Arabs mourn ‘hipster terrorist’ killed in shootout

Israel says Basel al-A’araj was a hardened terrorist, but his reputation was of an educated protester who made a lot of enemies

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Basel al-A'araj, who was killed in a gunfire exchange with Israeli troops on March 6, 2017, speaks in front of a group at a cemetery in Qabatiya, in the northern West Bank, on December 19, 2014. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Basel al-A'araj, who was killed in a gunfire exchange with Israeli troops on March 6, 2017, speaks in front of a group at a cemetery in Qabatiya, in the northern West Bank, on December 19, 2014. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Several dozen Israeli Arabs gathered Monday night in Haifa’s German colony, at a site known in Arabic as “Prisoner Square,” to protest the killing of the suspected terrorist Basel al-A’araj in Ramallah.

They stood for a minute’s silence in memory of the “educated martyr,” as A’araj is being called on social media.

The event was unusual in that most of those participating were not hard-line Islamists but rather young Israeli Arabs with no religious background or affiliation with any movement. To a large extent, that speaks to whom A’araj was.

A’araj was killed in a shootout with Israeli’s counterterrorism unit close to the Great Mosque in al-Bireh, adjacent to Ramallah where he was hiding in the crawlspace.

Israeli security forces claim that A’araj directed an armed cell that carried out shooting attacks. Other members of the cell were arrested in a separate incident.

But with his smart clothes, stylish glasses and social media savvy, he looked and often acted more like a Tel Aviv hipster than a hardened Palestinian protest figure.

Originally from Bethlehem, the 31-year-old A’araj was known for many years as an activist – against Israel, against the Palestinian Authority, against West Bank settlements and against the security barrier.

He was one of the best known personalities at protests in the Walaja area near his West Bank hometown, and did not fit the classic profile of a wanted terrorist.

He was not affiliated with any official terror group. He studied pharmacy in Egypt before returning to the West Bank, where he began working through various youth groups against the Palestinian Authority and against negotiations with Israel.

All this time, he maintained a high public profile, on social media, traditional media and in protests against the PA.

In one interview from a year ago, which was rebroadcast on Monday, A’araj attacked the official spokesman for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces General Adnan Damiri.

He sat in the studio and showed a wound on his head that he claimed was caused by a Palestinian policeman.

However, a spokesperson rejected his claim, saying that he caused it himself at the advice of “someone” who funded him.

A’araj’s clashes with the Palestinian Authority led to his arrest a year ago. In April 2016 he disappeared and eventually it was found that he was being held by the Palestinian security forces.

At his trial he claimed he had been tortured. He was released after a hunger strike in a Palestinian jail and soon afterwards he appeared on the Israeli wanted list, before being killed in the shootout Monday.

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