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Echoes of a Black Panther's murder in killing of Palestinian activist

In societies conditioned to see Palestinians and blacks as terrorists and criminals, the media and public are often ready to believe state-sanctioned falsehoods about activists like Basel al-Araj and Fred Hampton.

By Bram Wispelwey

Basel al-Araj, a Palestinian who was killed during a gunfight with Israeli soldiers on March 6, 2017, is seen in November 2011 during a Freedom Ride on a settler-only bus in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

Basel al-Araj, a Palestinian who was killed by Israeli soldiers on March 6, 2017, is seen in November 2011 during a Freedom Ride on a settler-only bus in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

In the early morning hours of December 4th, 1969, Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, alongside several fellow Panthers, engaged in a fierce shootout with Chicago Police. Hampton and Mark Clark were killed, and multiple Panthers were wounded. The seven survivors were arrested and charged with attempted murder, while the police officers were touted as heroes.

The only problem with this story? All of it, as told by the police, was false. In reality, the police fired nearly 100 shots at the men who were sleeping, with only one shot fired from one of the Panther’s weapons in defense.

Photograph of the apartment of Fred Hampton, after the raid where he was killed by members of the Chicago Police Department. Photo shows large amount of blood on the bed that he was lying in when he was initially shot, and numerous bullet holes in the walls of the room.

Photograph of Fred Hampton’s apartment, after the raid where he was killed by members of the Chicago Police Department.

What emerged in the course of an eight-year legal battle confirmed the kind of organized conspiracy that the Panthers had always asserted: the FBI and the Chicago Police Department had collaborated to assassinate Hampton, as part of the covert operations by COINTELPRO, while falsifying evidence to make him appear as the aggressor.

As the real evidence eventually showed, COINTELPRO was designed to eliminate young black leaders who were organizing resistance and preaching revolution, leaving behind them a vacuum filled by nihilistic gangs.

Despite the intrepid work of bringing the true story of Fred Hampton’s murder to light, it is still not well known among Americans. Rather, it was the police’s sensational version that captured popular imagination by neatly fitting into racist preconceptions.

That very same practice of rapidly producing an “official lie” is replicated by oppressive institutions around the world. In the early morning hours of March 6, 2017, after months on the run, 31-year-old Palestinian Basel al-Araj was shot to death by Israeli forces in his apartment just outside of Ramallah. Israeli police contend that they came only to arrest al-Araj, and that he fired on them first, leading to a shootout in which not a single Israeli was wounded.

Basel is being arrested by Israeli soldiers during a direct action against the construction of the Seperation Wall in his village, Al Wallaja. Basel al-Araj was a well known activist. He participated in many demonstrations and actions against the occupation, including in his village where demonstrations against the building of the wall began in 2006.

Basel al-Araj is seen being arrested by Israeli soldiers during a direct action against the construction of the separation wall in his village of Al-Walaja. Al-Araj a well known activist who participated in demonstrations and actions against the occupation, including in his village where demonstrations against the building of the wall began in 2006.

Al-Araj was a well-known and respected intellectual, activist, and community organizer who understood and acted on the conviction that theories of resistance must be put into practice. Among the belongings found in the post-raid wreckage were testaments to his leftist intellectual commitment, including books by Marxist philosopher and theoretician, Antonio Gramsci. Al-Araj had long worked to expose and dismantle the Israeli occupation, encourage democratic elections in the West Bank, and decry the normalization of relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, particularly on the issue of coordinated security operations.

His resolve on these points landed him and his friends in a PA prison for five months in 2016, where they were tortured and went on a hunger strike. After their release, most of these young men were immediately hunted down and imprisoned by Israel, but al-Araj managed to elude his captors. In the following months, his family was harassed numerous times by the authorities. He rented his room in al-Bireh two months ago, claiming to be a Swedish expat to avoid scrutiny. Sensing that his days were numbered after witnessing the fate of his friends, al-Araj left a final letter to his people and to their struggle for rights and liberation.

