Israeli bullet ends a life in two worlds | THE WASHINGTON POST
BY LEE HOCKSTADER | JERUSALEM At age 17, Asel Asleh was the kid with the 1,000-watt smile, an extroverted, trilingual computer junkie with a gift for gab, a glittering future and, for an Arab, an almost unheard of network of close Jewish friends whose mothers he invariably charmed.
So when Asel was killed Monday, shot in the neck by Israeli soldiers during rock-throwing protests, he was mourned beyond the confines of his Arab village in northern Israel’s Galilee region. In Jerusalem, too, his Jewish friends converged from all over Israel to hug, weep and reminisce, and to puzzle over this question: How could they love Asel—really love him—and also love the country whose soldiers shot him dead?
“On the one hand, I love my country, and I support my soldiers and think they’re not trying to kill anyone—just trying to protect the people,” said Moran Eizenbaum, 17, her eyes glassy and her words coming in a rush. “On the other hand, I loved Asel, and I have a hard time picturing that he was such a threat to the security of Israel that they had to shoot him. I mean, they had to have a reason. But how could they have shot Asel? I mean, why Asel? What did Asel do?”
Asel had found his Jewish friends through Seeds of Peace, an American program that has brought more than 800 Arab and Israeli teenagers to summer camp in Maine since 1993, then helped keep them in touch once they returned to the Middle East.
The program, which cuts against the animosity and ignorance that help fuel Middle East hatreds, had few more sterling success stories than Asel. He was, by all accounts, a model of what a Seed should be—an immoderately prolific e-mailer, letter writer and phone caller who invested time and energy into making Jewish friends and keeping them.
“Everyone’s friendly at Seeds of Peace, but he was super-friendly,” said Dana Naor, 17, a Jewish Seed veteran from the Israeli town of Holon. “He used to make a point of talking to our parents. He’d come hug me and say hi. I think my mom was in love with him.”
The tears and grief of Asel’s fellow Seeds have led them to ask questions that few other Israelis have been asking during the violence that has consumed Israel, Gaza and the West Bank for the last six days.
As the clashes have spiraled, many Israelis have circled the wagons. Although they may disagree about politics, few Israelis doubt that the army has been forced to open fire on rioters or that Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have played a large part in provoking the events that have led to more than 60 deaths. Some Israelis have Arab acquaintances but few have Arab friends, and the mounting death toll among Palestinians has registered with most Israelis more as a statistic than as individual human tragedies.
“Our deaths are stories, but theirs are just numbers,” said the headline on an unusually frank article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz this week.
But at Seeds of Peace headquarters in East Jerusalem, from whose roof today fluttered four black flags of mourning, the fighting and death have suddenly become intensely personal. And the certainties of their countrymen are provoking doubts among the young Jewish Seeds.
“Before this, I thought that anybody who got killed was guilty in some way,” said Naor. “And now I think that maybe everyone is more like Asel. Maybe they were all just walking back from school when ….” Her voice trailed off.
What happened with Asel—how he died—is in question. He was killed in a clash Monday with Israeli forces on the outskirts of his village, Arabeh, in upper Galilee. Whether he was throwing stones, helping the wounded or simply watching the action is unclear. More than a half-dozen Israeli Arabs were killed that day, and Israeli police say all died in the riots that swept the region. A spokesman said he could provide no specific information about Asel’s death.
Asel’s family, which saw his body before burial on Tuesday, say his wounds, including extensive bruises to the back, arms and face, suggested he had been beaten with rifle butts before being shot. No autopsy was conducted.
To his fellow Seeds, the circumstances of Asel’s death are not the main point. Some are skeptical that Asel could have been throwing stones; others suspect he probably did, although they cannot quite imagine it.
What they could imagine was what they remembered—a big, broad-shouldered boy who was 14 or 15 when he first enrolled in Seeds of Peace, who seemed much older than his age and a little frightening to some of the Israelis. Until he smiled.
“He looked older, but he turned out to be this big teddy bear,” said Shirley Evrany, 17.
Eizenbaum remembers steering clear of him at the Seeds camp in Maine, until one day he overheard her wishing she could find some chocolate.
“He said, ‘If you want M&Ms, I can get you some,’” she recalled.
He was, the Seeds agreed, passionate and persuasive about his politics, but also funny. And he was intensely torn over his dual identity as an Arab and an Israeli—part of the 18 percent Arab minority who vote, pay taxes, attend school, speak Hebrew and have 10 representatives in the 120-member Israeli parliament.
Two years ago, a girl named Reem Masarwa wrote to The Olive Branch, the newspaper of the Seeds of Peace, that she felt “caught between worlds” as an Arab citizen of Israel. Asel wrote back with some advice for her.
“I’m an Israeli?” he wrote. “So how come the word Arab is still there? I can never take the word Israeli off my passport, or the word Arab, which I feel proud of every time I hear it. We can’t change what we are, but we can change the way that we live already, we can take our lives in our hands once again, we can move from a position as a viewer of this game to a player. We are no more asked to watch; we can make a change. We don’t have to be caught; we can lead these two worlds, and still keep everything we had.”
To his Jewish friends in Seeds of Peace, Asel was a touchstone of shared experience. On their return from Maine, many found themselves hassled in school, called Arab-lovers and worse. And then they’d get e-mail from Asel, then a phone call, then an invitation to visit his house in Galilee.
And so the Seeds of Peace program was borne along, with a major assist from teenagers like Asel.
If he had an idealistic streak, Asel was also a realist, his friends said. A high school senior, he planned to attend the Technion in Haifa, Israel’s MIT, and to study computers and engineering.
Probably, said the Seeds, Asel would have founded a high-tech start-up. Probably, they said, he would have become well-to-do and important.
Now, the Seeds realized, they will never know what Asel would have become.
Bitter and stunned at what for many is their first experience with death, the Seeds are trying to make sense of Asel’s killing.
Said Eizenbaum: “We question what the hell we’re doing [in Seeds of Peace] if people are still getting shot and killed. It’s like, what’s the point?”
At Seeds of Peace headquarters today, Asel’s friends turned the main upstairs conference room into a shrine to his memory, decking it out with photos of Asel grinning, Asel making funny faces and Asel monkeying around. They lit candles on the floor and placed them around a scrapbook open to a page he had written about a field trip to Jordan—in successive paragraphs of Arabic, Hebrew and English.
Later this month, Seeds of Peace headquarters will celebrate the first anniversary of its opening in Jerusalem. Hundreds of Seeds have been invited, but a pall has been cast over the event.
“I cannot imagine how they’re going to have it without Asel,” said Evrany.