Saturday, January 20, 2007
Killing the Children in Palestine
The tragic death of an activist's daughter
By Donald Macintyre in Anata, West Bank
Published: 20 January 2007
They lay on the school principal's table, the relics of 10-year-old Abir Aramin's last, fatal, journey: the black plastic shoulder bag containing the sixth-grade maths text book, cheerfully decorated with Sindy dolls, which she had taken for last-minute revision before her exam that morning; the bars of Cadbury's Dairy Milk and Biskrem she had bought in the little grocery shop across the street when it was over. Sawsan Halwe, head of Anata Girls' School, recalled how after what she said was a "big boom", Abir had been carried, bleeding and unconscious, into a classroom. She tried to describe Abir in normal times: "She was lovely. Her teachers liked her, she had good grades. She was a very active student."
But then Abir has an unusual father. Bassam Aramin, 39, had been an active Fatah militant in his youth, ready to kill for the Palestinian cause, and jailed for seven years for attempting to do so. Yet today he is energetic in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and closely associated with the Peres Centre's Jewish-Arab sports programmes.
Last April, Mr Aramin helped to found "Combatants for Peace" - a unique organisation of former Israeli soldiers and ex-Palestinian gunmen who have renounced violence and are devoted to the cause of ending the occupation by peaceful methods alone. A mere 10 months later, Mr Aramin has had his beliefs tested to the outer limit, by a grief he could never imagine. Yesterday at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque he buried Abir, his younger daughter, killed by what he and every resident of Anata is convinced was fire at lethally close range - probably, they believe, a rubber-coated bullet from an Israeli border police jeep.
Shortly after 9.10am on Tuesday, Abir, her sister and two friends, came out of the grocery store and started walking downhill along the street. At that point, said one of the girls, Abrar Abu Qweida, 12, an Israeli jeep came up the hill; further down the hill, she says she saw "three or four" boys throwing stones towards the vehicle. As the jeep passed them going up the hill, she says, she noticed what she says was a gun protruding from the rear window. Moments later, she says, a Ford Transit, of the sort frequently used in the West Bank for unlicensed passenger transport, came up the hill. Abrar explained: "Abir said: 'Let's get in the Ford.' We were afraid from the jeep. But I said: 'I haven't any money.' So she said: 'OK, we don't go.'"
Abir's fatal injury came moments later. As they faced down the hill, Abrar was holding Abir's hand; Abir's sister Arin, 11, was immediately behind her. "Arin lowered her head and so did I," said Abrar, hunching her shoulders in a graphic demonstration of an instinctive reaction to an explosion. But Abir didn't duck, and fell forward, said Abrar, adding: "I ran away. I ran into the school."
Arin, she says, fell to the ground from the shock, crying. Abrar says that the Ford Transit, the driver alerted by the sound of an explosion, returned immediately. "Two men jumped out and carried Abir into the school," Abrar said.
"I was crying all the time. I can't study now. When [Abir] was doing her last exam she was sitting at the desk next to me."
After a formal complaint by the family, police have now launched an investigation by its internal affairs division. The police suggested this week that she might have been hit by a stone thrown by a Palestinian, and the initial findings of yesterday's autopsy do not so far prove that she was shot. Abrar's account is consistent with the massive fracture in the back of Abir's skull, from which surgeons at the Hadassah Hospital fought to save her; with other eye-witness reports; and from the rubber bullet one boy testified to the Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din he had found where Abir fell. The Peres Centre's Dr David Shanin, who visited doctors at the Hadassah with Mr Aramin as his daughter lay already clinically dead, is convinced her injuries were caused by a rubber bullet. He said: "The cause is obvious to anyone who doesn't want to twist the truth."
In order to ensure his two sons were not caught up in the clashes while the separation barrier was being built through the middle of Anata last year, Mr Aramin had long moved his sons to a school in East Jerusalem. But he never imagined anything like this happening to his daughters.
He added: "I do not want revenge. Revenge is against our principles. My revenge is to bring [the perpetrator] to court, to defend other children, and so that he will learn not to shoot in cold blood and that there is a price to be paid. This should be the same for Israelis and Palestinians. "
Even if Abir were not shot, there remains the question of what the police were doing near the schools in Anata in the first place. The police say that they were there to protect "ongoing work" on the separation barrier. But residents - and the Yesh Din lawyer Michael Sfard, who is helping to represent the family - are all adamant the work stopped months ago when the barrier here was completed.
Avichai Sharon, one of Mr Aramin's Israeli ex-soldier friends, says: "A few months ago they did come to protect the bulldozers. But now there is nothing to protect. They are just there to cause a provocation. There is no other reason."
Mr Sfard, while saying that shooting with rubber bullets is a "reasonable" and "likely" explanation for Abir's death, acknowledges that this cannot yet be proved. But he agrees that the Border Police's, in his view, wholly unnecessary presence was the underlying cause and adds that it's known the forces opened fire in the vicinity of the schools. "None of the public statements made by the [Israel Defence Forces] or the police suggests that they were under threat."
Mr Aramin said that his daughter's death will not deter him from his work in the peace forums. "We have no choice but to continue to save more children from falling in this dirty conflict," he said.
And he adds gratefully that his Israeli ex-soldier friends in Combatants for Peace had shown unswerving solidarity with him since Tuesday. "They even left their jobs to be with me and that has helped to make me feel strong," he said
There is a POWERFUL video about Combatants for Peace which Abir's father, Bassam Aramim helped establish HERE on Google Video (sorry, I havent figured out how to imbed Google videos yet)