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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators set up an encampment in King’s College Circle at the University of Toronto on May 2 after people entered through fencing early in the morning.Sammy Kogan/The Globe and Mail

Protesters at the University of Toronto breached a temporary fence on campus under the cover of darkness early Thursday morning to establish a pro-Palestinian encampment, one of a growing number across the country that aim to force the university to divest from companies connected to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

Within a few hours about 50 tents and more than 100 protesters had established a presence at the heart of the university’s St. George campus, where they flew banners and chanted slogans, saying they planned to stay until the university acts on their demands.

The demonstrators are asking the university to disclose their financial holdings, divest from any investments that support what they describe as apartheid, occupation and illegal settlement, and cut ties with Israeli universities.

Sandy Welsh, vice-provost students, said late Thursday that the university does not intend to remove the protesters this evening if their activities remain peaceful. However she reminded protesters that hate speech and threats are not peaceful behaviour.

“Our concerns about safety are increasing,” Prof. Welsh said in a statement. “You have called for others to join your protest and the numbers have grown significantly since this afternoon. We are concerned that many of the individuals present may not be U of T students or other members of the U of T community.”

The demonstrator’s demands are similar to those put forth by encampment organizers at McGill University, where protesters have been on campus since Saturday, and at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria, where encampments began this week. A wave of protests has also swept across dozens of campuses in the U.S. that has led to violent clashes and police action to push out the protesters.

Quebec Premier François Legault said he expects police in Montreal to dismantle the encampment at McGill after the university requested police assistance earlier this week.

“The encampment is illegal,” Mr. Legault told reporters in Quebec City. “The law must be respected, so I expect the police to dismantle these illegal campsites, which is what McGill has requested.”

Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani, speaking in Ottawa, said operational decisions are for police to make, independent of politicians.

A Quebec judge Wednesday rejected a request for an injunction from two students at McGill that would have added pressure to clear the encampment.

The University of Toronto said that it respects the rights of members of its community to assemble and protest within the limits of the law and university policy so long as it doesn’t interfere with the ability of others to teach, learn and research on campus, according to a statement from its media-relations office.

“Our preference is to start with dialogue and we’ve been in touch with the protesters since this morning. Those who contravene university policy or the law risk the consequences set out in various laws and policies such as the Code of Student Conduct, which could include suspension,” the university said in the statement.

The university erected a temporary fence around the lawn at King’s College Circle on Saturday and sent a notice to students asserting that encampments or occupation of university buildings are considered trespassing, a notion that the university’s faculty association has disputed. On Thursday, the university issued another message with a list of banned activities that includes erecting tents, excessive noise and protesting after 10 p.m.

Erin Mackey, a protest organizer and fourth-year student, said students have been trying unsuccessfully for months to get the university to disclose any investments connected to Israel’s war effort. She was part of a group that occupied part of an administration building for 2½ days last month, but said a subsequent meeting with university president Meric Gertler left protesters unsatisfied.

“We are here demanding that U of T divest,” Ms. Mackey said. ”We hope that the university will take a bold stand and be on the right side of history.”

Ms. Mackey, who will graduate next month, said students like her in Gaza are confronting a world where their universities have been destroyed. She drew parallels between the current wave of encampments calling for divestment with the movement to boycott South Africa in the 1980s, which was championed by students on many campuses.

At the time, universities did divest from companies doing business in South Africa, and in recent years, many have also divested from investments in the fossil-fuel industry after pressure from students and faculty.

The students’ divestment demands have focused mainly on weapons manufacturers that do business with the Israeli military or financial institutions invested in those arms manufacturers, as well as on companies connected to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

In a letter to protesters in April, Dr. Gertler said that the university’s asset-management corporation, which oversees its endowment, does not invest in individual companies but instead hires managers to make investment choices, typically in pooled funds. He said that no direct holdings in the portfolios under their management meet the criteria described in the protesters’ demands.

He also rejected demands for an academic boycott of Israeli universities, saying that collaboration and the free circulation of ideas are essential to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

Deb Cowen, a professor of urban planning and geography and part of the Jewish Faculty Network, said many faculty attended the protest to support the students’ demands.

“We’re grateful to them for doing what we feel needs to be done, which is to push the conversation forward,” Prof. Cowen said. “They’ve been organizing for months and haven’t had a meaningful dialogue around divestment and principles of ethical investing.”

Prof. Cowen said protest organizers take seriously concerns that demonstrations elsewhere have been perceived as antisemitic and said many Jewish students and faculty have joined this protest because they oppose the actions of the Israeli government.

Police in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto and Montreal all reported no arrests to date at these encampments.

With reports from Mike Hager and The Canadian Press

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