When I visited al-Araj’s home village of al-Walaja just hours after he was killed, people were already gathering in large numbers along the roadside in collective mourning. His death was another devastating blow to a community that has been divided by the separation wall and increasingly encircled by illegal settlements. Al-Araj’s spirit was felt in protests throughout Palestine and Palestinian refugee camps in the diaspora. Clashes stemming from his death between Palestinian youth and Israeli forces led to the detention of eight Palestinians, including one minor. On March 12th, PA forces fired tear gas and beat peaceful protestors, including al-Araj’s father.

The father of Basel al-Araj says a last goodbye to his son as he is buried, Al Walaja, West Bank, March 16, 2017. (Activestills.org)

The father of Basel al-Araj says a last goodbye to his son as he is buried, Al Walaja, West Bank, March 16, 2017. (Activestills.org)

The language of terrorism is utilized loosely by Israel to describe such clashes, which often serve as a pretext for the brutal repression of Palestinians. Israeli authorities were likewise quick to make this accusation of al-Araj: the police stated that he was “planning an attack against civilians and security forces,” yet no evidence was presented. Israel’s military reported that guns and bullet casings were found by his body, yet their version of events has been called into question by those who knew him (his uncle noted that he was not the type to engage in armed attacks), as well as those who investigated the raid.

Mustafa Barghouti, a well-known doctor and leader of the Palestinian National Initiative party, examined the site and determined that what happened was “nothing but an act of extrajudicial killing and assassination.” He found the house riddled by Israeli bullets with no clear evidence that al-Araj had fired. He told Al Jazeera that “[t]hey said there was a fight and clash, but what I found was that the only side that was shooting was the Israelis.” This view was corroborated by the al-Ghad television network, which found no evidence that al-Araj had fired at the raiding forces. The video of the raid posted by Israeli police shows Israeli forces firing into an overhead crawlspace, also without evidence of al-Araj firing preemptively.

Israeli policemen stand guard in front of the car of Yaqoub Abu Al-Qi'an, who was shot dead by Israeli police in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, in the Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Israeli policemen stand guard in front of the car of Yaqoub Abu Al-Qi’an, who was shot dead by Israeli police in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, in the Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Beyond the doubts raised by the available evidence, it is clear that the Israeli authorities have no qualms about lying during the immediate aftermath of the murder of Palestinians. The same behavior took place just a few weeks ago in the Palestinian Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran inside Israel, which is currently being demolished so that a Jewish town can be built on its ruins. During a demolition operation, Israeli police fatally shot a Bedouin math teacher, Yacoub Musa Abu Qi’an, as he was driving out of the village. Abu Qi’an’s car then sped out of control and careened into a police officer, killing him. The initial story from authorities, dutifully repeated by the media, was that Abu Qi’an had intentionally run over the police in a terrorist attack, and was then shot. The police’s own drone video, however, proved that they falsified the reported chain of events.

The authorities’ official story about the killing of Basel al-Araj is predictably similar. Much is still unknown about what happened in the early hours on March 6th, and much we might never know; after all, it took years for the full truth to be revealed regarding Fred Hampton’s murder in December 1969. But we see a similar pattern: settler-colonial states willing to go to any length, including assassination, to bring down young revolutionary leaders who question and confront their fundamental myths and premises. In societies conditioned to see Palestinians and blacks as terrorists and criminals, the media and public majorities are often ready to believe and proliferate state-sanctioned falsehoods. We cannot let them.

Bram Wispelwey is an internal medicine and global health equity resident physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. He has engaged in global health work in Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Navajo Nation, and is currently partnering with a community organization in Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank to improve health access and medical care.

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    1. Baladi Akka 1948

      Zionism is a cult, the followers are on Ziocaïne so you can’t expect them to think rationally. By his mere existence, Basel al-Araj was the agressor, you know just like they call their army of occupation and agression the Israeli Defense Forces … the point is they don’t see Palestinians as equal human beings so they don’t care if Basel al-Araj was executed. Don’t forget, no lie is too big for the sake of Israel, even NutsYahoo declaring that Hitler didn’t want to kill the Jews before meeting the Mufti didn’t prevent him from staying in office, no lie too big for the Vaterland.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bernie X

      Bram. Your article is a classic blood libel.

      “He found the house riddled by Israeli bullets with no clear evidence that al-Araj had fired.”

