Mahmoud al-Araj, the father of slain Basil al-Araj, left his home on Sunday expecting to take part in a peaceful demonstration outside a courthouse in Ramallah where a judge officially dropped an investigation into his son. He ended up in the hospital after getting caught in the middle of a chaotic crackdown by Palestinian Authority (PA) forces wielding heavy batons, and shooting pepper spray and tear gas at Palestinians protesting the death of Basil, the imprisonment of his five friends and the court’s decision to pursue charges against them for allegedly storing illegal weapons.
Basil al-Araj, 34, was a prominent Palestinian political philosopher and activist who was killed by Israeli forces on March 6, five months after he was released from Palestinian custody where he had been imprisoned for six months and allegedly tortured by PA intelligence.
PA forces detained Basil and five of his friends in April 2016 under claims that they had been in possession of weapons with plans to organize an attack against Israel, though no official charges have yet been levied against the group by Israel or the PA.
During their initial detention by PA forces, all six went on hunger strike for nine days before a Palestinian court ordered their release in September 2016 on personal guarantees pending further proceedings.
Soon after their release, Israeli forces detained Basil’s five friends and have held them in custody ever since. In addition, the PA later announced plans to charge the five with possession of illegal weapons, even as they continue to be held by Israeli authorities. Basil had not been detained by Israeli forces because he immediately went into hiding after being released by the PA.
On the day of his death, Israeli forces raided the home where Basil had been hiding out for the past two months and shot him during the course of a two-hour exchange of fire according to witnesses, in what Palestinians declared an “assassination.”
Israel police said they found a light cache of weapons in Basil’s apartment.
Demonstrators gathered in Ramallah on Sunday to protest Basil’s death and the five others being detained by Israeli forces without charge or trial. The five detainees were identified as Muhammad Harb, Haitham Siyaj, Muhammad al-Salamin, Seif al-Idrissi, and Ali Dar al-Sheikh.
Palestinian forces showed up in riot gear, meeting the protest aggressively from the start, locals said. Photos and videos of the scene in Ramallah quickly swept through Palestinian social media circles. Basil’s father was beaten and kicked by Palestinian police forces, leaving him with injuries on both arms, his abdomen, chest and head, in addition to being sprayed in the face with pepper spray and suffering from excessive tear gas inhalation. Mahmoud fainted and was taken to a nearby hospital.
“We wanted to make a peaceful demonstration but when the PA special forces showed up they started to hit us and beat people without compassion. It was very brutal,” Mahmoud told Mondoweiss from his family home after being released from the hospital — the knees of his blue suit still covered in dirt after being thrown on the ground by PA police forces.
Locals reported dozens of injuries. Khader Adnan, the well-known former Palestinian hunger striker and Islamic Jihad leader, and human rights lawyer Faris al-Atrash were among those injured.
Palestinian forces detained at least eleven protesters, but released them after Mahmoud declared he was going on hunger strike until all protesters were freed.
“I was scared and very concerned for the youth, so I called for a hunger strike hoping that would be enough to ensure everyone’s release,” Mahmoud said. “Every kick we received felt like it was a kick to my son’s body.”
As news of the crackdown spread, Palestinian youth in Bethlehem’s Dheisha refugee camp took to the streets in protest of Palestinian police actions, marching to a PA police station in Artas village near Dheisha after nightfall.
Palestinian police forces again responded with force, shooting tear gas, rubber coated steel bullets and sound bombs at protesters. There were also reports of PA forces shooting live fire, though the information could not be confirmed and no injuries from live bullets were reported.
“We are very surprised by the PA’s violent response, before I had hope, I was an optimist,” Basil’s father said. “We call the government the Palestinian National Authority, but after this, they are just the Authority to me, they betrayed what it means to be Palestinian.”
An ‘educated fighter’
Basil’s uncle, Ali al-Araj, 48, told Mondoweiss that his nephew was the kind of political leader needed by the Palestinian people and that the youth of the country will not allow his life to have been taken in vain.
