The Nation / February 1, 2023
As Palestinians reel from deadliest year in the occupied West Bank in two decades, a young woman who lost two loved ones pleads for the world to notice.
RAMALLAH – As I sat down to write this earlier last month, the Israeli military was interrogating a 17-year-old boy named Ramzi Aslan. He was arrested at dawn on January 12, when the Israeli Occupation Forces raided his refugee camp, Qalandiya, and confronted its sleepless young people. His mother told journalists her son still wasn’t aware that, moments after he was arrested, an Israeli sniper killed his 41-year-old father, Sameer, who stood on the roof of their Jerusalem home.
Exactly one month before, an Israeli sniper shot 16-year-old Jana Zakarneh in her head as she stood on the roof of her house in the Jenin Refugee Camp. She succumbed to her wounds shortly after. Her white pet cat still roams that roof searching for her—much like Shireen Abu Akleh’s dog, who sits by the window awaiting the slain journalist’s return.
The last year was, according to those who keep track, the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in the last two decades. Israeli forces killed 190 Palestinians, 154 of them in the West Bank. And the new year is already proving to be a lot more deadly. When I first sat down to write this, there had been 15 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, including four children, in the 18 days since 2023 began, yet global and often even national reactions have been increasingly apathetic. In the time since, Israeli forces have killed 17 more Palestinians, nine of whom were killed during a brutal raid of the Jenin Refugee Camp last Thursday, raising the death toll to 35.
While the international media made only passing reference to the Israeli massacre in Jenin, the news of Israelis killed by a Palestinian the following day caught global attention. Condemnations were heard far and wide. International officials urged “calm.” Twenty-one-year-old Khairy Alqam, whose grandfather was stabbed to death along with three other Palestinians by an Jewish settler in 1998, attacked Israelis in an illegal Jewish settlement in the eastern part of occupied Jerusalem, killing seven, in what many have said was retaliation for the Israeli raid of Jenin. We are told over and over that only some violence is worthy of condemnation and only certain lives matter.
Perhaps the world ignores the incessant killings because Zionist violence is so relentless that it has become routine. Or perhaps it’s because human rights organizations are hindered by Israeli bans and crackdowns on the groups. But more than likely, most slain Palestinians—especially those who have actively confronted the Israeli military occupation—do not fit the “perfect victim” prerequisite mandated by international media corporations.
For dead Palestinians to make noise, they need to have been exceptional (see Shireen Abu-Akleh, a Christian woman holding US citizenship, beloved by millions, and killed wearing a clearly labeled press vest and helmet); or they have to have endured an exceptionally violent death (think 16-year-old Mohammad Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and burned alive by Jewish settlers). But in most cases, after the fleeting headlines, the bereaved families join a long line of Palestinians who grieve away from the cameras and only know to ask God for justice.
Some young people, however, have been taking matters into their own hands. Ru’a Rimawi, a 24-year-old from Beit Rima, a village northwest of Ramallah, is one of them. She recently graduated with a medical degree from Al-Quds University and had planned to go on to specialize in the United States. That was her life “before November 29,” she told me. On that day, Israeli forces killed two of her brothers, 22-year-old Jawad and 19-year-old Thafer, during a raid on Beit Rima. Since then, Rimawi has been engaged in a pursuit in which she has virtually no prior experience: campaigning. She has been sharing eulogies and anecdotes about her brothers with her social media followers, determined to make clear that they mattered, that their lives mattered, while demanding that their killers be held accountable.
I met Rimawi on the eve of the 40th day after her brothers’ killing in a quiet Ramallah neighborhood. She was looking at a stenciled image of her brothers—one of the hundreds spray-painted around the city. I hesitated before I asked her the impossible question of how she was doing.
“The worst part of the day is opening my eyes,” she said. “Even after 40 days, I haven’t fully comprehended that Thafer and Jawad are not returning.” She consoles herself, she said, by referring to them in the present tense. “It’s difficult to precede their names with words like ‘martyr’ or say that they are dead.”
Rimawi found out that she’d lost her brothers in the early morning hours of November 29, when she was shaken out of her sleep and told that her brothers were shot during confrontations with the military. Israeli forces first shot Thafer—three times in the chest—then Jawad as he ran to rescue his brother. Both were killed within minutes of each other.
I never met Jawad or Thafer, but Rimawi’s tributes to them painted a vivid picture of their characters. I know that when her graduation ceremony was canceled because of financial cuts, Thafer, a former student at Birzeit University, paraded her around town in a celebratory drive. I know that Jawad bought her a gift with his first paycheck from his position at the Arab Islamic Bank. “Martyrs aren’t numbers,” she told me. “We must be a voice for those made absent by the [Israeli] Occupation.”
