Bassam Aramin says he is waiting for Israeli justice

Jailed in his late teens for attacking IDF soldiers, a Palestinian father fights for his freedom.

bassam aramin 298.88 (photo credit: Evelyn Ruskin)
bassam aramin 298.88
(photo credit: Evelyn Ruskin)
Ten-year-old Abir Aramin died suddenly on January 16, 2007, after leaving school and walking arm-in-arm down the street with her sister and two friends. At the time of her death, border police were patrolling the school and an adjacent boys' school in Anata, a Palestinian village straddling the Jerusalem municipal limits. Unlike the overwhelming majority of events in which Palestinian children have been killed during incidents involving the IDF or border police since the beginning of the second intifada in late 2000, the police investigated Abir's death. But as with numerous cases in which no one was found responsible for the death of a Palestinian child, the state prosecution last week informed Abir's father, Bassam Aramin, that his daughter's file was being closed for lack of evidence. The event took place on a main commercial street and many Palestinian witnesses testified that the border police had opened fire at the students. Clashes between rock-throwing students and border police using tear gas and rubber bullets are routine for Anata. Most of the Palestinian eyewitnesses testified that the border police had opened fire on the day Abir was killed, without provocation. One said he had seen a rock being thrown by students. The key problem in deciphering the case is the fact that the two pathologists who examined Abir's body for cause of death reached different conclusions. The pathologist hired by the family found that Abir died of a rubber bullet wound to the back of the head. The police pathologist said it was impossible to determine what had caused the child's death. And there the case might have ended, were it not for Abir's unusual father. Aramin has not given up on what he says he hopes will be Israeli justice. He has now been informed by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz that he has 30 days to appeal the closing of the case. (The Justice Ministry has offered no further comment on the case.) And he and his lawyer, Michael Sfard, will petition the High Court of Justice if the appeal fails. Aramin, 39, served seven years in the Hebron prison for attacking IDF soldiers. He was 18 when he was convicted. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Aramin, who limps from a bout of polio in his childhood, said he began throwing stones at soldiers, together with his friends, when he was 13. "It was child's play," he said. "We didn't know anything about Israel or about ourselves, for that matter." What he did know was that the soldiers showed up whenever they wanted and disrupted their games. He also knew that the soldiers became very angry whenever they saw anyone displaying the colors of the PLO. He and his friends enjoyed making them angry. On one occasion, because he could not run away fast enough, he said, he was clubbed by a soldier during a demonstration. On another, he said, he saw soldiers shoot and kill a Palestinian demonstrator. On a third, he said, he saw a soldier fire six bullets into the legs of an elderly Palestinian farmer, and saw the farmer fall and scream in pain. He and his friends came to viscerally hate the soldiers. As they grew older, the children, now in their mid-teens, concluded that if they wanted to get back at them, they would need firearms. Eventually, they got hold of a Kalashnikov rifle, two hand grenades and some explosives. Aramin's friends would not allow him to go with them because his limp slowed him down. He said he never fired a gun. In 1985, he and his friends were arrested for the attacks on IDF patrols. In prison, he said, he put away childish things and came to learn about the Palestinian national movement. One year later, while in jail, Aramin saw the movie Schindler's List. It was one of the defining moments of his life. "That night, I couldn't sleep," he said. "I saw myself crying over these people because they were going to their deaths. I saw people who had been stripped of their clothing, bulldozers, poison gas, executions in which the Jews just stood there and did not resist. I cried and I was also angry. Why didn't they resist? I felt I wanted to enter the movie and fight back. For me, that movie is the Jewish Holocaust." Schindler's List did not by itself make Aramin more sympathetic to Israelis. In many ways, he said, he felt the Palestinians were now in a similar situation to the Jews of World War II. One day, he said, a large group of men wearing masks and carrying clubs entered the prison wing for youths where he was incarcerated. They forced the inmates to undress and to run past the line of soldiers, who beat and clubbed them, until they reached a courtyard. Aramin said he had to run 80 meters through the gauntlet and feared he would not make it. Then, he remembered the Jews in the Holocaust who had not resisted. He said he ran through the line shouting, "Nazis, animals," and didn't feel the pain of the blows. Soon afterward, Aramin was approached by a jailer, a