Sometime in the latter part of 1988, I had gotten my first car. I was 22, but since I had grown up in New York City, I was late getting my driver’s license. Now, living in Northern California, a car was more important, so shortly after I got my license, I got one.
Not long after, on a crisp Sunday morning in Oakland, I hopped in my little used car to get my morning coffee. Back in those days, my coffee palate was decidedly underdeveloped, and I headed into an AM/PM mini mart.
I had only recently learned how to drive a manual transmission, and as I pulled into the parking area, a little too fast, I was puzzled as to why the car was not slowing. I had depressed the clutch, but in my bleary-eyed state, had not hit the brake, finally doing so much too late. My car rammed into the side of the mini-mart.
The owner came dashing out, not angry but concerned, desperately inquiring about my condition. Was I injured? What happened? Sheepishly, I explained to him what had happened, and gave him my insurance information. Fortunately for all concerned, there was little damage to my car, and only one metal panel on his store had been bent in. It was a small task to replace it, and everyone was satisfied, the only casualty being my ego, which was battered and bruised by embarrassment.
Some of you following current events will have already guessed why I relay this story today.
Ahmed Erakat, who was killed at the Abu Dis checkpoint on Tuesday, was only a few years older than I was when that incident occurred. Unlike Ahmed, I was living as a free person, with full rights in my country. I was also just getting myself some coffee, not frantically scurrying to and fro to make sure I and other family members would be at my sister’s wedding on time, as Ahmed was. And, of course, I accidentally hit the side of a mini-mart, not a military checkpoint, although I suspect the latter is a more common sight for Ahmed than the former was for me.
Ahmed was shot and left to bleed out, medical assistance barred from him, after he hit the checkpoint. Video of the event shows that Ahmed’s car swerved into the checkpoint, knocking one security officer there into the air. Ahmed immediately got out of the car, took a few steps, turned toward the checkpoint raising his hands, and was gunned down. He was left dying on the ground, no one allowed anywhere near him.
The words of his cousin, Palestinian-American scholar and activist Noura Erakat are poignant. “Palestinians are so securitized as a threat that we can’t make human mistakes, like lose momentary control of our car, press the accelerator in a moment of haste, get in a car accident,” Noura wrote on Facebook. “There is such deep dehumanization that the obvious question of journos should be why is there a checkpoint between two Palestinian cities? Why would he do this on his sister’s wedding day? Why did the soldiers shoot him lethally? Why did they deny access to paramedics? Why is his image blurred so that we can’t see he is unarmed and confused? Why did the Human Rights Council find that Israel lethally shoots Palestinians “on mere suspicion or as a precautionary measure”? Why was Ahmed the 11th Palestinian shot lethally this year? Didn’t the Israeli Army doctor a video to blame paramedic Razan al Najjar for her own death? How come not a single Israeli has been held to account for the 97 killings of Palestinians in the West Bank, including 36 children, in 2016? Why was no one held to account for the killing of 217 unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza between May and October 2018? Why am I so ready to believe that another Palestinian deserved to be executed today?”
[Full disclosure: I’ve known Noura Erakat for years and not only consider her an outstanding legal scholar and speaker, but also a colleague and a friend.]
Noura and the rest of Ahmed’s family are convinced that he would not have intentionally tried to ram the checkpoint on the day of his sister’s wedding. They knew him and I did not so I take them at their word. Apparently, many people on social media who never met Ahmed believe they know better than his family.
In any case, we will never know what Ahmed Erakat was thinking because he will never be able to speak to anyone again. The fact is, the killing was needless, prompted by policies that are based on the devaluation of Palestinian life, an inevitable and necessary product of decade upon decade of occupation, dispossession, and the denial of the most basic rights to millions of people for no reason other than their ethnicity.
Ahmed could never be afforded the benefit of the doubt that the mini-mart owner gave to me, to understand that I had made a simple mistake. And that was in Oakland, California. In the West Bank, roads are often choppy, rarely have lane markers or guardrails, and are often barely, or even not quite, wide enough for one car to pass another. Plainly put, it’s a ridiculously stressful place to drive, as I have seen first-hand. Mistakes can happen as a result.
In an article for +972 Magazine, Palestinian activist Izzy Mustafa writes, “I can only imagine the anxiety and pressure Ahmed must have felt. He was responsible for making sure that everyone gets to their appointments on time —and on a wedding day, no less, when the families’ stress-levels must have been especially high. These errands become even more stressful when you take into account the checkpoints you need to cross to make sure everything goes smoothly.”
Mustafa noted that two years ago, he had a similar day, when his brother got married. “During those hours, my phone didn’t stop ringing: I was either scolded for running late or tasked with another assignment. My anxiety and stress peaked, consuming my mind. When I drove up to Za’atara checkpoint, instead of slowing down, I accidentally hit the gas pedal and almost ran into the bus stop where a few Israeli settlers were standing. Luckily, I was able to quickly hit the brakes before it was too late. I know that mistake could have cost me my life through the barrel of a gun. I could have ended up as another ‘terrorist,’ blamed for my own death, portrayed as a Palestinian who intentionally rammed his car into Jewish-Israelis.”
Those words ring in my ears. As I looked over Noura’s Twitter feed, I saw one message after another claiming with remarkable certainty that Ahmed had “obviously” rammed the checkpoint intentionally. The cruelty toward a grieving family member that was on display was a shameful reflection of the bigotry of so many people, none of whom were asking the obvious questions Noura enumerated.
Let’s say for a moment that Ahmed did snap and decided to ram his car into a few of his oppressors. Why did they kill him? Why, after incapacitating him, did they refuse him medical attention? And why is there a checkpoint between two Palestinian cities? Most are not asking these questions because Ahmed was Palestinian, so if there was an incident where an Israeli could have gotten injured, all responses are justified, as are whatever measures are chosen to place obstacles in the daily lives of all Palestinian people.
That is occupation, the opposite of the world I live in as a white American. And it is enabled by every American taxpayer. Thus, we have to say that it is categorically unacceptable. We must do more than defund apartheid; we must do what we can to ensure it ends.