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Police given green light to evict Melbourne Uni protesters

“They are unfounded and detract from what the student-led movement is aiming to do,” Ariadna said.

“It’s really about showing our solidarity to our fellow peers in Gaza, where there are now no universities left.

“This is student and staff-led. Our aim here is to have the university disclose and divest their ties to weapons manufacturers.”

A Melbourne University poster prohibiting members of the public from attending protests on university grounds.

A Melbourne University poster prohibiting members of the public from attending protests on university grounds.Credit: Alex Crowe

On Thursday night, a handful of tents remained inside the Arts West building, which had become a second headquarters for the protest. About 100 students gathered in the central lobby, a combination of protesters and non-affiliated students passing through to study in the adjacent library and classrooms.

At the camp outside the Arts West building, all was quiet bar the ​soft sounds of a drum and tambourine. Most protesters had taken to their tents or sought warmth inside, though plans were made for a sing-a-long after dinner.

Volunteers from Melbourne Activist Legal Support came to observe police action. However, protesters and campus security said police attendance had been minimal over the past two days.

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Wesley said while students had the right to protest, this did not extend to disrupting the studies and university life of others preparing for end-of-term exams and final assessments.

“The protesters crossed a line when they occupied a building. They crossed a line when they invited professional protesters who aren’t members of the university community into one of our buildings. They crossed a line when they caused damage. They crossed a line when they forced us to cancel classes,” he said.

“They have completely gone outside of their legitimate right to protest. Having a right to protest does not mean you have a blank cheque.”

Ariadna, who has been part of the University of Melbourne camp since Anzac Day, said she was unaware of any property damage on campus.

Some protesters had moved furniture around to make space for the sit-in, but shifted it back after concerns were raised it might be considered vandalism, she said.

As the university braces for an Arts West showdown, tensions remain high at other universities. At Deakin’s Burwood campus, in Melbourne’s east, student protesters were issued with a second order to remove their encampment from university grounds. At Monash University, nine student protesters said they had been threatened with suspension and expulsion.

The students said the threats related to them calling for “intifada” – an Arabic word for uprising associated with Hamas terror attacks against Israel – and chanting the pro-Palestine slogan “From the river to the sea”.

The meaning of both is contested on each side of the conflict. To Palestinian supporters, they represent demands for the end of occupation; for some Israelis, the slogans are an antisemitic call for their destruction. The Senate passed with bipartisan support on Thursday a motion condemning the use of “From the river to the sea”.

Students occupying the Arts West building on Thursday morning.

Students occupying the Arts West building on Thursday morning.Credit: Justin McManus

The Monash students were unrepentant. “We see this as our Iraq or our Vietnam,” protest organiser Josiah Downey said.

At the University of Melbourne, students have vowed to remain inside the Arts West building until the university abandons its research agreement with defence companies which supply weaponry to Israel.

Wesley said the timing of any action against the Arts West occupiers would be determined by police. In the meantime, there will be an increased police and security presence at the Parkville campus.

Notices were issued on Thursday prohibiting any protesters who were not staff or students from entering the university grounds.

A Victoria Police spokesperson said it was “liaising with Melbourne University to provide assistance when and if that is required”.

The university’s decision to move against the pro-Palestinian protests comes three weeks after the first encampment tents were pitched on the South Lawn. It is likely to trigger a furious response from the National Tertiary Education Union, which on Thursday declared its support for the protest movement.

The union’s University of Melbourne branch also called on the university to protect the rights of students and staff to express their views “without fear or outside interference.”

The university and the union’s characterisations of the Arts West occupation are starkly different.

Seven members of “the Monash nine”.

Seven members of “the Monash nine”.Credit: Joe Armao

Where union branch president David Gonzalez described the atmosphere inside the building as safe and well-organised, Wesley said he found it intimidating.

“I could only imagine how our students, particularly our Jewish students, would feel having to make their way to class through that,” the deputy vice chanceller said.

The university said it had no choice other than to close the building to classes on Thursday, a decision that led to the cancellation of 150 classes and disrupted the learning of an estimated 6000 students.

Wesley said the university had about 55,000 students at the Parkville campus and of those, up to 300 had taken part in pro-Palestinian protests.

“The vast majority of our students want nothing to do with this and feel increasingly irritated that their access to campus and ability to carry out their studies is being disrupted,” he said.

“I spoke to a student earlier today and he basically said, ‘I think they are a bunch of wankers and I just want them to leave.’ ”

Wesley expressed regret for Jewish students who, after losing two years of their schooling to COVID lockdowns, had not felt comfortable on campus this semester.

Ariadna said protesters had sought to ensure the hall was accessible to all students and had been surprised by the university’s decision to cancel classes.

“We really want to make this an inclusive space; this is an anti-genocide movement. We’re not trying to prevent people from studying,” she said.

The Arts West occupiers have renamed the building Mahmoud Hall, in honour of a Palestinian student killed alongside his family in Gaza at the start of the war.

The protesters are targeting the university’s research agreements with defence companies Lockheed Martin, BAE and aviation giant Boeing, which they argue makes the university complicit in Israel’s war in Gaza.

Since the atrocities of October 7, when Hamas militants crossed from Gaza into southern Israel, murdered 1200 Jews and took more than 200 hostages, Hamas officials say an estimated 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the ongoing war.

Wesley said the protester demands would not be met.

“The university’s animating principle is that of academic freedom,” he said.

“If we start restricting the ability of our academics and students to work on certain topics and with certain companies because another part of our community objects to that, where does this end?

“Tomorrow it will be working with fossil fuel companies, then it will be working with supermarkets, then it will be working with the manufacturers of sugary drinks.

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“We are a publicly funded institution and the Australian government has nominated defence as being paramount in the national interest. For a publicly funded institution to refuse to work on the security and safety of Australia and international stability would be a dereliction.”

Wesley said the university’s research agreements with defence companies, in which university researchers and PhD students receive grants from the companies, did not relate to the design or manufacture of any weapons being used in Gaza.

One of the projects funded by Boeing is the development of a virus-resistant polymer which, if successful, would prevent airline tray tables from transmitting COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

“There is light years between the work that our researchers are doing supported by these companies and the manufacturers of weapons,” he said.

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