“I think his ideas will only get more popular now after he has died,” Ali said.
When asked if he thought Israel had taken into account the possibility of Basil’s ideology being popularized by his death, Ali said he does not believe Israeli authorities take such details into account.
“Our enemy does not treat us in any intellectual way,” Ali said. “They are not concerned with our ideologies, they just want to kill any form of resistance, and they don’t think about the after.”
Ali explained that Basil had been politically active and involved in his community from a very young age.
“People say Basil had read 3,000 books before he was killed,” Ali said. “We have a saying in Arabic, ‘the educated coward and the uneducated fighter’—Basil didn’t want that. He didn’t think that educated people should lead from above, he thought they should be on the ground in the streets with the rest of the resistance—he wanted to be a leader of change who didn’t believe in this dichotomy—he was an educated fighter.”
Basil started volunteering at a youth center when he was 14. At 18 Basil was an outstanding student and traveled to Egypt to get his Bachelor’s Degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences. At 23 Basil came back to the occupied West Bank and continued his work with the youth center, where he became a board member and joined the local popular committee movement.
“Basil grew up around the settlements and during the second Intifada,” Ali said.
The entrance to al-Walaja village, where Basil was raised, intersects with the entrance to Har Gilo, an illegal Israeli settlement on a hilltop overlooking the Palestinian village.
Around a year after Basil had returned from Egypt, he went to a protest in Ramallah against the political divisions between Fatah and Hamas during the last presidential elections in 2006-2007. Palestinian forces attacked the protest and Basil’s arm was broken during the crackdown.
PA forces attacking Basil and breaking his arm was also caught on video, which his uncle said angered the PA.
“Adnan Dmiri called Basil and threatened him,” Ali said, referring to a member of the PA security force. “They accused him of getting his arm broken on purpose just to spark outrage.”
Soon after, Basil and Dmiri appeared on a local TV segment where they got into a fierce argument. Ali told Mondoweiss that he believes it was that incident that sparked Basil’s problems with the PA.
“Basil didn’t want to start a big division between the Palestinian people and the PA, even after he was released from being held by them for six months, he didn’t want to publicize the fact that they tortured him,” Ali said. “He understood that the people who were torturing him were just following orders, he held no hatred toward the individuals who tortured him among the PA, and he wanted the people’s fight to be focused on the Israeli occupation.”
After Basil’s arm was broken and he began receiving threats from the PA, Basil’s uncle told Mondoweiss, he had become disillusioned by Palestinian politics, and co-founded Harak al-Shababi al-Philistini, a social movement led by youth that focused on empowerment through education and alternative means of political activism.
“He became very interested in resistance ideology and started studying the history of Palestinian resistance from the start of the British occupation in order to form a new ideology,” Ali explained.
Basil was fiercely opposed to normalization politics and Palestinian security coordination with Israel. He was also very vocal on the necessity of local Palestinian municipal elections.
Basil’s uncle and father said that around the time of the last wave of upheaval in October 2015, the young revolutionary’s ideology and rejection of mainstream politics was starting to garner support among Palestinian youth, and that made him a target for both Israeli and Palestinian forces.
“He had no intention of surrendering, because that was against his beliefs,” Ali said. “He knew he would be killed when the Israelis came for him. He died following his own ideology, and that is powerful.”
Khalid al-Araj, a lawyer and an uncle of Basil, told Mondoweiss that he holds the PA responsible for his nephew’s death, and is appalled by the “lack of compassion” the government has shown.
“The PA is 100 percent responsible for Basil’s death, they didn’t kill him directly with a bullet, but the house he was murdered in was a few hundred meters away from the Palestinian security headquarters in Ramallah,” Khalid said, fuming with outrage. “The PA hasn’t taken any diplomatic action, they haven’t made any statements in honor of Basil, if you have no remorse at least pretend, they could lie to us, they could at least pretend to care, but they’ve said nothing. Basil’s death rests in their hands.”