Thousands of students at colleges and universities around the country have launched protests — many of which turned into around-the-clock encampments — against Israel’s military operations in Gaza with widespread coordination, begging the question: How do they do it?

“We’ve created, I think, a beautiful infrastructure for continuously sharing with each other what’s going on and in different realms of organizing in the camp, making sure that everybody is plugged into everything as much as possible,” said Princeton graduate student Aditi Rao in an interview with ABC News.

Students in pro-Palestinian groups from at least four universities told ABC News they created organizational structures to coordinate, plan and communicate around their calls for their universities to divest from companies or groups that profit from Israel’s war in Gaza.

Tensions have been high on college campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists invaded Israel in an unprecedented surprise attack. The Israeli military then began its retaliatory military operations in the Gaza Strip.

PHOTO: University of Texas Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Alida Perrine takes part in the pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Texas in Austin, TX, May 5, 2024.

University of Texas Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Alida Perrine takes part in the pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Texas in Austin, TX, May 5, 2024.

Nuri Vallbona/Reuters

Since Oct. 7, at least 34,900 people have been killed and 77,143 injured in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health.

At least 1,200 Israelis were killed on Oct. 7 and 8,700 others injured, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

While there has been an upsurge in the number of protests and student arrests around the country in recent weeks, students’ activism has been ongoing for months.

But after 100 protesters were arrested at an encampment at Columbia University on April 18, protests intensified nationwide. This has led to thousands of arrests of pro-Palestinian protesters at universities including New York University, Yale University, University of Southern California, University of Texas-Austin and more.

“That first day [at the encampment], 400 people showed up. And we didn’t ask them to — they came because we built it,” said Rao of Princeton’s encampment. “They had been waiting for something like this, waiting for a place that they could congregate and have a meal and talk about the significance of the Palestinian cause.”

PHOTO: Students, some faculty and outsiders gathered on the lawns outside the Princeton chapel to protest Israel's military campaign in Gaza, Princeton, NJ, April 25, 2024.

Students, some faculty and outsiders gathered on the lawns outside the Princeton chapel to protest Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, Princeton, NJ, April 25, 2024.

Mary Ann Koruth / USA TODAY

Students strategize

At Harvard, hundreds of students and community members have divided responsibilities working toward a collective effort — organizing events, planning dinners, teaching events on the conflict and managing security, Mahmoud Al-Thabata, a student at Harvard College and part of the Harvard Occupy Palestine movement on campus, told ABC News.

“People have been really feeling outraged on campus because of how Harvard is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the Israeli regime right now,” Al-Thabata said.

In a statement last month, Harvard University leadership said it “opposes calls for a policy of boycotting Israel and its academic institutions.”

Students at Harvard have hosted vigils, die-ins, protests and community events against Israel’s military actions in Gaza. These demonstrations haven’t been planned far in advance, and have instead come together as a response to emergencies, according to Al-Thabata.

“The genocide in Gaza right now cannot be planned, so it’s not like we can plan our protests within a week, which is why so many actions are related to emergencies,” Al-Thabata said.

“When Rafah was about to be invaded in February, there was an emergency die-in. And when the flour massacre happened — where dozens of Palestinians were brutally murdered by IOF forces after being baited with flour because of the famine going on over there right now — we had an emergency vigil,” Al-Thabata said.

The IDF said forces opened fire on Palestinians seeking aid including flour after Gazans surrounded trucks before approaching IDF troops.

“The crowd approached the forces in a manner that posed a threat to the troops, who responded to the threat with live fire. The incident is under review,” the IDF said in a statement after the over 100 Palestinians were killed while waiting for food aid in February.

The IDF also told ABC News in February that it didn’t strike the convoy of trucks; the tank teams fired warning shots and then fired at those who came 5 meters from the tanks — neither with artillery. According to an IDF official, it was machine guns on tanks.

However, social media, mailing lists and group chats have proven to be a useful tool to garner high turnout at events.

PHOTO: A student is arrested during a pro-Palestine demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin, TX, April 24, 2024.

A student is arrested during a pro-Palestine demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin, TX, April 24, 2024.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

NYU Palestine Solidarity Committee — which is not officially affiliated with the university — has different teams in charge of negotiations with the university, supplies for encampments, media relations and communications, programming for panels and events, legal support and medics.

Princeton has a similar multi-pronged structure of planning and communications.

Organizers say they learned from past NYU Students for Justice in Palestine leadership and alumni on what would be the most effective path forward. NYU PSC also sought expert advice from lawyers and public relations specialists concerning their planning and communications, but it is a primarily student-driven effort.

Students say being organized as a united front is necessary for protests to be successful. This is especially important, they added, when protests continue to get national attention, garner hundreds of attendees and news continues to come out of Israel and Gaza.

Student protesters have continued to face criticism for violating school policies around trespassing and disrupting school activities. Some have also faced accusations of antisemitism, as viral instances of inflammatory comments from individuals prompt condemnation from politicians from across the ideological spectrum.

Princeton, Yale, NYU and Harvard have released statements saying protesters’ encampments are violating school policy and disrupting operations as have most universities where encampments were set up, even threatening suspension and arrests.

“Any individual involved in an encampment, occupation, or other unlawful disruptive conduct who refuses to stop after a warning will be arrested and immediately barred from campus. For students, such exclusion from campus would jeopardize their ability to complete the semester. In addition, members of our community would face a disciplinary process (for students this could lead to suspension, delay of a diploma, or expulsion),” Rochelle Calhoun, Princeton’s vice president for campus life, said in a statement.

Many of the student groups behind the protests – including Jewish activists voicing their support for a cease-fire in Gaza – said that individuals making offensive remarks do not represent their groups as a whole or their values concerning the war in Gaza.

“At universities across the nation, our movement is united in valuing every human life,” read a statement from Columbia University Apartheid Divest, one of the groups involved in the protests. “As a diverse group united by love and justice, we demand our voices be heard against the mass slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Staying protected

At Harvard, students have faced months of doxxing, harassment and threats after 30 groups led by the Palestine Solidarity Committee released a statement last October saying the Israeli regime is “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

The group received backlash and criticism for the statement from some student groups and others, accusing them of supporting the Hamas attack, but the group has denied that claim and said it “opposes all violence against all innocent life and laments all human suffering,” in a statement.

The group said it was flooded with hate speech and threats in the days after posting their statement — which also drew national attention and even led to a truck with LED screens appearing on campus showing, under the banner “Harvard’s leading antisemites,” the alleged names and faces of students in groups that signed the letter.

The group behind the truck also launched campaigns against the students online, including creating online domains using students’ names that label them as antisemitic, the group’s leader told ABC News. Amid the backlash, the group advised protesters to cover their faces to avoid being targeted.

PHOTO: A protestor leads others during a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Memory Mall on the campus of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL, May 7, 2024.

A protestor leads others during a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Memory Mall on the campus of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL, May 7, 2024.

Stephen M. Dowell/AP

At Princeton, part of their organizational structure is based on the risks people are willing to take. With the likelihood of arrest, suspension and other forms of disciplinary responses to taking action, protesters have to consider their individual willingness to take on risk.

“There were some of us who are willing to say, you know, the occupation of a building, that’s a serious escalation, but we’re willing to take that on,” said Rao. “There were also those who said, OK, the pitching of a tent — now, that’s not illegal.”

PHOTO: NYPD officers face protesters after detaining demonstrators and clearing an encampment on the campus of New York University, New York, April 22, 2024.

NYPD officers face protesters after detaining demonstrators and clearing an encampment on the campus of New York University, New York, April 22, 2024.

Alex Kent/AFP via Getty Images

Taking inspiration

At Yale, student organizer Chisato Kimura said she and others have been inspired by students at other universities as well as the movements of the past.

“Seeing everything on social media that other universities are doing and to see how they’re strategizing and things like that has been really incredible,” said Kimura.

“It didn’t just start a couple of weeks ago, it didn’t start seven months ago,” said Kimura. “This has been a very, very lengthy process. We as students have fortunately a lot to draw from — previous movements and previous generations, organizers and student activists.”

Some students at Princeton have committed to a hunger strike, inspired by the “history of protest in Palestine,” Rao said.

“Every act that we take, we learned from Palestinian people, we learned how to do these things, how to be politically moved in these ways,” said Rao.

PHOTO: New York University students set up a "Liberated Zone" tent encampment in Gould Plaza at NYU Stern School of Business in New York City, April 22, 2024.

New York University students set up a “Liberated Zone” tent encampment in Gould Plaza at NYU Stern School of Business in New York City, April 22, 2024.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Kimura said protests on college campuses are unlikely to go away any time soon, signaling to the intensifying protests that followed arrests and university action against organizers.

“Trying to silence us or repress this doesn’t work because we’ll just keep coming back and we’ll keep coming back stronger,” said Kimura. “It’s just very critical for us to continue speaking out, to continue mobilizing and every single time the university has tried to silence us, we’ve come back, we’ll keep coming back, louder and with more numbers.”

-ABC News’ Dana Savir contributed to this report



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