settler from Kiryat Arba who was known to be particularly harsh toward the prisoners. The jailer told him he looked too refined to be a terrorist. Aramin replied that he was not the terrorist but that the settlers were. The jailer told him that it was the Palestinians who were the interlopers because the land belonged to the Jews. Aramin said he had never heard such an argument before. He proposed that he and the jailer conduct a dialogue. The jailer agreed and they did so for seven months. At the end, said Aramin, the jailer agreed that the Palestinians did indeed deserve a state of their own. "A sort of friendship developed between us," said Aramin. "I understood that when we talk to one another, we can change each other's mind. When we shoot at each other, one can only eliminate the other." When Aramin emerged from prison in 1992, he had come to the conclusion that war solved nothing. "Until now, the only Israelis I had known were soldiers, settlers and prison guards," he said. "Now, I began to see Israeli women and children. I oppose the killing of civilians. It is against my religion and my moral code." Aramin married and settled down. Today, he has five children aside from Abir. In 2000, he started becoming active again, joining a group of other former prisoners who believed in democracy and dialogue. In 2006, someone asked if he was ready to meet a group of former IDF soldiers who refused to serve in the territories. Even though he hated soldiers, curiosity got the best of him and he agreed. The two groups met at the Everest Hotel in Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem - seven Israelis and three Palestinians. "It was a difficult meeting for me. I looked at them with much hatred," he said. "Through them, I saw the entire history of the occupation." Each participant introduced himself. One former Israeli soldier, who had commanded the Kalandiya checkpoint and had led an IDF force that had surrounded the Mukata in Ramallah when Yasser Arafat was confined there, began to talk about himself. "He was very open," said Aramin. "Then he saw me staring at him and asked me why. I told him I was trying to picture him as a soldier. He looked too sensitive to me. I told him all I've seen until now are aggressive soldiers." Aramin said the soldier "agreed with everything I said. I couldn't pick a fight with him." The Israelis and Palestinians spoke to each other for three hours. When the meeting ended, they decided to meet again the following week. At the second meeting, they began to talk more personally. These meetings grew into an Israeli-Palestinian organization called "Fighters for Peace," consisting of former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian security prisoners. It held monthly meeting to bring more Israelis and Palestinians together. Aramin himself often spoke to Israeli audiences about himself, his experiences and his beliefs. Then, the tragedy struck. Abir was seriously wounded and rushed to Mukassad Hospital. From there, Aramin took her to the Hadassah University Medical Center at Ein Karem. No sooner had he arrived when Jewish members of the group started visiting him in the hospital room. "They wanted to know what I would say," recalled Aramin. "I told them this incident will only strengthen us. We must become stronger for the sake of our children. "Abir died, but I still have five living children. We will fight this case through legal channels." His Jewish friends remained with him throughout the ordeal until Abir died. "They spent three days and nights with me," said Aramin. "We began to connect like a family. I felt that this child was their child also." Aramin said he had no doubt that a border policeman shot and killed Abir. He is determined that the alleged killer be apprehended and punished by law. And, despite the state prosecution decision to close the file, he is certain that this will happen. Attorney Sfard told the Post that Abir was fatally wounded on a Tuesday morning. The police did not open an investigation that day. Nor the next. It was only after Sfard was given the case and complained that the police began to investigate - on Thursday evening. The delay turned out to be crucial. During those two days, rain washed away the Border Police jeep's tire marks and Abir's blood stains. Now there is a conflict between the members of the patrol and Palestinian eyewitnesses as to where the jeep was standing when Abir was fatally wounded. The police version places the jeep at an angle making it impossible for its occupants to hit Abir. The Palestinian eyewitness testimony as to the location of the jeep makes it possible. According to Sfard, police investigators are trained to solve such problems and determine where the jeep stood. In this case, they said could not. Furthermore, Sfard said that even if the investigators could not establish that the border policeman had actually killed Abir, there were other, lesser charges that could have been laid, such as improper use of firearms. Sfard will make these and other arguments in his appeal. Then, over the next weeks and months, Aramin will find out if his faith in the Israeli legal channels is vindicated.