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Haaretz: Twilight Zone / ‘I’ve lost my heart’

by Gideon Levy, January 25th

Was it the stun grenade that hit her head, the shock caused by its explosion or the rubber bullet fired by the Border Police? Does it make any difference? Did the Border Policeman intend to kill a child of 11 – or not? What difference does it make? The real question is why Border Policemen come almost daily to Anata, doing the devil’s work, as it were, just when children are on their way home from school? What are they looking for, for heaven’s sake, near a school in Anata, a West Bank town located northeast of Jerusalem? The Border Police come, the schoolchildren throw stones, the police fire and kill another innocent little girl – and nobody is called to account. The Shai (Samaria and Judea) police district is investigating, but not the Police Investigation Department.

In recent weeks we wrote here about the laborer Wahib al-Dik from the village of Al-Dik and about the “horse boy,” Jamil Jabji, from the Askar refugee camp, who were killed for the crime of throwing stones. Now Abir Aramin, 11, has joined them. Death to stone throwers or those around them.

But Abir’s story is somewhat different: She is the “daughter of.” Her father is an activist in Fighters for Peace, an organization of people from both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, who have decided to doff their uniforms, set aside their weapons and talk peace. Aramin has lectured in recent months in dozens of places all over the country, in living rooms and at schools and universities, from Hatzor Haglilit to Kfar Sava. A few days before he lost his daughter, he appeared before students at Tel Aviv University. Now he too is a bereaved father.

The mourners’ tent next to the local council building in Anata blew away this week in the wind. Inside the building they served bowls of lamb, rice and yogurt ladled out of huge pots once used by the Israel Defense Forces, kosher for dairy meals. Dozens of despondent men wandered around, in shock. In the office of the council head, where there is a blown-up reproduction of Yasser Arafat’s passport on the wall, we listened for a long time to Bassam Aramin. Read his painful monologue, listen to what he says. Such words have not been heard for a long time.

Aramin is 38 years old, the father of six children including Abir. He spent seven years in Israeli prisons and is a native of the village of Seir near Hebron. Since his marriage, he has been living in Anata, Jerusalem’s backyard. He works at the Palestinian National Archive Center in Ramallah, he speaks fluent Hebrew. Thanks to the blue ID card of her Jerusalemite mother, Abir was a resident of Israel.

“We met for the first time on January 16, 2005, exactly two years before the day that Abir was killed. We met seven former Israeli soldiers who refused to serve and wanted to meet Palestinian fighters. We met at the Everest Hotel in Bethlehem. Four Palestinians and seven Israelis. The meeting was very difficult. For the first time you’re sitting with the guy who humiliates you, who fires at you, who detains you at the checkpoints, who participates in all the operations against you in the West Bank. At first we thought that they might be members of the Shin Bet security services or soldiers from Duvdevan [an IDF undercover unit], who had come to set a trap for us. I also saw the fear in the eyes of the Israelis who though we might be about to kidnap them. Maybe to kill them.

“I was arrested for the first and last time in 1985, at the age of 16. When you’re a child, you have a certain background. A child like me, who began his struggle by raising a Palestinian flag at night – I didn’t need education or incitement. I felt that I had no choice but to oppose the persons who had come to beat me up, strange people who didn’t speak our language; we didn’t understand what they wanted. When I would ask my father, who is now 95, what’s this, who are these people, he would say to me: These are Jews. And what do they want? They want to occupy us. Why? He didn’t know how to explain this to me. All we wanted was for the strangers to get out of the village, out of our playground, for nobody to bother us. At the stage I’m talking about I couldn’t have explained the meaning of freedom, independence, Palestine, it didn’t interest me.