      No Bram. I saw the reporters video and there is not a single bullet hole in the apartment except in the hidden alcove where al-Araj was hiding. Yes, there were bullet casings on the floor of the flat.

      The Panthers were shot in their beds and were unsuspecting of a police raid. al-Araj had been on the run from the police for months and fully expected his arrest. Note that al-Araj was hiding in the alcove and not sleeping in the bed in the bedroom. Hmmm.

      The police video cam is direct evidence that a-Araj chose ‘suicide by police’ rather than surrender. At about 25 seconds, the officers helmet gear suddenly is illuminated and only after than do his soldiers begin returning fire into the alcove.

      Bram. Your dirty blood libel sullies the reputation of the soldiers who risked their lives and your loathsome blood liable dishonors al-Araj, who bravely with a gun in his hand.

      Bram. You can take your human rights credentials and shove them. Your willful lies discredit you.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Bernie X: This libelous anti-Semitizing attempt of yours at a counter-narrative, in which you bizarrely use the completely unjustified term, “blood libel,” (“classic,” no less) is in fact no counter-narrative at all and does not support your claims one bit. On the face of it you offer nothing of the kind of rebuttal you assume you are offering. It’s just an excuse to attack the writer with ad hominem. Three times you trot out the term “blood libel” in three varieties, classic, dirty and loathsome, just to make sure we get the point.
        In fact, what was done to al-Araj is another example of the Israeli strategy of loudly complaining it has no partner for peace while secretly moving with cold brutal efficiency to identify and eliminate or imprison permanently any emerging Palestinian with the talent to be a non-violent leader. Israel reserves it greatest vituperation and most devoted scientific and intelligence efforts to frustrate any competent non-violent protest avenues so as to present itself as the perpetual victim of “terror,” a victimhood status it treasures as a justification for its brutal creeping annexation. One has to be willfully blind not to see this.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bernie X

          “On the face of it you offer nothing of the kind of rebuttal you assume”

          No Ben, it’s you who’ve offered nothing in the way of a rebuttal. I cited to two sources of video evidence. You offer nothing but your heavy intellectual masturbation.

          I have a further offering of substance. Twelve suspected terrorists were arrested in the raids. Why weren’t they killed as well?
          Why only al-Araj?

          Twelve were arrested, and only al-Araj was killed because al-Araj opened fire on the troops and brought down death on himself.

          Now sod off.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “Sod off”? The expression of a punk gangster. Looks like I rattled you. Is that a “blood libel” too?

            “Twelve suspected terrorists were arrested in the raids. Why weren’t they killed as well?”

            I just got done telling you. (“In fact, what was done to al-Araj is another example of….”) So they took in twelve less talented and leadership-ready ones for interrogation and torture. To burnish their data base. What is surprising about that? Its SOP.

            You need to read and absorb what Amira Hass knows and you shut your eyes and ears to and refuse to learn.
            Twisting the Knife and Calling the Twisting a Solution
            Those who exaggerate the danger of planned attacks and give intelligence warnings about Palestinians are blind to the evil of Israel’s rule.
            Amira Hass Mar 22, 2017 3:36 AM
            read more: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.778737

            Reply to Comment
          • Bernie X

            @Ben

            Rattled by an intellectual masturbator? Not likely.

            For the fact minded I submit that according to Maan News, there was ‘an exchange of gunfire; and previously, al-Araj has written a ‘martyrs letter’.

            al Araj was a dead ender who chose ‘suicide by police’, same as the piece of shit who killed all those poor souls in London yesterday.

            Whackada whackada, Ben?

            Try some more KY.

            Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            Comparing Basel al-Araj to the terrorist in London, talking about a piece of shit, you just won the shitting contest !

            Reply to Comment
    3. R5

      The embarrassing BLM = Palestine trope continues. To the SJW hive mind – NO, the black American experience has no more in common with the Palestinian experience than with the Ukrainian experience. Oh wait, I forgot about all of the majority black countries that surround America, are hundreds of times larger, and routinely threaten to exterminate and expel all of the white people in America! Oh, and they have modern armies and expelled of the white people already who had live there since time immemorial because of America’s victories in the black / white race wars of the 20th century. So much in common this analogy is just blowing…my…mind.

      Reply to Comment
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