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Pure and Simple

Or, a chronicle of a death foretold

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Last Friday, April 17, was a busy day for Bassem Abu Rahmah.

It started off with a visit to his friend Hamis, who was struck in the head by a teargas canister several months ago and was still in bed, his skull fractured in several places.

Such injuries are routine for the folks in Bili’in, the small Palestinian village where Bassem and Hamis live, not far from Ramallah and less than three miles from the Green Line. In 2004, when Israel began erecting a security fence along the West Bank, it ran the new barrier right down the middle of the village and separated Bili’in from more than 60 percent of its farmland. For a population made up mostly of farmers, this was a major blow. Even more infuriating for the people of Bili’in was watching their confiscated land — land taken under the guise of national security — immediately take up with construction projects for two neighboring Jewish settlements. This, they argued, was theft, pure and simple. And Israel’s Supreme Court agreed.

Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahme
Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahme

Although the court had originally approved the security barrier and the expropriation of Palestinian land necessitated by it, Bili’in, stated a 2007 ruling, was an exception. “We were not convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bili’in’s lands,” wrote Chief Justice Dorit Beinish. The court ordered that maps be redrawn and the purloined turf restored. The army, however, took its time, submitting its plans once more a year later. And again, the court scoffed: lands, the new ruling reiterated, were still being unlawfully taken from Palestinian farmers and given to Jewish settlers. This had to stop.

But bureaucracy moves slowly, and even more so when ideology and business interests both stand to lose much ground. The fence’s route was never entirely redrawn, construction on the Jewish neighborhoods continued, and Bili’in’s lands were never returned. So the village’s residents decided on a rich and strange path: non-violent resistance.

Every Friday, for the past four years, Bili’in’s residents, often accompanied by a handful of Israeli peace activists, march alongside the fence, chant slogans, and demand that the army respect the Supreme Court’s decision and give them back their fields. Under the strict martial codes governing the occupied West Bank, these gatherings are classified as unlawful demonstrations, and every week soldiers are on hand”with billy clubs, rubber-plated metal bullets, and teargas canisters”to break them up.

It was one such canister, shot at a high velocity and from a short distance, that cracked Hamis’s skull. And as he did often, Bassem stopped by, on the morning of April 17, to comfort his friend and give him some medicine. Then, he was off to visit a friend sick with cancer, and then to Ramallah, to buy a neighbor’s young daughter some pineapple preserves, a luxury unavailable in Bili’in’s small and depleted convenience store. He was back in the village in time for the afternoon prayer, after which he joined his family and friends in the weekly protest by the fence.

To anyone who has ever visited Bili’in or attended one of its weekly demonstrations, myself included, Bassem was an unforgettable figure. Few of us outsiders, however, even knew his real name: he was much better known as “Pheel,” Arabic for elephant, a nickname that nicely captured both his large frame and his playful demeanor.

When other protestors channeled their inner Che and shouted slogans at the top of their lungs, Bassem tried to engage the soldiers in polite conversation, ignoring the rifles pointed at him. When other protestors talked of civil disobedience, Bassem preferred more cheerful gestures, such as running along the barrier with a colorful kite and forcing a chuckle out of all present. When other protestors screamed about injustice, Bassem smiled broadly. Eventually, everyone else would smile with him.

He was smiling last Friday, a few of his friends told me recently, smiling as he walked up to the usual spot by the fence where protestors congregated. But he wasn’t smiling for long. When the soldiers arrived and the projectiles started flying, Bassem got scared”a few of Bili’in’s goats were wandering nearby, and Bassem was terrified that they might get hit. He ran up to the soldiers and told them not to shoot at the goats. “Charam,” he said. “It’s a pity. Poor animals.”

Then, a woman standing nearby was hit. He ran up to the soldiers again, telling them that someone was wounded and they should stop shooting and help her. It made no impression: a soldier shot another teargas canister into the crowd, and it hit Bassem in the chest. As big and as strong as he was, he fell to the ground, bleeding. He managed a few twitches and then stopped. He was dead within moments.

As we read the parasha this shabbat, let us remember Bassem.

This week, the Torah relates a series of purity laws. Speaking of lepers, it tells us that such hapless, impure wretches should be driven out of the community and made to live outside the walls of the village or the town for as long as they are afflicted by their plague.

It’s a harsh punishment, informed by more than the obvious concern for the public’s health: when the lepers are cured and return to the fold, they are met not by a doctor but by a priest who performs a cleansing ritual, the idea being that the impure affect the community’s spiritual as well as physical wellbeing.

It’s a radical idea, one that strips the very notion of boundaries from its literal and limited meaning and creates a much more nuanced sense of demarcation, one that applies to the soul as well as to the body and that exists simultaneously on maps and in minds. By considering the sorrowful destiny of the lepers, we define our ultimate need as a community, namely the need to stay pure at all costs and shun whatever sullies our innocence.

The wall tearing Bili’in apart, of course, is far less exalted. But as Israel continues to ignore its own Supreme Court rulings, and as it continues to defend the fence even at the cost of so much suffering, it may soon realize that the same security fence it had built to keep its enemies out has turned into a spiritual barrier that is gradually rendering it more and more impure. Let us tear down that wall before it’s too late.

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Pure and Simple

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