“Once there was a demonstration in Halhul in memory of a female student who had been killed. I was 12 years old and soldiers came and started to shoot. How did they come so quickly, falling out of the sky? There’s a demonstration and they come immediately, with tear gas and bullets. I was so afraid. The people scattered. I have a limp from birth, I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t flee like the other children and the soldiers caught me. What a memory that is. Very big, frightening soldiers and they hit me a few times and I fell to the ground. I fled and I thought that I had to take revenge. I hadn’t done anything to them – and they always did that to us. I fled in the direction of the mountains and there was shouting in the wadi. We found a farmer with six bullets in his legs, who had only been working on his land. How I cried over him.

“I saw the soldiers going crazy when they saw a Palestinian flag. I didn’t understand what it symbolized and I had no weapon, I had no way to resist, so if they hated the flag, I would show them. That’s how I began to appreciate this thing, although I didn’t understand its significance. I went back home and searched through my clothes by color, I took everything that was black, red, green and white, without my mother catching me, and I went to friends and we sewed a flag. At night we went to the tallest tree in school and tied the flag to the tree. The next day the soldiers came. That was our child’s play, our violent struggle for months, until the soldiers got tired of it and they cut down all the trees at the school. Then we went over to electricity and telephone poles and also began to write ‘Long Live Palestine’ on the walls. That was our hope: to redeem Palestine. If this flag stays up, we thought, we’ll win.

“Afterward we saw that it didn’t work. Talking and writing didn’t help, and throwing stones was a waste of time, so we wanted weapons. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we found some old weapons in a cave that had belonged to Jordanian soldiers who fled in 1967. Two hand grenades and a pistol. I said to myself: From now on there’s no such thing as Israel. I have weapons. All we have to do is get bullets, a bullet for each Israeli.

“I felt that I was an adult, no longer a child, but my friends told me that I couldn’t come with them because I limped and we wanted the mission to succeed. They threw two grenades at soldiers and nobody was hurt, and they shot at a jeep and nobody was wounded. They all went to prison for many years, without blood on their hands. I was also arrested and found myself in jail for seven years. A fighter, a hero, I switched from child’s play to being serious, and in prison I found myself wanting to read about the struggle, to know what the Palestinian problem was, who the Jews were, why there was an occupation, to understand the situation of which I was a part. I began to understand our problem, our history and that of the Jews – from the time of their slavery in Egypt and how they went through the Holocaust and how we are now paying the price for their suffering.

“When I watched a film about the Holocaust, in 1986, in Room 6 of Wing C in the Hebron prison, I understood many things. Before the film I had asked myself why Hitler didn’t kill all of them; had he killed all of them I wouldn’t be in prison. But I wanted to concentrate on the film and to understand what the Holocaust was. After 15 minutes at the film I found myself crying over those people who were about to die naked, for no fault of their own, only because they were Jews. Most of the other prisoners were sleeping; I didn’t wanted anyone to see me crying. Who are you crying over? Over the people who put you in prison, who are occupying us?

“In the film I saw people with their heads down. Without resistance. People being buried alive with bulldozers, entering to be gassed, to suffocate and to die, and people who entered the ovens. It hurt me very much and I was also angry about how a person was about to die and didn’t put up any resistance. Not even to shout, so that you’ll know you’re alive.

“On October 1, 1987 almost 100 soldiers entered our [prison] youth wing, most of them masked. We all had to strip, which is a very humiliating thing for us, and we had to pass through the corridor. From both sides you would get beaten until you reached the courtyard. I remembered that I had been angry at the Jews who didn’t resist in the Holocaust and without realizing it I began to shout. After a few minutes I no longer saw the soldiers. I felt that I was stronger than them. We were some 120 children who were beaten. When I asked the duty officer why, he told me: They don’t belong to the prison; they’re soldiers on a training exercise. They were trained in how to kill a person’s humanity, to generate only revenge in his mind.

“Many things that I saw in the film about the Holocaust I saw afterward in life. I saw in the intifada how they buried people alive in Salem, and how they killed a woman and left her on the road, just as in the film where I saw a Nazi officer who fired at a woman from his window and afterward people passed by and left her on the road. How can someone who knows the taste of suffering, slavery and racism do the same thing to another nation? In spite of that I had many friends among the prison guards, but for me Israelis were the soldiers, the settlers and the prison guards.

