UC Police Investigate Campus Israeli-Palestinian Altercation

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 09:57:00 AM

The UC Berkeley Police Department is investigating a fight that erupted Thursday evening between a group of current and former UC Berkeley students after a Palestinian flag was hung over a balcony overlooking a pro-Israel concert on campus. 

Lt. Adan Tejada of the UC police said that the UCPD received a report of an altercation on the second-floor balcony of Eshelman Hall, above Lower Sproul Plaza, at 5:45 p.m. on Nov. 13, but by the time the officers responded, the fight had already stopped. 

He said that a number of witnesses identified at least five students involved in a fight, which he said broke out, according to eyewitness testimony, when some Palestinian students hung a Palestinian flag over the railing of the balcony to protest what they alleged were anti-Palestinian lyrics performed during a concert for Israeli Liberation Week. 

According to Tejada, some of the people attending the concert went up to get the flag off the balcony, which led to pushing and shoving. The exact details of what happened at that point are still under investigation, he said. 

“We were not able to make any arrests because no one was fighting when the police arrived,” he said, adding that supporters on both sides asked police to charge members from the opposing side with battery. 

Two students and one former student were cited for battery, authorities said, and several witness statements were taken. UCPD has not released the names of the students involved in the incident pending investigation. Once the investigation is complete, the case will be referred to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. 

“We are looking at things that were said during the investigation right now,” Tejada said, adding that this could provide clues as to whether the incident was a hate crime or not. 

He said that the alleged statements made during the incident were still under investigation and could not be released. 

Tejada said that there was little possibility that the incident was connected to acts of vandalism that occurred on campus last month, when pro-Israel posters at a UC Berkeley bus stop outside Eshelman Hall were defaced with anti-Israel graffiti. 

Although UC police have not stepped up security measures on campus after the incident, he said, university officials and student groups were doing extensive outreach to unite students across campus. 

“I think it’s safe to say that over many years we have seen flare-ups between Israeli and Palestinian students on campus and we have always encouraged them to resolve ongoing disagreements in a non-violent way and will continue to ask them to do so,” he said. 

Two student groups on campus—the Zionist Freedom Alliance and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)— sent out press releases following Thursday’s events which contained conflicting accounts of the incident and statements defending their actions. 

The e-mail from the Zionist Freedom Alliance stated that the group was “deeply concerned by the latest in a series of attacks on Jewish and pro-Israel students at UC Berkeley perpetrated by members of Students for Justice in Palestine.” 

It charged that around 6 p.m. on Thursday, members of Students for Justice in Palestine disrupted a hip-hop concert organized by the alliance celebrating the Jewish connection to Israel and attacked students who had asked them to stop the disturbance. 

According to the e-mail, three members of Students for Justice in Palestine “illegally draped large Palestinian flags behind the stage of the concert, a part of Israel Liberation Week,” which was followed by Yehuda De Sa, one of the performers, UC Berkeley alumnus Gabe Weiner, and current Associated Students of the University of California Senator John Moghtader “walking to the balcony from which the flags were hanging" and asking "the students to remove the flags as they misrepresented the concert’s message.” 

The e-mail charged that members of SJP reacted with hostility to the request and that current SJP leader Husam Zakharia “instigated a physical altercation by striking Weiner on the head,” which was followed by Weiner and De Sa trying to defend themselves” and Moghtader—who was standing away from the scuffle—making a successful effort to break up the fight. 

The alliance also wrote that members of SJP shouted “anti-Semitic epithets referencing the Holocaust throughout the ordeal.” 

In their press release, the Students for Justice in Palestine dismissed all the allegations put forward by the Zionist Freedom Alliance. 

Calling the incident “a violent attack on three Arab Palestinian students,” the e-mail said that dozens of witnesses had testified that “three organizers for the Zionist Freedom Alliance attacked one male and two female Arab students who stood nearby the event holding a Palestinian flag,” which according to the SJP had been a “silent statement” against offensive anti-Arab remarks at the concert. 

The e-mail further alleged that shortly after the flags were displayed, the “assailants” angrily rushed into Eshelman Hall disturbing several meetings to reach the second floor balcony and upon arriving, pushed the protesters aside and took their flags away. 

It claimed that in the process, one of the protesters was knocked against the balcony railing, which was followed by a scuffle leading to one male and one female Arab student being hit several times, within minutes of which the perpetrators began to rush away. 

The group also wrote that throughout the incident the “assailants and their supporters” were overheard making remarks such as “we’re about to take care of some f***ing Palestinians,” and “you Arab dogs, we will kill you.” 

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said Monday that university officials had written an open letter to the campus community outlining how the campus was responding to the incident and laying out possible resources for students in the event something similar happened in the future. 

Signed by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, ASUC President Roxanne Winston and vice chancellors Gibor Basri and Harry LeGrande, the letter condemns Thursday’s actions, acknowledging that it was the result of a “dispute between students with differing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” It states that although Berkeley is passionate about embracing debate, free speech and political activism, it was important to hold them in a reasoned and civil way. 

“Physical assault and violence are never acceptable,” the officials wrote, adding that the campus administration was making attempts to address the current situation along with student groups, who were holding forums, town halls and other civil dialogue—including this week’s Peace Not Prejudice events—to alleviate tensions. 

The letter also directed students to turn to resources such as the ASUC Student Advocate, the Office of Campus Climate and Compliance, Office of the Dean of Students and the Gender Equity Resource Center when provoked. 

An Equity and Inclusion division, headed by Basri, will be part of a long-term strategy for improving campus climate, authorities said. 

“The vibrancy of Berkeley’s intellectual environment is made possible by our rich diversity,” the letter concluded. “Let us use this opportunity to help lead the way away from bigotry and hate towards a flourishing multicultural society.”