It is almost the one-year anniversary of the killing of Bassem Abu Rahmeh, and this is the latest news in Haaretz: "IDF won’t investigate death of Bil’in activist from tear gas grenade." Here’s a photo of Abu Rahmeh, taken by his cousin Hamde.
When I stayed in Bil’in in February, Abu Rahmeh became such a familiar presence to me that it seems only right to call him "Bassem." I was struck by how the village feels his absence in everyday life, how his friends and family members watch and re-watch the gruesome footage of his shooting on cell phones and computers at the popular committee office, reliving his death over and over again. In the video, you see an unarmed man raising his hands in the air, imploring the soldiers to hold their fire–an Israeli activist has been hurt, Bassem says. And then an IDF soldier shoots him in the chest at close range with a high-velocity tear gas canister.
Six weeks ago, on the 5th anniversary of Bil’in’s peaceful demonstrations against the wall, Israeli military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told the BBC that Bassem died during a "violent riot." "Those rocks they’re throwing can kill people," Leibovich said, adding, "they go to the fence and tear it down, then we have no choice but to show up and defend the fence."
The kind of tear gas canister that killed Bassem is heavy, shaped like a bullet and the size of a can of beans. Haitham Al-Khatib–a talented video journalist who doesn’t sleep at night, so as to film the army raids in which the demonstration organizers are arrested–has a collection of them sitting on his desk at the popular committee office in Bil’in. One day, Haitham showed me the Hebrew writing on the back of the canister. "The Special," he translated ruefully.
At the end of my stay in Bil’in, I hesitantly mentioned to him that I’m Jewish. But Haitham didn’t conflate "American Jew" with "Israeli soldier," and again he welcomed me to Bil’in, saying I had joined a long line of Jews who come to the village. Then, he wondered aloud about Israeli Jews–how a people who have suffered so much throughout history have gone on to bring great suffering upon another people.
Earlier this week, I remembered what Haitham said. I had trekked to my friend’s family’s house in Rhode Island for Passover. The morning after the seder, sitting at the table cluttered with all the dirty wine glasses, I got to talking about Israel with my friend’s brother’s girlfriend. Before long, I was stammering and furious, as she argued that Americans who struggle against the occupation are mostly self-righteous and possibly anti-Semitic for singling out Israel. She thinks all the settlements should be disbanded, but Americans should be focusing on racism here "where we can actually change things." To only focus "on some foreign country," she said, is to be hypocritical and maintain your own white privilege at home. And that’s true! But, at the same time, especially as an American Jew, to not confront the Occupation is to be similarly complicit in maintaining the status quo.
Then I told her what Haitham said. Imagine: in Bil’in, they feel for the pain of their oppressor–in this case, a people who are supposed to see their fate as irrevocably tied to the fate of all oppressed people. For we have been slaves in Egypt and therefore are well-equipped to recognize the unfreedom of others and speak out against it (to paraphrase Grace Paley). "Who said that?" she asked, seeming to find it a difficult stretch of the imagination.
Today, if you walk through the tiny village of Bil’in, you’ll see posters of Bassem everywhere. They show a handsome young man, head back and laughing, running along a barbed wire-strewn gravel road. He is flying a kite inside the wall–for such is the architecture of occupation that even prepositions must be used differently.
And so every Friday at midday, the people of Bil’in, along with Israeli and international supporters, march down the winding road that leads to the wall. "Chayalim, abaitah," they chant again and again, banging the barrier gate as the tear gas rains down. "Soldiers, go home." And every Friday, the sun sets and the soldiers remain, the lights from the settlements of Mod’in Ilit and Matityahu glowing behind them in the night.