Despite loss of his child, Palestinian ex-fighter remains dedicated to peace

On April 6, 2006, The Christian Science Monitor reported on the inauguration of Combatants for Peace, a groundbreaking group of Israeli and Palestinian ex-fighters campaigning for peace in the tense and turbulent region. Tragically, in mid-January, their mission was brought sharply into focus when the 11-year-old daughter of Palestinian cofounder Bassam Aramin was killed by a rubber bullet outside her school in Anata, near Jerusalem. (Rubber bullets, intended as a nonlethal way to disperse crowds, can be fatal if fired at close range.)

Mr. Aramin, a Palestinian ex-fighter who was imprisoned by Israel at age 16 and spent seven years behind bars, has been a key figure in Combatants for Peace's recent high-profile public campaigns, participating in public lectures in Israel alongside Israeli cofounders Zohar Shapira and his brother, Yonatan. A father of six children who range in age from 4 to 13, Aramin says he has sought peace ever since his release from prison in 1992 in order "to defend all our children, both Palestinian and Israeli."

His daughter Abir was fatally wounded Jan. 18, hit in the head by a rubber bullet that Aramin and Combatants for Peace allege was fired by Israeli border police. Abir was evacuated to a hospital in Israel where she died three days later, having never regained consciousness.

"According to our own investigation," says Mr. Shapira, "the children had just finished primary school for the day. Abir was going to buy chocolate from a kiosk around five meters from the school gate, when Israeli border police opened fire on the children with rubber bullets and stun grenades." According to one press report, the police were responding to children throwing stones at their armored jeep.

Initially, local Israeli police denied all knowledge of the incident. When the cause of Abir's death was determined by the hospital to be a rubber bullet, police acknowledged a patrol had been in the area at the time.

Anata, like many Palestinian towns in the West Bank close to the border with Israel, experiences regular incursions by Israeli border police. There are many instances across the West Bank of border police using rubber bullets and tear gas against children throwing stones at police jeeps.

"Of course, it's not a good habit to throw stones at a police car," says Shapira, once a member of the Israeli Defense Force. "But it's also prohibited for a police officer to fire unless his life is in danger."

Almost a month after his daughter's death, Aramin is no closer to finding out how the police investigation is progressing. Official police sources state simply that the incident is "under investigation" at a district level. "Until now," says Aramin, "this is like a game; we go round and round, hide and seek. But in spite of this discriminatory regime, there must be justice, and the killer must be found."

According to Shapira, such a tragic incident is not isolated or unusual: In the last 12 months, more than 100 Palestinian children were killed at the hands of Israeli security forces. Two days after Abir's death, Shapira met with a Palestinian father from Bilin whose son had been shot in the stomach, allegedly by an Israeli soldier. Just weeks before, 12-year-old Miras Alazza was shot in the back while playing on his bedroom balcony, close to Israel's security wall near Bethlehem.

Aramin's public profile is enabling him to press his case, while less well- connected Palestinian parents might feel powerless. "We are working hard," says Shapira, "to make sure that it's impossible for [Israeli authorities] to sweep this under the carpet."

Aramin says he recently met with a member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, to "put him in the picture." The matter has also been discussed at a Knesset security committee meeting, he has been told. "It's very difficult to get something done," he says, "but it's also very difficult for them to ignore me."

Aramin's unwavering quest for peace in the weeks since the death of his daughter has been an inspiration to fellow members of Combatants for Peace.

"Just after the murder, I lost my hope for a happy ending," says Shapira, "But my source of energy was to look at Bassam. He didn't ask for revenge, for the murder of other children. He simply continued to be sure that the only way forward is through peace. If there's something good to come out of the murder, it's this."

"From the very first moment Abir died," says Aramin, "I declared that I still want to work for peace. All I ask is that the man who killed my daughter must stand in front of a judge."

"We truly became one big family during those days that Abir was in a coma in hospital," adds Shapira, "It became a loss for all of us; it's almost like losing your own daughter."

Abir's death has been very difficult for Aramin's family. "It's extremely difficult for our other children," Aramin says, "especially at night. And for my wife, too. But I am helping them to go on in every way I can. I can't change my mind about peace. I believe in this process, to protect all the children, on both sides of the fence."

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