Still, Rimawi’s daily memorialization ritual hasn’t been easy: Every Instagram post, she said, is “followed by an hour-long breakdown as if [she] had just heard the news.” She lamented how strange it is, how incomprehensible, that she has to relive the excruciating details of her loved ones’ death just to prove they mattered. “It’s hard to be forced to convince the world that you’re suffering. It’s hard to cry on camera.… Things should be different. We should be confident that my brothers’ murderer will be held accountable.”
Self-initiated campaigns like Rimawi’s, as well as community-initiated ones, have been a growing phenomenon in Palestine. In most cases, they aren’t institutionally backed. They’re just a single person shouting into the virtual wind about their loved ones. Or they’re collective efforts to save communities like Sheikh Jarrah, Beita, and Masafer Yatta from Zionist dispossession, or grassroots campaigns to free hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners incarcerated without charge or trial or to return the corpses of slain Palestinians held by the Israeli regime. But not everybody can play the role of the advocate—especially not while they’re working full-time jobs—or exhibit the wounds that have yet to heal in front of foreign diplomats and journalists eager to refute them.
“I don’t blame the families,” Rimawi said. “People should be offered time to process and grieve the loss of their loved ones instead of being pressured to convince the world that people like Jawad and Thafer shouldn’t have been killed.”
Nevertheless, despite the rawness of her own grief, Rimawi turned to social media to challenge the mainstream narrative about Palestinians who resisted the occupation. “Western media outlets frame us as barbaric.… They promote the idea that we throw ourselves onto death, eager to meet virgins in heaven,” she said. “They don’t ask, ‘Why do Palestinians throw stones?’ or ‘Why is there an invasion of the village in the first place?’”
I told her that, in the English-speaking world, we are often asked, belligerently, “Why do Palestinians throw stones?” She responded promptly: “Because we must send a message of refusal…. When someone breaks into your house, what is your natural reaction? Do you throw your hands in the air?”
Like many Palestinians, Rimawi was born and raised amid violence. She was three years old when she witnessed what later came to be known as the Beit Rima Massacre in 2001. In the fall of that year, the Israeli army killed five Palestinians, wounded dozens, burned one home, and demolished three others in what was described as revenge for the assassination of former Israeli minister of tourism Rehavam Ze’evi. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine carried out the assassination in retaliation for the killing of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa in the same year. She recalled the sounds of explosives and the hysterical cries of Jawad, who was one-and-a-half at the time.
Her house was among those targeted. Her mother feared it would be demolished with them in it and decided to move the family to the neighbor’s house. To get there, they needed to cross a street where some military tanks were waiting. “Mama told us to walk out with our hands raised high so that [soldiers] would know we weren’t posing a threat,” she said. As her aunt, grandmother, and mother made the trip—the latter carried Jawad with one hand and raised the other—Rimawi’s “biggest concern” was that the soldiers wouldn’t see her raised hands because of her small size and that “they would shoot [her].”
I noted that she smirked when she said she “didn’t want to pose a threat” and asked her why. She said, “because it’s not logical” that a 3-year-old child would pose a threat “to one of the strongest armies in the world.”
“Even young men,” she added. “We emphasize the women and children, as if it’s OK for young men to be killed! What is a young man throwing stones going to do in the face of a tank?”
Israeli policy, however, doesn’t follow this logic. Instead, the Israeli military frequently uses live ammunition against Palestinians engaging in nonlethal methods of resistance, sometimes fatally shooting the upper bodies of young protesters, all while enjoying sweeping immunity. Now, with the rise of an even more extremist Israeli government, soldiers and police are expected to have yet more freedom to harm than ever. According to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, the new Israeli government’s Jewish Power Party conditioned joining the coalition on codifying “Israel’s policy of near-blanket impunity to its armed forces in cases involving Palestinians.” The head of the party, Itamar Ben-Gvir—now the minister of national security—has asserted that each confrontation with Israeli security forces “will end with a dead terrorist.”
The year ahead looks grim for Palestinians, and Rimawi isn’t hopeful that her agony will subside. “What eases this pain?” She asked other sisters of slain Palestinians that visited her to pay their respects. “[Their] unanimous answer was always, ‘Nothing eases this pain.’”
The shiny career she’d worked hard to obtain no longer seems to matter. It’s depressing, she said, that the “height of ambition” for young Palestinians is “a full night’s sleep not interrupted by the army.”
“We shouldn’t grow up dreaming that our friends don’t get killed,” she said. “We shouldn’t be lucky if we lived without losing two spots at the dinner table.”
This is why she continues to speak out, to go through the daily ritual of mourning her brothers in public. If people made noise for every Palestinian killed at the hands of Israelis, she said, “maybe Jawad and Thafer wouldn’t have left us.”
Mohammed al-Kurd is the Palestine correspondent for The Nation; he writes primarily about dispossession in Jerusalem and colonization in Palestine; his debut book is a volume of poetry: Rifqa (Haymarket Books)