Basil al-Araj, 33, of Bethlehem, was killed by Israeli soldiers and border policemen last Monday in the apartment in Al-Bireh, near Ramallah, where he was hiding. The army says he was wanted by the security forces and was killed in a shootout with soldiers who came to arrest him. Palestinian sources say the army fired a missile at the apartment.
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His death reignited the Palestinian debate over the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel and sparked protests that the PA security services, as usual, are suppressing. And that, again as usual, has sparked additional protests.
The suppression of Sunday’s modest protest outside the magistrate’s court in Al-Bireh, which Al-Araj’s father also attended, wasn’t unusual. The PA security services have suppressed many protests.
Nevertheless, the circumstances were unusual: Inside the courthouse, six young men were supposed to be standing trial on charges of illegal weapons possession and endangering lives. But only one was present. Four others were arrested by Israel a few months ago. The sixth was Al-Araj.
All six were held in a Palestinian jail for about six months last year and released following a hunger strike. Four were then arrested by Israel, and Al-Araj went underground. According to Palestinian reports, despite receiving proof that those four were in Israeli jails, the judge merely postponed their trial to April 30, saying they were administrative detainees who might be released by then. He canceled Al-Araj’s indictment only after being given his death certificate.
Outside, a few dozen demonstrators, including young women and veteran activists against the Israeli occupation, protested the security cooperation with Israel. The PA security services tried to prevent Falastin Al-Youm, a station affiliated with Islamic Jihad, from broadcasting the demonstration live.
Then, despite the women’s presence, the security services dispersed the demonstrators with shoves, brutal blows, stun grenades and tear gas. The gas spread through the street, which also contains a school and preschool.
Among the wounded evacuated to the hospital was the bereaved father. One of four demonstrators arrested for several hours was Khader Adnan, famed for his prolonged hunger strike against his detention without trial in Israel. PA police said the demonstrators were dispersed because they blocked a main street.
Photographs of the demonstration’s dispersal were disseminated on social media, together with calls to return to the streets instead of making do with Facebook denunciations. Another demonstration was scheduled for yesterday in Ramallah, and journalists and lawyers were urged to attend.
An earlier demonstration held in the Deheishe refugee camp to commemorate Al-Araj and protest security cooperation with Israel was also forcibly dispersed. That prompted the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to announce a boycott of the local elections scheduled to take place in the West Bank only in May.
As usual, opinions on Facebook were divided. Some suspected the PA security services of helping Israel find Al-Araj and charged that his indictment also constituted cooperation with the occupation. Others denounced the demonstration’s dispersal but warned against accusations of treason and comparing Palestinian police to Israeli soldiers. Fatah activists disclaimed responsibility for the police’s actions, ignoring the fact that their organization is the ruling party and its members play key roles in the security services.
Al-Araj, a pharmacist, was affiliated with the Palestinian left. He participated in unarmed popular protests against Israel’s plan to build a wall through Al-Walaja, a village west of Bethlehem, and expropriate its lands to build a public park for Israelis. He also participated in popular protests against the settlements and normalization with Israel.
The unarmed popular struggle failed: The wall was built, people lost their lands or were cut off from them, the settlements are expanding and the PA’s security cooperation with Israel continues. Al-Araj’s friends say this failure pushed him into adopting the methods of the Palestinian struggle in 1936 – obtaining arms, going underground, taking to the hills, risking arrest and death. The tragic path he took, and which, despite everything, the vast majority doesn’t take, is evidence of the blind alley in which Palestinian politics finds itself.
As always, the latest protests and the attempts to suppress them have aroused hope that the impasse in Palestinian politics will be broken, that Mahmoud Abbas’ singlehanded hold on politics within the PLO, the Fatah party and the PA will be weakened. Experience teaches that after initially suppressing protests, the PA finds ways to dissipate them. But there’s a constant accumulation of bitterness, repugnance, despair and anger. There’s no way of knowing how, or how long, the PA security services will be able to contain these feelings or suppress the political activity they generate.