Palestine’s ungrievable protesters

From the Greek police to the Israeli army, a rock or a protest is enough reason to shoot anyone who dares to defy their oppression.

Mourners at the funeral of of Ali Abu Aliya, 15, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers on Dec. 4, al-Mughayyer, occupied West Bank, Dec. 5, 2020. (Oren Ziv)
Mourners at the funeral of of Ali Abu Aliya, 15, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers on Dec. 4, al-Mughayyer, occupied West Bank, Dec. 5, 2020. (Oren Ziv)

Dec. 6 marked 12 years since Greek police shot dead 15-year-old Alexandros (Alexis) Grigoropoulos in central Athens. The fatal killing took place in 2008 in the neighborhood of Exarchia, widely known as the city’s anarchist quarter, where violent clashes with police are a frequent phenomenon.

Initially, the officers claimed a group of young people, including Alexis, had been throwing Molotov cocktails at them — not a rare sight in an area considered a no-go zone for cops. Yet a shaky phone video documenting the event proved the cops were not under any threat from the teenagers.

The news of the young boy’s death sparked an unprecedented wave of protests across Greece, with hundreds of thousands marching through the streets of Athens and other cities in the country, including in the Greek islands. The protests also resonated beyond Greece’s borders, with actions taking place in several other countries in solidarity.

During the following weeks, dissent swiftly turned to widespread rioting against the police and the Greek state, accumulating in one of the most intense riots Greece has ever experienced. Epaminondas Korkoneas, the officer who shot and killed Alexis, was arrested, charged with homicide, and sentenced to life in prison, but was released last year following an appeal to court that reduced his sentence.

donate now

Twelve years on, Alexis’ death has left a deep mark on Greek society. To this day, Dec. 6 is still commemorated with large scale demonstrations and riots at the site where he was killed. Yet the commemoration serves as more than mere a spectacle of rage: the act of collectively grieving through protest symbolizes the rejection of the conditions that make it feasible for police to kill a teenage boy in the first place. It is a reminder of the people whose life is worth mourning.

Justifying violence

Just over a week ago, on Dec. 4, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Ali Abu Aliya, a 15-year-old Palestinian from al-Mughayyer, a small village near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Ali was attending a weekly demonstration against the building of a nearby Israeli outpost, which had been established by extremist right-wing settlers east of the Allon Road. He was reportedly hit in the abdomen with a 0.22 caliber bullet fired from a Ruger sniper rifle, which is often used by Israeli forces as a method of riot dispersal.

Attempting to justify the killing, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit called the demonstration a “violent riot” that consisted of stone throwing, tire burning, and roadblocks that threatened the safety of nearby drivers. Witnesses confirmed that clashes indeed took place between Palestinian youth and Israeli forces at the entrance to the village, but not in a way that actually endangered Israeli civilians or the Israeli soldiers who were shielded and heavily armed.

Memorial placard in the neighborhood of Exarhia, Athens, reading: 'Here, on 6 December 2008 without any purpose, the innocent children's grin of fifteen year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was extinguished by the bullets of unrepentant murderers.' April 5, 2009. (Tilemahos Efthimiadis/Flickr)
Memorial placard in the neighborhood of Exarhia, Athens, reading: ‘Here, on 6 December 2008 without any purpose, the innocent children’s grin of fifteen year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was extinguished by the bullets of unrepentant murderers.’ April 5, 2009. (Tilemahos Efthimiadis/Flickr)

Ali is the fifth Palestinian teenager to be shot dead in such circumstances by Israeli security forces since the start of 2020, along with scores of other Palestinians shot down by Israeli soldiers over the last decade. Time and time again, the army justified many of those killings by claiming that the deceased had been throwing stones or using some sort of “violence” against a well-trained, well-armed, and occupying military.

According to Israel’s own rules of engagement, lethal force should only be permitted when there is no other way to stop a direct threat to the life or serious injury of a soldier or other individuals. But in practice, Israeli authorities have stood behind its soldiers’ subjective feelings of what constitutes a “life-threatening” situation in order to justify lethal violence. A rock or a protest is thus easily turned into a reason for effectively carrying out a death sentence against anyone who dares to defy Israeli colonization through means deemed unfit by their oppressor. This legitimized violence was on full display during Gaza’s Great March of Return; the Israeli army loosened its rules of engagement, and its snipers killed over 200 Palestinians.

Unsurprisingly, the cold-blooded killing of Ali hardly made it into the evening news in Israel. Apart from a few feeble condemnations, it did not spark mass outrage or protests in Israel or abroad. The majority of the Israeli public — including those who take part in the weekly protests against Netanyahu and in support of democracy — appears to be indifferent to Palestinian children who are shot dead during demonstrations. If anything, they seem to accept Ali’s death as a natural consequence of the protesters’ “violent acts” against the Israeli state.

A key reason for this belief among Israelis — a heartbreaking outcome of the prolonged occupation — is that Israel’s decades-long control has normalized these types of killings of Palestinians to the extent that they are not perceived as uncommon. The repeated loss of life, which turns humans into nothing more than numbers and statistics in the eyes of Israelis, has drowned out the names of slain Palestinians and trapped them in anonymity, unable to fuel enough anger to halt these absurd deaths. All the while, the Israeli and global public collaborate with these practices through their apathy or blind acceptance of the army’s reasoning for its own brutality.

Deeming lives ungrievable

In her book “Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?” Judith Butler uses the term “grievability” to examine whose lives are mourned and whose are not. Grief, she writes, “precedes and makes possible the apprehension of the living being as living.” According to Butler, one major problem of contemporary political life is that some populations are deemed ungrievable by the state, meaning that some people can be killed and their death will never be considered a crime.

Mourners at the funeral of of Ali Abu Aliya, 15, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers on Dec. 4, al-Mughayyer, occupied West Bank, Dec. 5, 2020. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)
Mourners at the funeral of of Ali Abu Aliya, 15, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers on Dec. 4, al-Mughayyer, occupied West Bank, Dec. 5, 2020. (Oren Ziv)

In that spirit, the State of Israel not only dismisses the value of Palestinian life through military violence, but renders Palestinian lives ungrievable in quite a literal sense: it holds captive the bodies of scores of slain Palestinians, using their corpses as political bargaining chips while setting strict guidelines for their funerals to prevent large crowds turning their grief into rage.

Like the protests that erupted in Israel following the police killing of Solomon Tekah, a 19-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli, or the recent U.S. protests after the murder of George Floyd, the Greek riots demand the prevention of these state-sanctioned murders. The protesters insist that these victims of police brutality are, in fact, grievable human beings. Collectively mourning through protest is by itself a stark defiance of the very nature and logic of the state, which paves the way for these killings to occur: the idea that some lives are worthless compared to others.

For Israel, it was enough for Ali to stand in the vicinity of a protest that involved stone throwing to deserve being shot. In a system that repeatedly whitewashes the violence of Israeli security forces, it is almost unimaginable that the soldier who shot Ali will find himself behind bars or that Ali’s death will spark any unrest in Israeli society.

The complete lack of condemnation and accountability over this use of lethal force continues to strip away the humanity of Palestinian lives. Under these conditions, justice is a pipe dream. This is precisely why it is our duty to reject the very premise that allows Palestinian lives to be deemed ungrievable; and like our Greek counterparts, we must discard the justifications of state violence. We must strive to create a new norm in which Ali should be grieved, just like Alexis, acknowledging his life with remembrance and rage, and by pulling the rug under Israel’s defense of its killings.