“When I was released in 1992 an atmosphere of hope had already become evident. I got married and started to have children. I would always dream about them, that they wouldn’t live the bad life my generation lived. I wanted to protect them. To explain everything to them so that they wouldn’t grow up like me, not knowing anything. That they would know what Palestinians are and what Israelis are … that they would fight against the occupation and help develop a good economy, that they would play, create and study like all the children. All the children want to be doctors; actually Abir wanted to be an engineer. That’s the way I wanted to raise my children.

“I found myself in Fighters for Peace and after the first meeting we knew that we were going to be together for a long time, and that we had a great responsibility to fight for life, for freedom, to explain the value of human life, because we are the instruments of war on both sides. To explain to the Israelis who don’t know what occupation is that their sons are becoming cruel murderers who think that they are protecting security and are doing the opposite, endangering security.

“Once a female student approached me after a lecture in Hatzor Haglilit – I was told that it was a very difficult place that had been the target of many Katyushas – and she said to me: You’re the first Palestinian I’ve met. She embraced me and said to me: ‘Now I’ve made peace with the Palestinians. I will no longer believe the news, or the government, or all the lies. I’ve simply understood.’ That greatly encouraged me, because here there was someone on the other side who understood and accepted you.”

“Last Tuesday I was still sleeping when Abir went to school. She had a math test. At 9:30 I went off toward Ramallah to work. Abir had told me a day before that she wanted to go to a girlfriend’s house to study, and I said to her: Oh no, you won’t. I’ll help you study.

“I was riding in a taxi, looking out for my daughters who were coming out of school. On the left I saw a Border Police jeep. I looked at them and thought: Why are they coming now? To abuse our children? Inshallah, nothing will happen. My daughters will only inhale gas. When I arrived at the Al-Ram intersection a teacher from the school called me and told me that Abir had fallen, and asked that her mother come to school to pick her up. I called home to tell her mother, and Arin, my older daughter, who is 12, was crying. I didn’t understand a thing. A neighbor took the phone and told me: The soldiers fired at your daughter’s head and she’s been wounded.

“I called the school and they told me they had taken her to Makassed Hospital [in East Jerusalem]. I immediately drove to Makassed, on the way I saw the Border Police jeep next to the local council building, but I thought that there was no time for speeches now. When I arrived at Makassed they told me that her condition was very critical. They told me she needed an operation. I was afraid and I told them that she had an Israeli ID and I wanted to take her to Hadassah Hospital. In order speed things up I contacted the Peres Center for Peace, whose staff really helped me and sent a Magen David Adom ambulance and took her to Hadassah. There they decided that no operation was necessary. Thank God, I said to myself.

“At 7 P.M. her condition deteriorated; suddenly she needed an operation. We have to hope for a miracle, the doctors told me. I understood that my daughter needed a miracle and there are no miracles these days. I told myself that I didn’t want to take revenge. The revenge is that this ‘hero,’ whom my daughter endangered and shot at, be put on trial. Afterward she was officially declared dead.

“From what I was told I understood that the children threw stones and the Border Police threw a grenade at Abir’s head, from behind, from a distance of four meters. At first they said she had been wounded by a stone. I’m familiar with that game, but I didn’t believe that they would sink to such a despicable level – sorry for using that word – when they said on Channel 2 that Abir had been playing with something that exploded on her head. Her fingers were whole and her head exploded? They’re contemptible, I said. Liars. They send a boy of 18 with an M16 and tell him that our children are his enemies, and he knows that nobody will stand trial and therefore he shoots in cold blood and turns into a murderer.

“I’m not going to exploit the blood of my child for political purposes. This is a human outcry. I’m not going to lose my common sense, my direction, only because I’ve lost my heart, my child. I will continue to fight in order to protect her siblings and her classmates, her girlfriends, both Palestinians and Israelis. They are all our children.”