Subhiya Abu Rahme, 60, propped up on her elbows to recount her son’s last morning before he was killed by the Israeli army. Six years ago on April 17, 2009, Bassem Abu Rahme, 30, was shot in the chest with a tear gas canister in his West Bank hometown of Bil’in outside of Ramallah. That morning Subhiya recalled, was a scorcher. Bassem went into the bathroom to cool off, musing, “I will shower or I will die.” Once clean and dressed, he walked to the garden behind the house. “I was working. He told me don’t tire yourself. It’s not good for you,” Subhiya said, relaying Bassem’s final words to her.
Within a few hours Bassem was struck at close range with a tear gas canister, a speedy projectile that pours plumes of white-toxic gas. At the time he was facing off with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) during a protest on Palestinian Prisoners Day. The annual commemoration marked support for the over 6,000 held in Israeli jails. Palestinians consider all of those incarcerated as political prisoners.
Subhiya lounged on a thin mattress wearing a tropical print summer dress. She sipped sweet tea made from zaatar, a local herb, with her niece Asma Abu Rahme, 19. The two gazed at a live-feed report of a Prisoners Day protest, like the one where Bassem was killed. The march was a short walk from Subhiya’s house in Bil’in’s agricultural lands, near where Bassem was shot. Some protesters carried posters with a photograph of Bassem. The center of town was also plastered with images of him and imprisoned Palestinians. A prayer service was held that morning to honor Bassem. Yet the calm start outside was over. Every few minutes an ambulance flew past Subhiya’s house and then showed up on the screen moments later to cart away an injured protester.
Demonstrations in Bil’in began ten years ago. Bil’in was the first Palestinian village to hold weekly marches against the wall and land confiscations. Bil’in is also the only village to win a solid victory in Israel’s High Court. The judge awarded them part of their territory back and the path of Israel’s separation wall re-routed. The protests continue to date because a swath of Bil’in’s land is still nestled behind the cement barrier in the settlement of Modiin Illit.
Bassem was one of the founders of these demonstrations. Over the years other towns all across the West Bank have started their own Friday protests. From one tiny local committee, Bassem helped build what is now referred to as the Palestinian non-violent movement. But if his mother is asked, his legacy is not as an architect of a political awakening. He is remembered for playing with the town’s youngsters.
“Bassem was good. He was somebody simple. He loved children. He helped everyone,” said Subhiya. She explained her son was also full of surprises, a joker and an improviser. One week before he was killed she said he wanted to get married. Bassem refused to tell Subhiya with whom. He wanted to surprise her and told her to be prepared that in a few days he would take her to meet the woman. He was killed before he could take his mother for the meeting.
“He was friends with all of the children, big and small,” said Mohammed Khalil Abu Rahme, 28, Bassem’s cousin. Mohammed added Bassem was the first person he knew personally who died at the hands of the Israeli army.
“Bassem, he loved the people of Bil’in and they love him,” said Asma who lives in the house next door. She grew up playing with him, and his sister Jawaher Abu Rahme, 36, who died of tear gas inhalation also during one of Bil’in’s protests in 2011. Another child of Subhiya, Ashraf Abu Rahme, 30, was shot in the foot with a rubber-coated bullet by the Israeli army in 2008. Like Bassem’s killing, there is a video of Ashraf’s encounter with the IDF. A neighbor filmed a blindfolded Ashraf as a solider shot him point blank. The Guardian produced a package about the incident and the footage.
With many relatives injured and two dead after protesting, Asma does not go to demonstrations. Still, she has frequent run-ins with the army. At the beginning of this year they shot tear gas into Asma’s house during a night raid. She choked and was rushed to a hospital in Ramallah where she went on to spend three nights. Then again soldiers came into her home two weeks ago. Was she afraid? “No, impossible,” scoffed the spunky college student. “I took a selfie,” Asma said, of the IDF who was behind her, rummaging through the house.
“It’s a bad occupation, not a bad demonstration,” said Asma looking back at the television, watching her neighbors and friends protest. The set was tuned to a Palestinian news channel, Al Quds. Correspondent Linda Shalash, 28, reported a teenager was shot in the chest. A doctor at Ramallah’s public hospital later told Mondoweiss four youths were struck with live bullets in Bil’in that day.
Linda is a hero in the Abu Rahme house for her coverage of Bi’lin’s many demonstrations. Asma said she wants to be a journalist like Linda, but her family thinks the job is too dangerous. Then Asma and Subhiya gasped. The pair leaned to the edge of their seats as they watched Linda jump out of frame and a gas canister land where she was standing seconds before. In the next shot Linda was being resuscitated from tear gas inhalation.
“I found myself lying on the ground and some people were trying to help me,” Linda later told me. “Among of them was Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Palestinian National Initiative. It was the first time that I felt I was close to death. My chest was tight and I was unable to breathe. It hurt.”
“It was the hardest moment of my life as a journalist. Once my health improved, I began to feel more in tune with the suffering of citizens who are constantly exposed to the Israeli gas,” Linda said.
Army protocol limits the use of tear gas to shots hundreds of meters from protesters, and aimed at the sky. In Bassem’s case, it was a direct hit fired from around 30 meters away. Subhiya sought justice. She filed wrongful death charges against the Israeli army.
After a three-year military investigation into the shooting the IDF closed the case in 2013. No soldier was charged with criminal misconduct. The Israeli army said there was not enough evidence to prove the soldier shot him from an unsafe distance, despite three separate recording of the killing. One of the videos was featured in the 2011 Academy Award nominated documentary Five Broken Cameras, by Bil’in resident Emad Burnat and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi. Bassem was a star of the documentary.
One month ago, Subhiya filed another lawsuit. She wants the Israeli army to re-open the investigation.
Back in Subhiya’s house, other relatives joined her in the late afternoon. Shortly after Bassem was killed, Bil’in residents flocked to visit her. Members of the Palestinian Authority also paid condolences. But on the anniversary of his death, no outsiders came to see Subhiya. In the past she too would join protesters on the overlapping Prisoners Day march. This year Subhiya was weak, and she spent the day laying on her back. She does not have confidence that continued dissidence will win back the rest of Bil’in’s confiscated land. She already buried two children since her village’s protests began ten years ago.
“I think the future situation will not be very good,” she said. Asma agreed.