BY DINA KRAFT | JERUSALEM Asel Asleh owned 30 bottle-green T-shirts, all with the same logo the words ”Seeds of Peace” and an olive branch that announced to everyone he met that he fervently believed Arabs and Jews could live together.
This week, he was buried in one those shirts.
Asleh, a 17-year-old Arab, was killed by Israeli police gunfire during stone-throwing clashes in his home village of Arabeh, in northern Israel. His relatives said he participated in the protest, but weren’t sure if he was among the stone-throwers or just stumbled into the line of fire while trying to reach a fatally wounded friend.
Asleh had spent three summers in the woods of Maine at a camp run by Seeds of Peace, a U.S.-based group that is trying to foster coexistence and has brought some 1,300 Arab and Jewish teen-agers together.
There, the teen-ager from Arabeh struck up friendships with Israeli Jews, including 17-year-old Moran Eisenbaum, who paid a condolence visit to Asleh’s family Wednesday, along with others from the local Seeds of Peace chapter.
”I’m trying to understand why this happened,” said Eisenbaum.
”I stand behind my country 100 percent and I’m sure the police are only trying to work in my interest, but on the other hand I know him and I can’t imagine he would ever have threatened the country,” she said.
The riots in Arabeh were part of a wave of violence that has engulfed the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel’s Arab communities since Israel’s hard-line opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, visited a disputed Jerusalem shrine last week, to try to demonstrate Israeli sovereignty there. Muslims considered the visit a provocation.
At least 63 people, all but three of them Arabs, have died, and more than 1,800 have been wounded. Of the dead, 10 were Arab citizens of Israel.
While many Israeli Arab demonstrators wanted to show their support for their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, they also had their own long list of grievances.
Israel’s 1 million Arabs make up about one-sixth of Israel’s population. Their villages are within the original borders of Israel, before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. Although they are full citizens, they complain that have never been given equal treatment.
On Monday, hundreds of Arabeh residents took to the streets to vent their anger. Many threw rocks. Israeli police fired rubber bullets, chased demonstrators with clubs through olive groves and also fired live ammunition.
At one point, Asleh’s mother, Wajeeha, sensing the danger, ran along the rocky hillside to try to reach her son and urge him to come home, but couldn’t reach him in time, said Asleh’s sister, Nardeen.
Asleh was shot and killed as he tried to rescue his friend. His family said that when they viewed the body, Asleh’s face was badly bruised, and that witnesses told them he was shot at close range. The family did not ask for an autopsy.
Boaz Goldberg, spokesman of the northern police district, said all the deaths were under investigation, as a matter of routine. He said the query into Asleh’s death has not yet been completed, but dismissed suggestions that the youth might have been targeted by police.
Like many teen-agers, Asleh had been grappling with who he was, but in his case, the questions of identity were much more complex than those posed by youngsters in other countries.
Like many of his fellow Arabs living in Israel, he defined himself as a Palestinian and Arab first. When he was buried, his body was draped in a Palestinian flag.
In an essay he wrote for the Seeds of Peace newsletter, Asleh gave voice to his conflicted identity.
”I’m an Israeli? 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,” he wrote.
Ending on a hopeful note, he wrote: ”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.”
After returning from summer camp, he nurtured his new friendships. His parents would drive him to friends’ homes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on the weekends for visits. He invited them home for Muslim holidays. He hoped to become a computer engineer and spent much of his time e-mailing his camp friends around the Middle East and the United States.
Asleh did not hide his political views and his frustration with life as an Arab in Israel. He refused to sing along when the Israeli delegation at the summer camp intoned the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva. He refused to wear an Israeli flag on his shirt when representing Israel at a youth conference in Switzerland.
”He could not sing the Hatikva … he said that he is an Arab, he’s a Palestinian, that it does not represent him. This country is far from giving us our rights,” Nardeen Asleh said.
His father, Hasan, had spent several years in an Israeli prison for his membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical PLO faction.
Nardeen said the children in the family were raised to struggle against injustice with determination, but not hatred.
As Asel became more involved in Seeds of Peace, the family opened its home to his new friends.
Ned Lazarous, the program director at the Seeds of Peace center in Jerusalem, recalled an evening spent at the Asleh home during the Muslim holiday of Eid el-Fitr last year. Asleh and several of his Jewish mates from camp were gathered around a table for a festive meal.
”It was a wonderful evening … one of those moments when you felt that this (peace education) was working,” said Lazarous.
”But now, moments like this feel like the hatred and lack of control of people is destroying all the trust that beautiful moments like that build.”