At 2am on 6 March, gunfire echoed through the el-Bireh district of Ramallah in Palestine’s occupied West Bank. Heavily armed Israeli troops stormed an upstairs apartment and, in a hail of bullets, shot dead 31-year-old activist Basil al-Araj. The soldiers then seized al-Araj’s body and removed it to an unknown location.
Al-Araj had been on the run from Israeli occupation forces for the last six months. In early March and late April last year, he was one of six Palestinian youths arrested and detained by the Palestinian Authority. After nearly six months in custody without charge or trial, and subject to torture, the activists launched a nine-day hunger strike. They were released in September following an international solidarity campaign.
However, their freedom was short-lived. Four of al-Araj’s comrades were promptly seized by Israeli occupation forces and continue to be held without charge or trial under “administrative detention”. Al-Araj went underground; his family home has been repeatedly raided by occupation forces.
A writer and activist, Al-Araj was dedicated to reviving the Palestinian national liberation movement, according to Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network Samidoun. He was well known for leading protests against the construction of the apartheid wall in the West Bank village of al-Walaja, where much of his family’s land had been confiscated.
In November 2011, Al-Araj was one of several Palestinian “freedom riders” who boarded a bus reserved for settlers on its way to Jerusalem, a city determined by Israel to be off limits to nearly 3 million West Bank Palestinians. Israeli police forced Al-Araj and his comrades off the bus and arrested them. Their anti-apartheid protest, however, gained international media attention.
Prior to his arrest, al-Araj compared the settlers to the KKK in the US southern states, according to a report by Mondoweiss. “The settlers are … an unruly, fanatic mob that has enormous influence in shaping Israeli policies today and that violently enforces these policies with extreme violence and utter impunity all over the occupied Palestinian territory, especially in and around Jerusalem”, he said.
In 2012, al-Araj led a protest against former Israeli defence minister Shaul Mofaz’s planned visit to the PA’s headquarters in Ramallah. He was hospitalised after being severely beaten by PA security forces.
Araj’s assassination, in an area ostensibly under PA control, has shone a light on the PA’s policy of “security coordination” with Israel. Al-Araj’s mother, Sihamis, is in no doubt about who is responsible for her son’s murder. “Israeli soldiers killed him but the PA paved the way for them”, she told Electronic Intifada.
On 12 March, protesters gathered on Ramallah’s streets to condemn the PA for continuing criminal charges against al-Araj and his five comrades for alleged “possession of an unlicensed weapon”. The judge dismissed charges against al-Araj, after citing his death certificate, but announced that the trial of four of al-Araj’s comrades would resume, pending their release from an Israeli prison.
PA security forces violently attacked protesters with batons, tear gas, sound grenades and rubber bullets, according to Samidoun. Several were injured, including Araj’s father. PA security spokesperson Adnan al-Damiri denounced the protesters, accusing them of being “mercenaries” and foreign agents.
Palestinian factions Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have condemned al-Araj’s extrajudicial killing and the PA’s security coordination with Israel. Protests also took place in Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem, in Gaza city and in London, Brussels, Berlin, New York, Washington and several Arab capital cities in the week following al-Araj’s execution.
“Basil wanted to create a model of resistance that Palestinians can look up to and learn from”, al-Araj’s friend Abboud Hamayel told Electronic Intifada. “He was not naive to think that his assassination would spark an uprising. He always maintained that while our generation might not liberate Palestine, its duty is to lay the ground for the next generation. And if we fail to do that, history will never forgive us.”
“We have lost Basil as a human, but his values and ideas will remain with us”, Hamza Aqrabawi, another of al-Araj’s friends, told Al Jazeera. “Basil’s death is a loss to all of Palestine, but his legacy will guide us through the struggle.”