The New York Police Department has opened an investigation into a possible hate crime targeting pro-Palestinian student protesters, after claims that pro-Israel activists sprayed students with an unknown chemical during a rally at Columbia University last week.
Nearly two dozen students who spoke to the Columbia Spectator described “a foul smell” and physical symptoms like watery and stinging eyes. Some suggested the substance could have been “skunk spray.”
In a statement Monday, Columbia said that information about the “deeply troubling” incident on Friday surfaced when students reported feeling nauseous and vomiting after being exposed to the substance. The “alleged perpetrators identified to the University were immediately banned from campus,” the school said.
According to the NYPD, a 24-year-old woman reported that an “unknown substance” had been sprayed into the air, causing her to feel nauseous. Within hours of that report on Friday police officials received five more reports about the incident.
All six victims received medical attention, and the NYPD is continuing to investigate, a spokesperson said.
“Multiple people have been diagnosed with chemical inhalation and chemical exposure,” said a spokesperson for Students for Justice in Palestine, adding that symptoms included “lightheadedness, nausea, chest tightness, abnormal heart rate, vomiting.”
The protest was organized by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.
“Dozens of students have given us testimonies of their clothes and hair having the foul smell left on them even after the initial burst of stench at the protest. The smell only worsens and spreads after being washed,” the organizers said in a social media post.
“We, as students facing unrelenting harassment, should not have to be doing the university’s job by investigating these hate crimes on our own,” the post continued.
In a second post on Monday that included photos, the groups said at least eight students were hospitalized due to the chemical irritant.
“Students are traumatized, sick, and have hospital bills to cover in addition to schoolwork. This is unacceptable,” the groups wrote.
According to the BBC, “skunk spray” or “skunk water” was invented by Israeli firm Odortec as a way to repel Palestinian demonstrators in the occupied West Bank.
Palestinians who have been targeted with the substance recall it as smelling “worse than raw sewage…like a mixture of excrement, noxious gas and a decomposing donkey.”
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “Skunk is liable to cause physical harm, such as intense nausea, vomiting and skin rashes, in addition to any injury resulting from the powerful force of the spray,”
“Examinations by police and army medical teams in the past also indicated that the excessive coughing caused by exposure can result in suffocation.”
New York’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim advocacy organization, condemned the reported use of a chemical agent and urged the NYPD to consider it a hate crime.
“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.”
No arrests have been made and the investigation remains ongoing, police said.