We will hear several accounts of what happened in the Ramallah area on 6 March 2017, when Bassel al-Araj was killed in an Israeli military raid.
How long did the confrontation between Bassel and the Israeli soldiers last? Was the video published by Israel purporting to show the incident authentic? Did Bassel manage to injure any of the soldiers?
We may never know. But one thing we can be sure of is that Bassel never surrendered.
“The biggest insult against a martyr would be to say that he was obedient, submissive and polite in the face of his killer,” Bassel once said.
Bassel was anything but obedient.
Resistance was his choice. He wasn’t driven to this path by depression, economic anxiety or lack of opportunities but rather by an unwavering commitment to the Palestinian struggle for full, unconditional liberation.
Pictures circulated by Palestinian users on social media after Bassel’s assassination carry immense symbolism. They show stains of blood, Bassel’s trademark blue shoe, his kuffiyeh, a gun and a pile of books.
Among the books Bassel left behind was one on the ideology of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. That was appropriate: Bassel epitomized the grassroots intellectual that Gramsci wrote about.
“If you want to be an intellectual, you have to be engaged,” Bassel said in one of the oral history tours he directed in Jenin, a city in the northern occupied West Bank. “If you don’t want to be engaged – if you don’t want to confront oppression – your role as an intellectual is pointless.”
Bassel believed in making knowledge accessible to everyone. This requires reaching out to people, speaking to them directly in a language that does not alienate them – without being simplistic or patronizing.
Another book found in Bassel’s shelter was by Mahdi Amel, a Lebanese Marxist assassinated in Beirut 30 years ago.
Much like Mahdi Amel, Bassel fought a losing battle, in the tactical sense. Bassel was a skinny activist-turned-warrior, who had no military experience and did not belong to any political faction.
He did not stand a chance against Israel’s military and intelligence apparatus and its “subcontractors” in the Palestinian Authority.
“Bassel carried a huge burden on his own,” his friend Muhannad Abu Ghosh told me.
I first met Bassel during a 2012 demonstration in support of Palestinian prisoners then on hunger strike in Israeli jails.
Bassel and I had many conversations since then. Some of our discussions were heated but they were always thought-provoking. Bassel taught me that resistance is always worthwhile in the long run, even if we don’t reap its reward in our own lifetimes.
He taught me that in order to be part of a genuine liberation movement, you have to love and respect your people and think beyond individual salvation.
Every Palestinian martyr leaves us with an added sense of responsibility.
While we are still struggling to come to terms with Bassel’s physical loss, we must fight for the ideals he lived and died for.
In recent days, I have been speaking to Bassel’s friends and family in al-Walaja, his home village in the occupied West Bank.
Despite the tremendous pain they are suffering because of Bassel’s killing, his family’s pride remains intact.
“I am eternally proud of him,” his brother Saeed said. “He lived in honor and died like a hero.”
Bassel’s family have opened their hearts and home for all Palestinians wishing to pay condolences but insisted that the Palestinian Authority and its official media are not welcome.
Siham al-Araj – Bassel’s mother – said that her son “scared the two states,” as she described Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “Israeli soldiers killed him but the PA paved the way for them.”
“We will not welcome the media that abandoned Bassel and his comrades when they were on hunger strike in PA jails last year,” Doha al-Araj, Bassel’s sister, said. “The PA is complicit in Bassel’s killing and we are not waiting for anything for them.”
The PA had persecuted Bassel for a number of years.
Bassel took part in numerous protests against the PA’s cooperation with Israel. Such protests have continued since his death and they have been violently attacked by the PA’s forces.
Bassel knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of the PA’s repression.
In the summer of 2012, he was taken to hospital after being beaten in the head by the PA’s security forces. The beating occurred during a protest against a planned visit by Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli defense minister, to the PA’s headquarters in Ramallah.
In July and August 2013, Bassel participated in a series of protests against the decision of the PA to resume negotiations with Israel.
Yet Bassel stressed that he was mainly struggling against Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, and the settler-colonial project undertaken in its name, rather than the PA. “This settler-colonial state that has tried to exterminate every facet of our identity, including our cuisine,” was how Bassel described Israel.
While the PA must be opposed and eventually toppled, Palestinians should direct most of their energy towards fighting the Israeli occupation. It was important, in Bassel’s view, to understand that the PA’s collaboration with Israel was structural.
Bassel never insulted the PA police and security officers who beat him.
He acknowledged that there was a significant class dimension in the way the PA recruits the poorest and most downtrodden men in Palestinian society to crush protests. Bassel believed that activists should try to win those men over and not treat them as enemies.
Bassel was arrested by the PA’s security forces last year. He and five other young men spent more than five months in PA custody without charge or trial.
He was tortured during his detention, according to Siham, Bassel’s mother. His glasses were confiscated and he was denied medical treatment.
It was only after Bassel had been jailed that Siham learned he had diabetes. He had concealed his condition from her for years so that she would not have to worry about him.
