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Gaza protest camp rises at UBC, as Eby deplores 'most hateful' speech praising Hamas

People wave flags during a student encampment for Palestine at the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver, Monday, April. 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns

VANCOUVER — The Gaza protest encampment movement that has roiled academic campuses in the United States and Canada arrived in British Columbia on Monday, with demonstrators setting up unauthorized fencing and tents at the University of B.C.

Protesters had set up about 20 tents on MacInnes Field by noon, erecting temporary fencing around the site and requiring people to wear masks to enter.

Premier David Eby called on the school and student leaders to balance free speech with people's personal safety.

Eby said a university campus, while a protected space for free speech, should foster a safe space for students of all backgrounds, especially for Jewish students during a time they feel "particularly alone on campuses and need additional support to feel safe."

"I have no reason to doubt that the leadership, both student and administration, at UBC will find that balance between ensuring students are safe and making sure that atmosphere of free exchange of ideas can continue to take place on campus."

In a series of messages posted on social media platform X, UBC protest organizers have asked supporters to bring tents and sandbags, as well as food, water, first aid and generators.

Inside the encampment, about 100 protesters chatted and ate pizzas provided by rally organizers before breaking out into chants of "free Palestine, from the river to the sea."

Eby's remarks on the encampment came after he and other politicians denounced an earlier demonstration in Vancouver where protesters chanted "long live Oct. 7," praising that day's attacks by Hamas on Israel.

Charlotte Kates, a director of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, told the rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Friday that the attack was "heroic and brave," before leading the crowd in the chant.

Eby said the comments about the attack, that killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were "the most hateful" he could imagine.

"Celebrating the murder, the rape of innocent people attending a music festival, it's awful," Eby said at an unrelated news conference on Monday.

"It's reprehensible, and it shouldn't take place in British Columbia. There is clearly an element of some individuals using an international tragedy to promote hate that's completely unacceptable."

Neither Kates nor Samidoun, which is a federally registered non-profit organization that is promoting the UBC encampment, immediately responded to requests for comment.

Naisha Khan, a spokeswoman for the protest camp, said tents started going up at 5 a.m. Monday, with attendees coming from UBC as well as Simon Fraser University and Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

The encampment was dotted with Palestinian flags and with large signs featuring slogans such as "people's university for Gaza," "freedom for Palestine" and "SFU Students for Palestine."

Former Gaza resident Nasser Najjar said he was there to show his appreciation and support for students protesting.

Najjar, who is not a student, said he had lost his cousins and about 30 of his friends during the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Israel's offensive, which came after the Oct. 7 attack, has led to more than 34,000 Palestinian deaths, according to the local health ministry.

“My family was ruined,” Najjar said. “As Canadians, we have the right to demonstrate peacefully as long as there is no violence. We have the right to protest this … We believe we have the freedom of speech, which is not taken away from us."

Similar camps have appeared on campuses across the United States, as well as at McGill University in Montreal and the University of Ottawa.

At McGill, activists have set up dozens of tents. The university said Monday morning it had seen video evidence of some protesters using "unequivocally antisemitic language and intimidating behaviour" during the protest.

Khan said the protesters wouldn't leave until UBC supported the Palestinian right to "resistance," and the right of return to what is now Israel.

The protest organizers are also demanding UBC divest from Israeli companies it says are complicit in "oppression and genocide" of Palestinians. They also want an academic boycott of Israeli universities and other institutions.

In a written response, UBC spokesman Matthew Ramsey said the school is monitoring the situation and keeping in contact with the RCMP.

Protests must "be taken with respect for others and within the boundaries of university policy and the law," he said.

"We also remind everyone that hate and intolerance have no place at UBC," Ramsey said. "The university must be a place of reasoned debate where conflicting views can peacefully coexist."

Ramsay said no permission was granted to install the camp fencing at MacInnes Field.

Before Eby, the Vancouver Art Gallery rally had drawn condemnation from Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim, who called it a "celebration of terrorism and antisemitism."

Sim said in a post on X on Sunday that people who "spew this vile hatred" were not welcome in the city.

Liberal member for Vancouver Granville Taleeb Noormohamed said on X that "glorifying Oct. 7 is unacceptable" and "does nothing to promote peace," while B.C. Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon called the speech a "celebration of the heinous murder of Jews."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2024.

Chuck Chiang and Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

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