By Mazin Qumsiyeh
My encounter with the Al-Araj family began in 2009, the year I met Basil and Shireen and started joining them in demonstrations in Al-Walaja village. On 6 March 2017, Basil was murdered by the Israeli army. He was 31 years old. Others will speak of his martyrdom, I will speak of his life and what he told me. Basil would have wanted it told this way. I learned intimate details about Basil and his family life the third time we were detained together. He was 24 years old, I was twice his age. This was in what Basil accurately described as “a holding pin not fit for animals” which I and many Palestinian males shared with one Palestinian female, my friend and Basil’s aunt Shireen Al-Araj. I had been “taken” twice before with Basil and once with Shireen before this particular incident (and more after). It was these arrests that deepened my high regard for the family. Beyond their decency and honest dealings were acts of self-sacrifice that earned the family the respect of their entire village of Al-Walaja and I dare to say all of Palestine. This is similar to Al-Tamimi family of Nebi Saleh and it was no coincidence tat Basem Tamimi was there with us in Al-Walaja the day after Basil’s murder. Here I am not telling you the story of Basil but I am recounting what Basil told me and I had written down in 2014 (was planning to publish inspirational Palestinian stories in a book). I merely now edited it to a) add this introduction) b) change to past tense instead of present tens ('Basil says or relays' now becomes 'Basil said or relayed'), and c) I added a brief ending with his last words.
Having time on our hands on that day 19 May 2011, Basil told me the story of his grandfather Ibrahim and the villagers of Al-Walaja who valiantly struggled against the Israeli occupiers to save their land. That day over fifty of us had been herded into one small cell – men and one woman, people of all ages, some as young as twelve, others well over sixty and most jailed for the first time. The Israeli soldiers holding us seemed even more miserable and nervous than those of us crammed into that small cell. Our crime was nonviolent resistance, their discomfort signaling guilt a force their training had only taught them to handle using violence. They had roughed us up, made us stand battered and bleeding in the sun for hours. The younger guards didn’t look us straight in the eye but lowered their heads or looked around in gestures that betrayed their uncertainty, confusion, and one might venture to say fear. Basil wondered if it is the uncertainty of a criminal fearing being caught!
Reason became apparent when four Israelis imprisoned with us began conversing in Hebrew. In spite of the soldiers telling us it was forbidden to talk, our Israeli cellmates kept on keeping their voices low yet audible enough for the guards to hear. Yelling, the guards feigned displeasure but being curious, imposed no punishment and remained attentive to the conversation. Most of my fellow inmates quickly befriended each other but I remained cautious because I have heard that Israelis sometimes plant informers among the inmates to gather information. I only trusted Basil and Shireen whom I knew for at least two years prior to this arrest (2009). I thus talked to them and especially Basil at length.
It was earlier that week when our group first gathered on the terraced hillside lush with trees and an olive grove that we planned that action with Israelis. We were all determined to defend with our bodies the oldest olive tree in the Bethlehem district. There was one tree believed to be between three thousand years old.
Huddled in a corner on the cold concrete cell floor, we whispered. In spite of hunger and exhaustion our spirits were kept high talking boldly about a future focused on coexistence – all peoples sharing one land in one democratic state. Topics centered on an end to repression and segregated government schools. Idealistic planning flowed naturally among comrades locked in mutual struggle, helped to ward off the misery of confinement and keep spirits high. The guard soldiers paced nervously back and forth hesitated to listen to our whispered conversation before issuing another reprimand for talking.
But as the group convesation ended we talked among smaller groups or one on one. Basil approached me and asked me about my family. I asked him about his family and was mesmerized by glimpses of family life and history (partly because I was writing a book on Popular Resistance in Palestine which was published later in 2012). Part of what I write here was supposed to be printed in that book but the editor wisely suggested a shorter more concise book and saving more detailed personal stories to another book (and I have many of those) which I never published. I tried to remember much of what Basil told me in that prison cell but to be sure of the details, I visited with him six months later at his home in Al-Walaja and spent a whole evening learned much more about Al-Walaja’s history and his family.
Basil was called the “intellectual revolutionary” for good reason. He had a keen mind and had read many books. When I gave him a copy of my book on Popular Resistance in Arabic in late 2013 (or perhaps early 2014), he finished reading it in three weeks and came back to me with lots of questions and wanting to know more., He was especially fascinated by the part of how Palestinians transcended the divisions of 1920s and early 1930s (over two dozen factions infighting and a Palestinian police force working with the British) to arrive at the great revolt of 1936.
Anyway, Basil started by explaining that before 1948 his village sat was located inside the Green line on the main railroad track line that headed from Jerusalem to Lydda and Jaffa and cut through village lands. Villagers tell of bountiful agricultural harvests before the creation of Israel and the Nakba (Palestinian uprising) of 1948. Agricultural products from the Al-Walaja village flooded the markets of Jerusalem and Jaffa by way of Jerusalem Jaffa Railroad, and significantly contributed to a prosperous Palestine economy . Muslims and Christians of in this part of the country lived peacefully with each other. It was not uncommon for families to convert from Christianity to Islam, which was the more recent religion. Al-Araj family of Al-Walaja is Muslim while the Al-Araj family of the adjacent town Beit Jala is Christian. Two monasteries are located within the village boundaries: Cremisan, which lies between Al-Walaja and Beit Jala, and Meskari, which is between Al-Walaja and Ain Karam. Archaeological exploration of Al-Walaja village land shows Churches include in Ain Jneinah and Tcharcha (comes from Church) areas of the village. Just tw months ago, Israeli authorities made the last spring and its Byzantine ruins of Al-Walaja off-limits to the remaining residents.
Al-Walaja earned notoriety as a scene of the 1938 rebellion against the British occupation and its strong support of Zionism. Official reports told history from the British side. One British regiment reports on its website: “On 11th October 1938, 2nd/Lieutenant R. E. Miller, with a platoon of “D” Company, was road-blocked and heavily sniped at close quarters while carrying out a reconnaissance of the Al Walaja track, near Jerusalem. The platoon extricated itself successfully with air assistance, and not without having inflicted casualties on the enemy. “ (http://www.worcestershireregiment.com/wr.php?main=inc/bat_1_1939 )
On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly recommended partition of Palestine. The Zionist forces took this proposal as a Green light to begin ethnic cleansing, which roused a backlash that led to combat in 1948. The Al-Qastal battle was fought between Israeli occupation forces and village defenders headed by Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini in the Palestinian village of Al-Qastal. During fierce fighting Abdel Alqader Al-Husseini was martyred.
Basil’s great grandfather Abu Khalil was a comrade of Abdulqader Al-hussaini and fought with valor and was injured defending his land from the colonizing Zionists and their sponsors (the British mandate). Later, I learned a Jordanian soldier had told Basil’s grandfather that there was a Jordanian-Israeli conspiracy to adjust the border relinquishing Al-Walaja and other areas (similar to what proved to have happened to the villages of the Triangle area in the north).
Israel’s planned, program of forceful transfer of Palestine’s indigenous population gradually digressed into what some people described as a civil war in and others saw as a colonial war targeting the natives population. Israel made several attempts to take over the village and remove its inhabitants. 4 AM on the morning of 21 October 1948, the last successful attempt began. It was during the olive harvest season. Basil’s grandfather Ibrahim remembers that time. They had spread an exceptionally bountiful harvest of olives on the roofs of houses in preparation for sorting and selecting those pressed to make oil and the olives for pickling (called rseis). Basil described his grandfather’s reaction that night. While dreaming of the days work ahead, I was suddenly awakened by the sound of bombs, canon , and machine gun firing in the village. It was coming from three directions. I heard cries and screams, ran into the village, saw neighbors forced to leave at gunpoint, some in their sleeping attire and given no time to gather any belongings. Basil says his grandfather told him the shelling continued through that night and on into the day finally ending about 24 hours later. “My grandfather recalls how he put his younger siblings (15, 6, 4, 2 years old) at the railroad station in Battir and went looking for his parents and uncles” (separated in the mayhem of the flight). Basil then tells how his grandfather was such a solid, collected guy who inspired discipline, perseverance, or what he calls sumoud (steadfastness).
I recalled how these parts of Basil’s narrative speaking about his grandfather gave his face a glow of pride and dare I say hope (nostalgia to a disant past?). Clearly Basil saw the actions of his grandfather as heroic. Knowing I am from Beit Sahour, Basil told me that when reunited , the extended family sought refuge between the olive trees in Beit Sahour for a short while then returned after the border was drawn to inhabit the parts of their Al-Walaja lands that came under Jordanian rule. It was in Beit Sahour, that the family found a friend who invited them to stay in his village called Breidh’a (nearTa’amra, east of Bethlehem). Some men managed to sneak back into Al-Walaja and get enough wheat and olives from the harvest to help sustain them for six months. When food supplies ran out, the family patriarch Ibrahim decided that they could no longer burden their friends in Breidh’a and should find another home but where? By this time. The newly founded state of Israel had occupied 80% of Al-Walaja’s land. Twenty percent was beyond the cease-fire line under Jordanian rule. Israel had taken the fertile part of the village leaving only a hill good only as grazing lands for sheep. In the early 1950s, some villagers continued to sneak across the green line to take care of their land, to harvest their trees and make contact with family members. This was risky. In 1949, the newly founded state of Israel issued its first major military order to shoot on sight any Palestinian villagers, who had now become refugees trying to return to their lands or attempting to work those lands. According to Basil, the Jordanian government collaborated with Israel to prevent these cross border “infiltrations” for fear of Israel’s disproportionate attacks that were common-place (collective punishment). In one instance, a member of the family was captured by Israeli forces but not killed. Upon his release, the Jordanian government accused him of collaborating with Israel and the family spent six months with lots of legal cost to get him released.
Some of the Al-A’raj family including the grandfather Ibrahim lived in a cave and others lived in a small room in the Western edge of the village land on a property called Wadi Hils near Al-Makhrour - Beit Jala until 1964. By the early 1960s, several families from Al-Walaja, realized there was little likelihood that they would ever be able to return to their homes. It had become evident that Israel had no intention of complying with International law that and called for the right of refugees to return). Twenty percent of the area still remained in what became known as the West Bank.Palestinian refugees who could afford it, moved on the remaining land and began to build Al-Walaja al-Jadida, (the new Al-Walaja). The years following the creation of Israel between (1950-1964), were harsh. Basil tells how his father remembers family members suffering skin diseases, parasites, hunger, the shock of the Nakba permeated life and left emotional scars. One family member refused to allow their children to go to school telling them that it is critical that they stay farmers to go back home to Al-Walaja. Another refused to allow his grown children to build a house outside the village. Basil’s grandfather Ibrahim decided to learned a new profession and chose that of stone masonry. He found work in Jordan and in Lebanon and so was able to save enough money to build a one room shack outside the cave where he and his family had been living since they were driven out.
On June 5, 1967, the new Al-Walaja village was attacked unexpectedly from the east rather than from the west. Some villagers speculated it was because the Jordanian regime was in collusion with Israel according to Basil. Basil said his great grandfather, injured in heroic defense of our motherland in 1948 cried so hard on learning of this Naksa (setback of 1967) that he suffered a stroke that resulted in the loss of his eye sight. Brokenhearted, he died a month later.
Israel’s advanced weaponry ended the war after six days and saw the occupation by Israeli forces of what remains of Palestine. Unlike 1948, large scale ethnic cleansing did not follow.(Palestinians had learned that if you leave during war, you would not be allowed to return). Before the borders where sealed, Basil’s said his grandfather Ibrahim had gone to Jordan and brought back his mother who was visiting in Jordan. This latest war created 300,000 additional Palestinians refugees in 1967, nearly a third of them refugees for the second time.
Out of desperation, many Palestinians were forced to work for the new masters of the land. Anger and bitter resentment led to confrontations and frequently the proud villagers were fired within a day or two for exhibiting pride and refusing to accept the insults of their captors. In 1982, a new right-wing Israeli government took over the government of Israel. Headed by Menachen Begin, it was intent on further confiscation of land and building colonial settlements within its occupied territories while simultaneously intensifying war in bordering regions such as in Lebanon, with the perpetuation of massacres and war crimes.
The Begin government began confiscating more land from Al-Walaja Al-Jadida. Attempts were made to confiscate 30 dunums (about 7 acres) belong to the A’rajfamily. The family fought back, went to court, planted trees in this rather unproductive hilly land, and tried many other actions to protect what remained of their property. They did so successfully for many years but then Israel started building a segregation wall that is intended to squeeze the people by depriving them of their land and making them live in a an open air prison hoping they will leave. Basil’s and Shireen’s and other families refused to leave. As he paused, I ask him to tell me more about himself.
He told me: “The night I was born was cold and snowy. My parents (Mahmoud and Siham) thought it was sign that I was destined to live a harsh life. I was too young to remember much about the first uprising except sleeping with my shoes just in case we had to leave the house. I also remember in the early 1990s that the possessing a Palestinian flag was a very big thing. It was illegal to own or display it but it was a prized possession. I remember once taking a small flag from a car, feeling guilty, yet wanting it badly, then an older kid took it from me. At home, there was a little place for sewing clothing for our family needs but then slowly it became used to make forbidden flags at nights.”
But then Basil went back to telling me more about politics and the Oslo era. Basil said his interest in politics started when he was 10 years old. The Oslo agreements were then meant the PLO recognized Israel while Israel did not recognize Palestine and instead we developed a “Palestinian Authority”. Basil and his family believed these 1993/1994 agreements created a collaborating government in the same way as Vichy government in France under the Nazis. The period after 1994 saw developments that brought new challenges for people in Al-Walaja and the surrounding villages. Israel was moving forward rapidly expanding existing Jewish settlements/colonies and building-up infrastructure in for settlers while ignoring the need to update the deteriorating Palestinian infrastructure. Israel’s plan to improve infrastructure required acquiring more lands. Much land had already been taken from Al-Walaja and Beit Jala when the new Jewish colony of Har Gilo was built; and now Israel’s plan was to link it with other Jewish colonies and with Jerusalem. It meant roads were to be built through the remaining land of Al-Walaja. Our Al-Araj small family lost an additional four dunums (one dunum is about a quarter of an acre). What was worse is that the village lost access to two more of its water springs. By the late 1990s only one of the original 22 springs remained accessible and eventually even that was inaccessible when the separation wall built prevented us from reaching it. Villagers remained determined to resist by the only means available against the armed occupiers, that of non-violence. Everyone became involved in a popular resistance that included demonstrations, sit-ins, petitions, and legal methods through Israel’s courts. Buttressed by the other forms of resistance, the legal approach forced a judge to ask the government to move the road 19 meters away from the Al-Araj house.
A military checkpoint was placed at the entrance of the village in front of Basil and Shireen’s homes. A battle of wills ensued. Soldiers invaded the homes to terrorize the families and force them to leave. Armed soldiers intimidated the Al A with insults. They attacked children who tried to block soldiers from the private driveway leading to one of the houses. An Israeli bulldozer rolled noisily through the narrow street carrying dirt and dumped it at the village entrance to block the road. Several times during the day it came back and forth to dump the dirt and prevent access to the village. Throughout the night, villagers worked to remove the mound, and by morning, it was gone. Angered soldiers retaliated with attacks on families. If the soldiers felt the family comfortable, they disrupted with any excuse. Family barbeques, children playing football, raised voices during a heated family discussion or playing music – all were reason for intimidation. Resistance increased, and so did soldier attacks. Attacks graduated from house invasion with insults to using tear gas, rubber coated metal bullets and in some instances even live ammunition. As the repeated attempts to make life hell for the people continued, the Al-Araj family became ever more determined to save their homes and lands.
Basil recalled “We became aware of Israel’s plan when first seeing a 2006, map of the wall to encircle Al-Walaja. If completed as planned, the thirty foot high wall would isolate the villagers of Al-Walaja Al-Jadida from their farmland and deprive them of their livelihood. Building the wall required the destruction of thirty three homes in Al-Walaja Al-Jadida. In addition, notices were given for the demolition of eighty-eight additional homes in the village.
Basil said he went to Egypt for study between 2002 and 2007 (getting a degree in Pharmacology). While he was away, friends and relatives continued the struggle for their land. There were arrests of those who resisted; among them was that of a good friend of his now serving 40 year jail sentence for resistance (I need to get this person’s name). I ask him about who he loves most in his family besides his parents and he says all of them but as I press him he mentions his uncle Khalid for defending people (he is a lawyer) and his aunt Shireen [A strong women who needs an article/chapter of her own]. From Shireen he learned the value of non-violent resistance.
The work of this family and others in Walaja paid off. The checkpoint installed was removed in 2005. Basil was jailed 3 times and apprehended three other times. He suffered multiple injuries including twice having his ribs broken. The short sighted Basil recalled with bitterness the cruelty of soldiers who intentionally broke his prescription glasses.
After he lost his job as a pharmacist (related to his activism), he was briefly hired as a researcher for the Palestinian Museum. That was the last time he ever called me and he became a wanted man (by the Palestinian security and Israeli security). I felt really bad that we did not connect and I cried more for my friend Basil than I did for my cousin (a beautiful mother of two who died the same day). I do not believe the story about Basil carrying arms. I was arrested with Basil Al-Araj several times between 2010 – 2014 in non-violent actions. He was an intellectual and a writer and he read my book promoting non-violent resistance and his questions to me about the book have not even hinted at a transition or transformation to belief in armed resistance. If I am wrong on my understanding, an evolution to armed resistance would be understandable; as John F. Kennedy said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”
When he was detained with other colleagues by the Palestinian security forces in April 2016, I was shocked and I wrote an email to my list:
“Basil Al-Araj is in a Palestinian jail. He is a young Palestinian pharmacist who had worked at a pharmacy in Shufat Refugee Camp in Jerusalem. I knew him because he is from Al-Walaja, a village that was struggling as “Israel” builds a wall around the remaining houses of the village (already 90% of the residents are refugees elsewhere). Village wells and lands were stolen by the Israeli colonizers starting in 1948 and continuing till today. Basil had a love of Palestine and a hatred of injustice. Like most young people they searched for ways to act on their convictions. He participated in nonviolent demonstrations at his village but was not satisfied with their outcome. He read my book on “Popular Resistance in Palestine” in Arabic and gave me his feedback. He said he learned much about history of the Palestinian struggle. He said the book’s Arabic could use some editing. He tried other methods of action. He and a few others tried to block the main road near the colony of Maale Adumim. He and I and four others were the six Palestinian Freedom riders arrested in 2011 while demonstrating Israeli apartheid policies [http://mondoweiss.net/2011/11/follow-the-freedom-rides/ ]. These demonstrative actions were born of good intentions to help bring us closer to freedom. I always lamented even as I participated in such actions how the Palestinian leadership betrayed its people leaving young and old n a sense “orphaned of leadership”. I worried not that the Palestinian cause will die (I am by nature optimistic) but that the selfishness, ego, and incompetence of self-declared leaders can only delay the inevitable freedom and dispirit a population otherwise willing and able to liberate itself. Now Basil and two friends of his have been arrested by the Palestinian Authority….”
Basil and the author in the lead-up to the freedom riders and Basil's will
Yes, Basil was against Oslo and the whole PA structure. Basil told me that in certain countries, like the US, new immigrants build centers to preserve their culture. Chinatowns in New York and in California and other western cities. He adds “In our new Al-Walaja we did that and much more. The new Al-Walaja represented a threat to Jewish colonial settlements and West Jerusalem (because of its geographic location) but we had so many problems…the displaced and the refugees, taking our water rights, the wall built on our land, home demolitions, apartheid, residency rights. ….Resistance is normal reaction [to this]….. Palestine is a microcosm of the world, its history that of mankind. What happens here is an indicator of things to come around the world.” These prophetic words rang in my ears when I heard of Basil’s martyrdom.
As I said in the beginning, others have written of Basil’s extrajudicial execution (and if you are curious, here is one story and you can google for others: http://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=775829 . I preferred to tell you of what he told me of his life and that of his family. They say that this is his last will (and indeed the original in Arabic looked like his hand writing. Its rough translation is:
“Greetings of Arab nationalism, homeland, and liberation. If you are reading this, it means I have died and my soul has ascended to its creator. I pray to God that I will meet him with a guiltless heart, willingly, and never reluctantly, and free of any whit of hypocrisy. How hard it is to write your own will. For years I have been contemplating testaments written by martyrs, and those wills have always bewildered me. They were short, quick, without much eloquence. They did not quench our thirst to find answers about martyrdom. Now I am walking to my fated death satisfied that I found my answers. How stupid I was! Is there anything which is more eloquent and clearer than a martyr's deed? I should have written this several months ago, but what kept me was that this question is for you, living people, and why should I answer on your behalf? Look for the answers yourself, and for us the inhabitants of the graves, all we seek is God's mercy.”
Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcodiFkotgk
Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBeztx5Lcv8
Part 3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mramhyCQlI
Videos of Al-Walaja struggle with many showing Basil and Shireen
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaF33HVqDpg (Israelis in Al-Walaja)
Palestinian activist 'executed' by Israeli forces after 2-hour shoot-out
Slain activist Basel al-Araj 'a representation of the soul of Palestinian youth'