Biden Warns Against Violence in Student Protests Over Gaza

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden defended the right to protest peacefully but demanded that “order must prevail,” as demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war have wreaked havoc on US college campuses.

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“There’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos,” Biden said at the White House Thursday, his first extended comments on the pro-Palestinian unrest at schools across the country. “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations — none of this is a peaceful protest,” he added.

The demonstrations have posed a threat to Biden’s reelection bid, and the president faced mounting pressure to personally address them before his unscheduled remarks on Thursday. The president said the protests have not caused him to rethink his approach to the war.

The clashes have highlighted the growing discontent among progressives, young people and Muslim and Arab Americans over the war — and the deep rift within Biden’s own Democratic party over his handling of the issue. The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has increasingly become a drag on Biden’s political standing, opening him to attacks from both sides and with polls showing voters are losing confidence in his approach.

Pro-Palestinian encampments spread to at least 100 colleges in 30 states and Washington, DC, since protesters first erected tents on Columbia’s quad on April 17.

Earlier: Students Pitched Tents For Gaza On at Least 100 US College Campuses

Biden on Thursday sought to strike a balance between what he said were “two fundamental American principles,” the right to free speech and “the rule of law.”

“Both must be upheld. We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent,” he said. “But neither are we a lawless country. We’re a civil society and order must prevail.”

Asked if the National Guard should intervene as some Republicans have suggested, Biden said “no.” He also warned against antisemitic intimidation against Jewish students or threats against Muslims.

“There should be no place on any campus, no place in America for antisemitism or threats of violence against Jewish students,” Biden said. “There is no place for hate speech or violence of any kind, whether it’s antisemitism, Islamophobia, or discrimination against Arab Americans or Palestinian Americans.”

Police Crackdown

University administrators have struggled to address the protests, facing criticism from donors and politicians on both sides of the debate. Some have lambasted what they say is a heavy-handed response to young activists and others accuse the schools of turning a blind eye to Jewish students they say are being threatened by antisemitic intimidation.

Protests at campuses across the US have escalated in recent weeks in solidarity with students at Columbia University who were arrested after building an encampment that administrators say broke multiple school policies and intimidated Jewish students. The protestors at Columbia dug-in following the arrests, eventually risking expulsion to barricade themselves in a building — a move that ended in a police raid Tuesday night and the arrest of 119 people.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said that students have been influenced by “professional outside agitators” to become increasingly violent. Police have been concerned about a “mainstreaming of rhetoric” associated with terrorism, Deputy Commissioner Rebecca Weiner for intelligence and counterterrorism told reporters Wednesday.

Read more: Columbia Chief Assailed for Calling Cops Keeps Shaky Hold on Job

The protests have been a personal challenge for Biden who will need to mobilize young voters and progressives dismayed by his support for Israel to bolster his chances in November’s general election rematch with Republican Donald Trump.

Republicans have seized on the images to criticize Biden and paint a picture of a nation they say has seen lawlessness and disorder grow under his administration. Trump on Tuesday night called into Fox News as police entered Columbia’s campus, saying Biden had eroded bipartisan support for Israel.

Earlier: Biden Faces Make-or-Break Moment in Gaza Cease-Fire Talks

Biden has been pushing Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease-fire, a first step toward resolving their conflict, and for more aid to enter Gaza to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there — steps which could help address the domestic political backlash.

Israel has fought a nearly seven-month war after Hamas, a group designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union, launched an attack that killed 1,200 people and saw 240 kidnapped. Authorities in Hamas-run Gaza say more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed.

--With assistance from Katia Porzecanski.

(Updates with additional details, background throughout)

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