Late Tuesday night at the University of California Los Angeles, a masked pro-Israeli group assaulted a pro-Palestinian student protest camp, before officers were called to the campus. Classes were cancelled. On Thursday, California police cleared the pro-Palestinian encampment.

A similar scene played out at Columbia University, as New York City police in riot gear forcibly removed protesters who had barricaded themselves into an academic building and cleared that college's pro-Palestinian camp.

A man uses crutches next to a tent sprayed with a message thanking pro-Palestinian university students who are protesting for their support, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinians, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, May 2, 2024
Some tents in Rafah have been sprayed with messages thanking university students in the US for their support [Reuters]

The unrest comes at a tense moment in the Gaza War.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) appear to be preparing for a massive military operation in Rafah, a refuge for more than a million civilians. The Israelis have said it is the last redoubt of Hamas forces.

Meanwhile, the US is pushing the Israelis and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire that would last weeks and include the release of some Hamas-held Israeli hostages, an increased flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and the return of Palestinians to the northern part of the territory, where the Israeli incursion began months ago.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently concluded his seventh trip to the region since the start of hostilities, meeting with Arab leaders and the Israelis in a last-ditch attempt to forestall a Rafah operation that observers say is likely to cause a humanitarian disaster.

At a State Department briefing on Thursday, spokesman Matt Miller said that the Israelis had made significant concessions in recent negotiations – agreeing to conditions that Hamas had said were necessary to reach a deal.

“Every day that goes by without a ceasefire right now is on Hamas,” he said. “They are the ones that are holding up an answer to this proposal, and they are the ones that are holding up an immediate ceasefire.”

On Friday, a Hamas leader said the group was reviewing the latest proposal in a “positive spirit”, and a delegation was sent to Cairo for ceasefire talks on Saturday.

Police officers arrest a person at the encampment of pro-Palestinian protestors on the campus of University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in Los Angeles, California, USA, 02 May 2024
President Biden said "order must prevail" after a pro-Palestinian camp at UCLA was cleared by police [EPA]

Any sign of progress will be welcome news for a Biden administration that is coming under increasing pressure to stop – at least temporarily – the civilian bloodshed and suffering in Gaza.

In his press briefing, Mr Miller was dismissive of the impact of American campus protests on US efforts, but he acknowledged that it was difficult to avoid US media coverage of the unrest even overseas, and that the topic came up in conversation during Mr Blinken’s Middle East trip.

Official American dismissiveness aside, the political pressure on Biden because of these protests is growing.

For months, the president has been resisting calls from factions within the Democratic left to back away from his vocal support for Israel.

He’s done this despite clear political risk, as more liberal voters – particularly the young and people of colour, who make up a key part of his electoral coalition – have grown increasingly critical of what they view as a policy that is tolerant, if not supportive, of aggressive Israeli actions in Gaza.

Polls show Mr Biden is in a tough fight for re-election in November, where even a slight softening of support in battleground states could be the difference between victory and another four years of Donald Trump in the White House.

“Because of the razor-thin margins in some places like Wisconsin and Michigan that are going to be pivotal in the election, I think it creates more potential for the Gaza War to matter,” says Jessica Weeks, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, which has been the site of pro-Palestinian encampments and subsequent police arrests.

At least so far, that seems to be a risk Mr Biden is willing to take.

Vocal objections about the administration’s support of Israel from the president’s left flank have been a recurring theme in the months since Israel’s invasion began. What’s new – and potentially more complicating – is the pressure now coming from right and centre, as campus unrest has dominated the headlines.

Palestinian children walk past a house damaged in an Israeli strike, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 1, 2024.
Israel continues to threaten an offensive in the Gazan city of Rafah [Reuters]

Republicans, sensing vulnerability, have gone on the attack, claiming Biden is unable to maintain law and order and is turning a blind eye to antisemitism.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called protesters “raging lunatics and Hamas sympathisers” at a Wisconsin rally on Wednesday night.

“I say remove the encampments immediately, vanquish the radicals and take back our campuses for all of the normal students who want a safe place from which to learn,” he said.

The following morning, after several nights of police crackdown on demonstrators, Mr Biden made a hastily scheduled appearance at the White House to condemn what he said was the lawlessness of some protests – including vandalism, trespassing and disruption of university activities.

“We are a civil society, and order must prevail,” he said.

US elections have not traditionally been decided on issues of foreign policy unless American soldiers are dying overseas, but issues of law and order and domestic tranquillity can be more salient – particularly to the kind of middle-class American voters who live in college towns or send their children to prestigious universities.

It could explain why Mr Biden, in his Thursday remarks, defended American free speech rights but spent most of his time warning protesters of the consequences of their actions.

When the president finished his prepared remarks and turned to leave the room, a reporter asked if the protests had made him reconsider any of his Mideast policies.

The president’s one-word answer: No.

It may not be that easy.

“Certainly it would not be politically wise for the president to say that he is making decisions that affect US national security based on the opinions of 19-year-old students,” says Ms Weeks.

There is no mistaking the political realities of Mr Biden’s situation, however – and the possibility of escalation if ceasefire talks crumble and a bloody Israeli campaign in Rafah begins.

With college graduation season approaching, a new round of highly visible protests could be on the horizon.

In two weeks, the president is scheduled to speak at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, a historically black university where administrators are already expressing concern about campus security.

And in August, Democrats will gather in Chicago for their party convention to formally renominate Mr Biden for the presidency – which could become a national focal point of intense protests not seen since the 1968 Democrat convention in the same city during the height of the Vietnam War.

A ceasefire may buy the Biden White House some breathing room. But it may take the kind of permanent peace that has proven so elusive to remove the Gaza War as a potent political threat to the president.

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