Palestinian Checkpoint on the U.C. Berkeley Campus

Berkeley, May 7, 2008

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the "Nakba" (Arabic for "Catastrophe," the Palestinian name for the founding of Israel in May of 1948), the U.C. Berkeley group "Students for Justice in Palestine" (SJP) set up a mock "security checkpoint" at Sather Gate on the U.C. campus, on May 7, 2008.

The purpose of the checkpoint was, in theory, to give otherwise blasé Berkeley students a taste of so-called "Israeli oppression" -- to force them to experience waiting in line at an Israeli-manned checkpoint in the West Bank.

The last time SJP tried a similar stunt (in 2004), they originally tried to force everyone passing through Sather Gate to go through the mock oppression, but this time around they were told to stay off to the side and let traffic pass by normally. As a consequence, this year's demonstration was more like a bit of street theater on the periphery of the plaza, and didn't have the same disruptive effect. Members of SJP, portraying Palestinians trying to enter Israel or pass through a security checkpoint, sat on the ground in a line, watched over by mock Israeli soldiers with guns.

Guns, did you say? Yes, guns.

Well, they looked like real guns at first. But upon closer inspection, they were toy guns, with orange caps on the end to indicate they were pretend, not actual functioning weapons.

Here, three Palestinian students apparently portraying Israelis watch over some "prisoners" they've taken aside for questioning.

It seems no one in SJP questioned the wisdom of having young Middle Eastern men running around campus with realistic toy machine guns, especially considering how jumpy everyone is after so many recent school shootings and similar terrifying incidents.

No matter. They spent hours walking up and down near Sather Gate, brandishing their weapons. From my observation, very few of the passersby had any understanding of what was going on, and I'm sure the scene caused many people to momentarily feel a twinge of fear.

The girl sitting at the adjacent SJP booth seemed completely oblivious to any potential controversy.

Many of the students in the checkpoint line wore kaffiyehs or hijabs.

This guy made a game of pointing his fake machine gun at people (including me), as toddlers played nearby and students studied in the sun.

Now, on the conscious level, the SJP members were supposed to be portraying villainous Jews Israelis; but on the subconscious level, it seemed that they were actually enjoying the power that comes with a gun -- even a pretend gun. Something about the whole scenario was unsettling.

The Muslim Students Association table seemed to also be part of the event -- I guess they were one of the co-sponsors as well.

The protest attracted a few photographers (as seen here), and elicited a good number of startled double-takes from passersby, but overall it had little effect on the daily operations on campus.

Interestingly, whether by design or not, the Berkeley College Republicans (seen here in the foreground) had their table directly opposite the Muslim Students Association, while some Jewish student groups had their tables opposite the SJP table. I wonder who makes the decisions about the location of the student club information tables; were they just playing with our minds, or were the table assignments all random?

In the background, you can see a U.C. policeman that had gone over to the Palestinians to ask them about their guns. I don't know whether he was called to the scene by a concerned passerby, or whether he decided to question them of his own accord. Either way, their answer seemed to satisfy him, and he let the protest proceed as planned.

I didn't stay all day, but from what I personally observed, the 2008 "Nakba" commemoration in Berkeley went off without a hitch and without any further interruptions.

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