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White House urges 'peaceful' campus protests after hundreds arrested

  Students occupy the campus Columbia University on Friday, calling for the school to divest from companies with ties to Israel. [AFP]

The White House insisted Sunday that pro-Palestinian protests that have rocked US universities in recent weeks must remain peaceful, after police arrested around 275 people on four separate campuses over the weekend.

"We certainly respect the right of peaceful protests," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told ABC's "This Week."

But, he added, "we absolutely condemn the anti-Semitism language that we've heard of late and certainly condemn all the hate speech and the threats of violence out there."

The wave of demonstrations began at Columbia University in New York but they have since spread rapidly across the country.

While peace has prevailed in many campuses, the number of protesters detained -- at times by police in riot gear using chemical irritants and tasers -- is rising fast.

They include 100 at Northeastern University in Boston, 80 at Washington University in St Louis, 72 at Arizona State University and 23 at Indiana University.

Among those arrested at Washington University was Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who faulted police for aggressive tactics she said provoked the sort of trouble they are meant to quell.

"This is about freedom of speech... on a very critical issue," she told CNN shortly before her arrest Saturday. "And there they are, sending in the riot police and basically creating a riot."

Protesters at Yale University established a new encampment on Sunday, the school's independent student newspaper reported, after a previous site was taken down by police days earlier, when dozens were arrested and charged with trespassing.

College administrators have struggled to find the best response, caught between the need to respect free-speech rights and the imperative of containing inflammatory and sometimes violently anti-Semitic calls by protesters.

With final exams coming in the next few weeks, some campuses -- including the Humboldt campus of California State Polytechnic University, have closed and instructed students to complete their classes online.

The activists behind the campus protests -- not all of them students -- are calling for a ceasefire in Israel's war with Hamas, and want colleges to sever ties with Israel.

Hamas militants staged an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that left around 1,170 people dead, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Palestinian militants also took roughly 250 people hostage. Israel estimates 129 remain in Gaza, including 34 the military says are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,454 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's Health Ministry.

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