“I felt really bad seeing him lying there. It didn’t have to happen.” It didn’t have to happen. Those words haunt me. Because they refer to a death, the total loss that cannot be replaced, the damage that can never be undone—I know they always will.
An Israeli policeman spoke those words in June of this year, in his testimony to the “State Investigative Commission on the Events of October 2000” headed by Israeli Supreme Court Justice Teodor Or. The “It” refers to the death from a gunshot wound to the neck of Asel Asleh, a 17-year-old Palestinian citizen of
I realize that a diary must refer somehow to everyday events; I woke up this morning hearing the echo of those words, as I do every day.
This is also my final “Diary” entry, and it is all or nothing now—time to recognize the end coming and know that you said what you had to say when you had the chance to say it. I learned that from Asel.
In the days after his death on Oct. 2, 2000, I and the other staff and Seeds, Arab and Jewish, who loved him, spent hours searching through the e-mails he had sent us since joining Seeds of Peace in 1997. The sheer quantity of writing is remarkable; he sent hundreds of messages to his friends, the staff, and our daily listserv, SeedsNet, the records of two of his greatest passions: cyberspace and Seeds of Peace. We noticed the quantity while he was alive; in the winter of 1997, after his first summer at camp, Asel sent so many messages to our list that a staff member jokingly claimed to have invented a program called “The Asel Avenger” to protect his hard disk from crashing due to e-mail overload. Asel, slightly offended, cut down to one a day.
We got a lot of messages, but I’m not sure we got the message. I don’t think anyone fully appreciated the exceptional aspect of those e-mails—their content. Reading them after his death, I shook my head repeatedly, dazzled by the things this teen-ager was thinking and articulately expressing. Amid jokes, holiday greetings, and musings on everyday trivia, are profound reflections on life and death, war and peace, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Asel’s own precarious role in it as an Arab living in Israel.
Faced with the dilemma of an inherently conflicted identity, Asel responded with confidence: “We can’t change what we are, but we can change the way we live. … Move from a viewer of this game to a player. … We don’t have to be caught—we can lead both sides.” And he was a player; he acted on his beliefs, building in three years a network of Arab and Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian friends that most people in this country, who have few or no friends from “the other side,” can even imagine existing. It is painful to imagine what this spectacular soul could have achieved given the lifespan of an average person. But last Oct. 2, in a matter of seconds, Asel was violently interrupted and those dozens of human connections destroyed.
I learned what happened that day from Asel’s father, who lives with the memory of watching the police murder his son. Asel was at the site of a demonstration by enraged Arab youths protesting the killing of Arab demonstrators by police at a different village the day before. It was the first week of the intifada, and Arabs and Jews around the country were unleashing torrents of pent-up rage upon one another’s bodies. Some of the youth at this demonstration hurled stones at the police, who responded with volleys of tear gas—an angry and dangerous but not uncommon event, except in its geographical aspect. The fury of the clashes there and in other Arab villages that day was unprecedented for Arab citizens of
Asel’s father, Hassan, arrived at the scene, concerned about what was happening. He was relieved to see his son standing to the side of the road, easily identifiable in his green Seeds of Peace T-shirt. “He was like an observer, or a journalist,” an eyewitnesses testified—clearly outside the confrontation. Suddenly, a Jeep descended from the police line, and a group of officers charged in two directions. Several police chased Asel from the roadside into a grove of olive trees. The last Asel’s father saw was a policeman catching up to his son and clubbing him in the back with the butt of an M-16. Asel fell forward, continued running, and he and his pursuers disappeared in the trees. “I thought they would arrest him,” Hassan told me. Then bursts of live fire rang out, and Hassan fainted.
Bystanders revived Hassan and reported that Asel was shot in the neck and on his way to a nearby clinic. At the clinic, they told Hassan they had sent his son, unconscious and critically wounded, in an ambulance to the hospital in the city of Nahariya. The 30-minute trip became two hours when the ambulance was held at a checkpoint. By the time Asel arrived, the surgeons could do nothing to save him.
When the Muslim mourning period of 40 days expired, Hassan led a successful campaign that pressured the government into creating the Or Commission to investigate the killing of Asel and 12 other Arab citizens in the first two weeks of October 2000. The commission has now heard hours of testimony from eyewitnesses, police officers, and commanders. But to date, there is no justice—no consequences, no conclusions, and little if any change in the public perception that it is the dead, and not their killers, who are on trial.
I expected the police to produce some kind of story to justify the assault on Asel, to claim that they acted in self-defense against someone imminently threatening them. Strangely, they haven’t. In an interview for the national news, a local commander answered simply “I don’t know” when asked why Asel was attacked. In the Or Commission hearings, I watched as the officers present at the site refused to take responsibility for Asel’s death, calling it a “mystery,” but they offered no explanation why he was pursued in the first place. Several police said they first saw Asel lying on the ground bleeding, and that they actually ran to help him but were driven back by the crowd. Two officers testified to seeing Asel “crouching” in the trees. None claimed that he engaged them in any fashion.
None of the police admitted to firing the shot that killed him. Their testimonies did reveal, however, a degree of discomfort about what they witnessed there. Besides the strange story of running to help Asel rather than chasing him, several officers expressed a vague and eerie sense of regret. One young officer, visibly uncomfortable, fidgeting nervously at the witness stand, admitted what was terribly clear from the testimony: “It didn’t have to happen.”
I woke up with those words today, as I do every day. It didn’t have to happen, but it did happen. And I know I am not alone: Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to ethnic hatred and political violence lie down and rise up to the same refrain.
Although Asel’s family has continued throughout this year to receive his friends from Seeds of Peace as guests and as friends—when they lost Asel, they lost their faith in coexistence. “For coexistence, you first need to guarantee someone’s existence,” his older sister explained to me with trademark eloquence. As time passes with no justice, it is not hard to understand. In the days after Asel’s death, when the center was filled with Arab and Jewish Seeds in mourning, I wondered if we were mourning just Asel or everything he believed in as well. But many of Asel’s friends have chosen to honor his memory by continuing on the path they were walking together.
Asel’s mother, days after he was killed, asked me to bring Seeds to their home to tell the stories of their experiences with her son. “The happiest moments of his life were with you,” she said. Her words are also with me night and day—because those moments also didn’t have to happen. The summers at camp, the dinner with Seeds at his house during Ramadan, the party at a Jewish friend’s home for Purim, the trips to Jordan, the talent show in Jerusalem, the hundreds of intimate cyber-conversations—none of it had to happen. We made it happen, together.
I carry the policeman’s words with me for the rest of my life. I hope they weigh heavily upon him as well, at least until he or those who killed Asel are brought to justice. But I also carry other words, Asel’s words. It will take years of work if most Israelis and Palestinians are to admit how much of the suffering they cause each other never has to happen. Until then it will continue. The kids I love will live with hatred and, God forbid, will know others who die from violence. They will inevitably experience the pain that the conflict inflicts. But that doesn’t have to be their only experience.
Asel confirmed a thousand times in writing what his mother said. He called camp “the best moments of my life. Not enough words to explain and not enough time to understand. I hope that everyone feels this way.” I hope we will make everyone feel this way, sometime in their life. I hope to always continue to create the beautiful moments that didn’t have to happen.