Asel is gone

After a popular, peace-loving Israeli Arab teen is shot dead by police, his family and friends -- both Jewish and Arab -- wrestle with what his loss means for Israel.

Topics: National security, Middle East,

Asel is gone

With his die-hard optimism and winning smile, 17-year-old Asel Asleh didn’t look like a tormented teenager. Both an Arab and an Israeli, Asel moved between the two conflicting worlds with the ease of a talented, outgoing kid who was everybody’s best friend.

But when Arabs started throwing stones at Israelis and Israelis fired back with bullets, Asel, a passionate peace activist, was jerked to one side. He was beaten and shot dead by Israeli police during a riot near his village, Arabeh, on Monday.

Ironically, Asel was wearing the green T-shirt of Seeds of Peace — a U.S.-sponsored youth organization that brings together Arabs and Jews — at the time of his brutal death.

To his Arab friends, Asel’s death makes the world ugly but simple: Asel (pronounced As-SEAL) was a hero, a martyr and a victim of Israeli racism and unchecked force. The day after his death, 30,000 people followed Asel’s body to the cemetery where it was buried, wrapped in a Palestinian flag.

To his Jewish friends however, Asel’s death raises dizzying questions they can’t seem to put to rest: Could Asel, the peacemaker, have turned his back on his ideals?

And why did the Israeli police shoot to kill?

Both Arab and Jewish reactions to the news of Asel’s death reflect the trauma that is ripping Israel apart again. Seven years after the end of the intifada — the Palestinian uprising that shocked Israelis and Palestinians into trying to make peace — a new generation is learning the price of boundless hatred and grief.

On Friday, the eighth day of deadly clashes in the Holy Land, there was no sign of the violence abating. On the contrary, riots after Muslim Friday prayers in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza brought the death toll to at least 77, nearly all of them Palestinians.

Although Asel was Israeli, his death was mentioned only in passing in Hebrew newspapers, as one of scores of Palestinians and Arab Israelis killed in clashes in the last week. In short, a faceless statistic.

The circumstances of Asel’s death were, indeed, unexceptional. The police say Asel was among hundreds of youngsters who blocked a road and attacked policemen “with stones, bottles and even gunshots” in one of many demonstrations that turned violent in the Galilee on Monday. Kobi David, spokesman for the Galilee police, said that Asel “was seen throwing stones at the police,” but did not provide further details. He also said the police were forced to shoot rubber bullets to protect themselves.

Asel’s family and several eyewitnesses give a different account of the scene. According to them, the demonstration was a mostly peaceful one, a show of solidarity between Israeli Arabs (who live in Israel proper) and Palestinians (who live in the West Bank and Gaza) against the brutality displayed by Israeli forces after a riot erupted at Jerusalem’s al-Aksa mosque last Friday. They claim police charged Asel when he tried to rescue a friend who was fatally shot in the chest after stepping forward to throw a stone at a line of Israeli police. They say Asel fell, was beaten severely (his head and back were black with blood and bruises) and shot in the neck at close range with a rubber bullet.

You Might Also Like

“Beating him was not enough,” said Nardin, Asel’s older sister. “They had to shoot him. The police were not only doing their job, they had hatred inside. That was the deadly combination that killed him.”

After Asel was on the ground, motionless, friends and witnesses say, the police allegedly taunted other Arabs to “come and get him” — and meet the same fate. Asel died more than an hour and a half later, after his ambulance was held up at a checkpoint, in a nearby hospital. Asel’s uncle, a doctor at a public hospital, examined the body before the burial but no autopsy was conducted.

Whether Asel was throwing stones at the police or not, neither version of the story makes much sense to Asel’s Jewish friends.

At the Jerusalem headquarters of Seeds of Peace, where poems, candles and pictures from summer camp and parties form a makeshift shrine to Asel, a handful of 17-year-old Jewish Seeds graduates wrestled with their incredulity.

“If Asel was throwing stones, were his three years in Seeds for nothing?” asked Keren Klein.

“People use violence when they have given up hope of expressing themselves — that was not Asel,” said Dana Noar, recalling Asel’s gift for languages (he spoke Arabic, Hebrew and English fluently) and his unstoppable urge to send long, articulate e-mails to all the friends he made at Seeds.

A “computer freak” who devoured books of philosophy and politics and was looking forward to college, Asel was a model of ambition, not despair. He wanted to do something with his future, his friends are certain. He could have become a politician or an engineer — “a leader in what he did,” said Dana.

“I want to believe,” reads a poster in his bedroom, and indeed, his optimism was contagious. Moran Eizenbaum remembers how Asel helped her through rough times, when, after coming back from an idyllic Seeds of Peace summer camp, schoolmates called her an “Arab-lover” and Israel’s black-and-white reality gave her a slap in the face. In his trademark friendly way, Asel sent her comforting e-mails, called her and even invited her to his home for a festive meal.

As Keren, Dana and Moran sat reminiscing about Asel, the ultra-friendly guy who would never have hurt a fly, a scary thought crept into their minds. What if the Israeli police had shot Asel for no reason?

Moran at first rejected the thought. “I love my country and I believe the soldiers are just trying to protect me. I don’t think they shot him for no reason,” she said. “On the other hand they killed Asel and I loved him. I can’t believe he was a threat to the security of Israel.”

While Moran and her friends sank into a state of confusion, the world for Bashar Iraqi, a 16-year-old Israeli Arab and friend of Asel’s who joined Seeds of Peace last summer, seemed never to have been so clear.

“Before, we knew [the Israeli Jews] had something against us, but we didn’t know what. We finally saw it in these demonstrations,” he said. “We’re supposed to be Israeli citizens but they don’t treat us that way. We would have been treated better if we were animals.”

Like Asel, Bashar has had to navigate the shoals of a dual, conflicting identity. “We treat them as friends, buy from them, pay taxes and try to be loyal [to Israel] although their national anthem and flag don’t represent us,” he said. As part of Israel’s 18 percent Arab minority, Bashar goes to a school where classes are taught in Hebrew and he carries an Israeli ID card. But by blood, tradition and mother tongue, he is a Palestinian Arab.

In Seeds of Peace, Asel found the maturity and the desire to overcome this tension. In a letter published in the Olive Branch, the organization’s newspaper, he wrote to a fellow Israeli Arab: “I can never take the word Israel off my passport, or the word Arab, which I feel proud of … We don’t have to be caught [between the two]; we can lead these two worlds and still keep everything we had.”

For Bashar, those hopes are now shot. “I still believe in peace,” he reassured Moran as the two rode in the back of a minivan headed for the Galilee to make a visit of condolence to Asel’s family.

But a moment later Bashar’s anger burst from his chest. “We live a lie called peace; we live in a lie called a democratic country. They say we’re citizens of Israel so how could they do this to us?” Like many others, Bashar was particularly upset by the level of force used to disperse demonstrators. The police could have used batons or water hoses instead of bullets, he said. “They don’t do this to other Israelis. They’ve started a war against their people.”

Ten Israeli Arabs have been killed so far by Israeli forces during this week’s riots. As the hot, still evening dragged on and Moran was exposed to the periodic shrieks of grief of Asel’s mother, seated with relatives and well-wishers, under a large canopy hung from the tallest branches of olive trees, the senseless brutality of Asel’s death began to sink in.

“It’s so hard growing up in Israel,” she said, emotionally exhausted after listening to repeated descriptions of Asel’s bruises, bullet wounds and the probable cause of his death.

“I was brought up to believe the army does good,” said Moran. “My roots are here. My father served 30 years in the army. I already have my draft date,” she said. Her compulsory military service will start next fall. “I can’t imagine myself part of that now.”

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>