The Palestinian press mainly kept quiet about Bassel’s arrest. The lack of a media or public outcry prompted him and the five other men to go on hunger strike.
“Bassel told me that the hunger strike was the most difficult thing he went through in his life,” Siham said. She added that it was necessary for the six men to starve themselves in order to ensure their release.
Following his release, Bassel never returned to his family’s home. He knew that it was only a matter of time before Israel would find him. He was right.
Four of the other men were all arrested by Israel shortly after their release from PA jails. They were once again held – though this time by Israel – without charge or trial. Israel calls that practice “administrative detention.”
“The Israeli occupation forces raided our home 11 times in search of Bassel,” Thaira al-Araj, Bassel’s sister, said. “A soldier, clearly with no idea what he was doing, thought that Bassel was a Hamas member.”
The intensity of the raids left the family fearing the worst. They had no contact with Bassel since he went into hiding last September.
“His death was not surprising. We expected that once the soldiers found him, they would kill him,” Mahmoud al-Araj, Bassel’s father, said. “But expecting it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Final act of rebellion
Bassel’s final act of rebellion – his six months of resisting arrest – turned him into an icon. Yet Bassel himself was strongly opposed to the mythologizing of individuals.
Stories of resistance fighters, particularly those missing from the official records, must be immortalized. But even great leaders should not be remembered as superhuman or flawless.
“Bassel wanted to create a model of resistance that Palestinians can look up to and learn from,” Abboud Hamayel, a close friend of Bassel, said. “He was not naive to think that his assassination would spark an uprising. He always maintained that while our generation might not liberate Palestine, its duty is to lay the ground for the next generation. And if we fail to do that, history will never forgive us.”
As a child in al-Walaja, Bassel used to spend hours listening to his grandfather’s stories about Palestinian history and the great revolutionaries. It was his grandfather who taught him that Palestinians needed to reclaim their history.
Bassel inherited his grandfather’s gift for storytelling. People would listen for hours when Bassel began talking about the history of the 1930s revolt in Palestine, the Algerian War of Independence, or the liberation movement in Vietnam.
Bassel combined passion with knowledge.
Bassel studied pharmacy in Egypt and briefly worked as a pharmacist in Shuafat refugee camp in occupied East Jerusalem. But his heart lay elsewhere.
Bassel read voraciously about history, anthropology, social movements, politics and philosophy. He connected his reading to his activism on the ground.
Bassel was heavily involved in a project known as the Popular University. In that capacity, he led tours around the West Bank. Their objective was to revive the stories of forgotten revolutionaries and acts of resistance.
The Popular University was set up by the Suleiman al-Halabi Department for Colonial Studies. Named after a fighter against French colonial forces in 18th century Egypt, the department brings together volunteers committed to teaching topics that are neglected by mainstream schools and colleges. Such topics include the literature of Palestinian resistance, social movements in Latin America and the history of the Black Panthers in the United States.
“Two characteristics distinguished Bassel: his love for Palestine and his honesty,” Khaled Odetallah, director of the Suleiman al-Halabi Department, wrote in a tribute. “He loved this land, its details, every single stone, each of its fighters’ stories.”
Bassel also worked as a part-time researcher in the Palestinian Museum before its inauguration.
His friend Yara Abbas confirmed that some of Bassel’s writings and research have not yet been published. The research covered the Palestinian revolt of the 1930s – including the theater and literature associated with it – and the history of the first intifada. He had undertaken research, too, on the Black Hand, an anti-Zionist group formed in Palestine when it was under British control.
Bassel described himself as an anti-authoritarian, whose identity was shaped by Palestinian nationalism, Pan-Arabism, Islamic culture and internationalism. He stressed that the various ideas which inspired him did not conflict with each other.
The most influential writers on his thoughts about politics and resistance were Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born anti-colonial thinker, and Ali Shariati, the Iranian intellectual, revolutionary and sociologist.
Hanadi Qawasmi, a Palestinian journalist, said that Bassel had been hoping to return to university and study history or sociology.
“He was not at all interested in getting a particular degree,” said Qawasmi. “But he wanted to get closer to undergraduate students. He believed that they have so much energy and raw potential that must be mobilized and embraced.”
Bassel had been immensely helpful to young people in al-Walaja.
“When I decided to study obstetrics at university, everyone put me down,” Alaa Abu Khiyara, Bassel’s cousin, said. “Bassel was the only person who encouraged me and believed in my abilities. His support was crucial.”
Bassel’s writings will outlive him. The Suleiman al-Halabi Department has undertaken to gather all his articles and speeches in the hope of publishing them soon.
That would be a fitting tribute to Bassel al-Araj, an intellectual and freedom fighter of passion and principle.
Budour Youssef Hassan is a Palestinian writer and law graduate based in occupied Jerusalem. Blog: budourhassan.wordpress.com