University of Melbourne cancels classes as pro-Palestinian activists defy orders to disband encampments

University of Melbourne cancels classes as pro-Palestinian activists defy orders to disband encampments

The University of Melbourne cancelled classes on Thursday as pro-Palestinian students blockaded an arts building following weeks of campus tensions.

Protesters spent the night in tents inside the Arts West building at the Parkville campus, disregarding the university’s request to vacate on Wednesday afternoon.

The Victoria police said the University of Melbourne was “presently managing the situation” and has not asked it “to intervene or to remove these protesters”.

“Victoria police is liaising with Melbourne University to provide assistance when and if that is required,” they said in a statement on Thursday morning.

On Wednesday, pro-Palestinian protesters renamed the Arts West building “Mahmoud’s Hall” in honour of Mahmoud Alnaouq, a Palestinian killed in an airstrike on Gaza in October. Reports said Alnaouq was meant to start his studies at the university before he was killed.

The sit-in marked an escalation of an encampment on the university’s south lawn that has been ongoing since Anzac Day and is one of the several protests about the war on Gaza that have heightened tensions at Melbourne’s universities. Anzac Day is observed on 25 April every year and honours members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) who lost their lives in foreign conflicts.

Callers to Australia’s radio station 3AW reported that classes on Thursday had been cancelled due to safety concerns. One said: “(The notification from the university) said the activity at the building was too unsafe.”

The university said in a statement there was no access to the Arts West building on Thursday due to the disruption and “safety issues” caused by the protesters. “Classes will therefore not take place in that building,” the statement added.

“The safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our priority and we are working closely with the appropriate authorities to address this matter as soon as possible and to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” a university spokesperson was quoted as saying by ABC News.

“This week we expressed our deep concern about the disruptive intent of some external visitors to our Parkville campus and made clear that, where there are instances of unacceptable behaviour, we will investigate and take appropriate action,” the spokesperson said.

At least 6,500 students have been affected by the cancellation, The Guardian reported.

On Thursday morning, signs that read, “Uni Melb stop supporting genocide! Cut ties with Israel now!” were affixed to the glass at the Arts West building:

The entrance of the building was also graffitied with “Mahmoud Hall”.

The protest is aimed at the university’s relationship with aerospace and defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

The university said in a statement on its website: “Since 2016, the University of Melbourne has received $3.5m in funding from Lockheed Martin Australia to support PhD scholarships and research projects in areas such as artificial intelligence/machine learning, resource allocation and optimisation, and quantum sensing. Student projects have been in areas such as powerline safety monitoring and simplified drone control for first responders (ie fire-fighting).”

“This is indefinite. This is about disclosing and divesting and nothing will change until the demands are met,” Gemma O’Toole, an arts student involved in the occupation, was quoted as saying by The Age.

“We don’t want to be at a university that funds research for war,” she noted.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry CEO, Alex Ryvchin, said the protest camps should be disbanded.

“It’s time for all encampments to go. The time for indulging and appeasing insolent children running amok has passed.

“If the university can’t ensure the immediate safety and security of all students and staff, the police need to.”

Meanwhile, students have vowed to continue their occupation until the university ends its research agreement with companies supplying defence technology to Israel.

The protest coincides with Nakba Day on 15 May, which commemorates the displacement of Palestinians during the founding of Israel​.

University of Melbourne’s acting provost, Prof Pip Nicholson, had earlier warned that there would be “serious consequences” if protesters remained on site.

She said on Wednesday afternoon that if the students did not vacate the building, “the university will make decisions that will regrettably and unavoidably escalate the tension”.

“The choices you make this afternoon will have serious consequences,” she added.

Victorian liberal senator James Patterson said: “Vice chancellors have been far too accommodating with these protests for far too long, and they need to take action. It is not acceptable what is happening at Melbourne University.

“The university must take action, must call in the police, and must ensure that the campus and the buildings on the campus are open to all students, not just extremists.”

Among students, the class cancellations evoked mixed responses. “I think it is just and it is right. It’s a part of protecting and standing for humanity,” University of Melbourne student Eartha Davis, who had her philosophy class cancelled on Thursday, told ABC News.

“So, if we have to surrender one class for what is good and what is right then there’s no complaints on my end.”

In Melbourne, nine students at Monash University are facing potential suspension or expulsion following clashes between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups.