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NYPD investigating alleged chemical attack on pro-Palestine Columbia University students

Students protesting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza reported being sprayed with a chemical that caused nausea and headaches

The New York police department announced on Tuesday it was investigating an alleged chemical attack on students protesting in support of Palestine on Columbia University’s campus last week.

Students protesting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza – which has killed more than 25,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials – reported being sprayed with a chemical that left many with symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, headaches and irritated eyes.

Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) said eight students were a hospitalized as a result. Students reported their clothes and hair had a foul smell for hours after the protest.

NYPD is investigating claims that the chemical unleashed on these students is “skunk”, an agent developed in Israel and used as a crowd control weapon, most commonly in the occupied West Bank. SJP said the chemicals were sprayed by two students who are former Israeli soldiers, who mixed in with the crowd by wearing Palestinian keffiyehs. The Guardian could not verify this claim, and the NYPD and Columbia did not directly respond to questions about the identity of the perpetrators. According to a statement from Columbia, “the alleged perpetrators of the attack have been identified and immediately banned from campus while law enforcement’s investigation proceeds”.

The NYPD told the Guardian that a total of six students filed police reports and that no arrests were made. A police spokesperson said that the first victim who filed a report said she “smelled an unknown odor and began to feel nauseated and experienced a burning sensation in her eyes”.

In a letter to students and facultysent on Monday, Columbia’s interim provost, Dennis Mitchell, wrote: “A deeply troubling incident occurred on the steps of Low Library on Friday. Numerous Columbia and Barnard students who attended a protest later reported being sprayed with a foul-smelling substance that required students to seek medical treatment.”

Mitchell added: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms any threats or acts of violence directed toward anyone in our community.”

Mitchell added that the university’s department of public safety is working with the NYPD and federal authorities, and that “the New York City Police Department is taking the lead role in investigating what appear to have been serious crimes, possibly hate crimes”.

“It is an escalation of violence launched against peaceful protesters by individuals who seek to inflict harm and undermine the principles of peaceful dialogue and dissent upheld in any democratic society,” said Afaf Nasher, CAIR-New York’s executive director, in a statement.

Columbia has been at the center of debate surrounding free speech on college campuses since the war in Gaza started. In November, the college banned two pro-Palestinian organizations, SJP and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), for allegedly violating campus procedures by holding “unauthorized” events. Demonstrations have persisted on campus nevertheless.