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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Airman dies after setting himself on fire outside Israeli Embassy in D.C.

By Emily Davies, Peter Hermann, Dan Lamothe and Hannah Allam Washington Post

An active-duty airman who set himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy on Sunday to protest U.S. support for Israel’s war in Gaza has died, a D.C. police spokesman said Monday.

The spokesman, Paris Lewbel, confirmed the man was pronounced dead at a hospital Sunday night. He has been identified as 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell of San Antonio.

The incident occurred just before 1 p.m. Sunday in the 3500 block of International Drive NW. A video shared online that multiple officials said appeared to be posted by Bushnell shows him referring to his service in the U.S. armed forces and shouting “Free Palestine!” as he burned.

Air Force spokeswoman Rose M. Riley confirmed in an email Sunday “an active duty airman was involved in today’s incident.” Further details of his military service were not available.

Officials said uniformed Secret Service officers responded to a report of a person experiencing a possible medical or mental health emergency and discovered the fire. Those officers extinguished the fire before D.C. firefighters arrived. Bushnell was rushed to a hospital with life-threatening injuries. A D.C. police report says he died at 8:06 p.m.

In the video, which is just over three minutes long, Bushnell says he does not want to be “complicit in genocide.” As he approaches the embassy, a person can be heard saying, “Hi, sir, can I help you?” as Bushnell approaches the gate to the embassy. About 12 seconds later – as a person again asks, “Can I help you, sir?” – Bushnell “doused himself with an unidentified liquid and set himself on fire,” the police report says.

Law enforcement extinguished the blaze soon thereafter.

The Air Force on Monday withheld details about Bushnell’s military service, adhering to a military policy to release details about deceased service members 24 hours after family members are notified of their deaths. It was not clear whether the Air Force would investigate what led to the incident. The Pentagon has long struggled to curb suicide in its force.

Self-immolations are rare, but a number are connected to antiwar protests.

A few people did so during the Vietnam War, perhaps most famously Thich Quang Duc, 66, a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire at a busy intersection in Saigon in June 1963 to draw attention to the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.

An American Quaker protester, Norman R. Morrison, 31, also self-immolated in November 1965 at the Pentagon just outside the office of then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

During the Iraq War, antiwar protester Malachi Ritscher self-immolated near the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. He wrote in a suicide note that if he was “required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world,” and that he was “ashamed for the mayhem and turmoil caused by my country.”

It took days for his death to gain notoriety. In 2011, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in Tunisia in protest of the harsh treatment he and other civilians faced from security forces under then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The act of defiance served as a spark ton what would become the Arab Spring, in which numerous heads of state were forced out in uprisings.

In December, a woman self-immolated outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta. She had a Palestinian flag with her, authorities said at the time.

Bushnell’s fatal protest turned him into an instant folk hero among some antiwar and pro-Palestinian activists. Within Arab circles, especially, the symbolism of a self-immolation is potent: a Tunisian fruit vendor who burned himself to death in 2011 set off pro-democracy rebellions that toppled dictators and upended the Middle East.

Across social media, some pro-Palestinian activists shared snippets of the video of Bushnell rationalizing his decision aloud in the seconds before lighting himself on fire. The captions portrayed the airman as a martyr.

Within hours, the posts collectively had racked up hundreds of thousands of “likes” and strings of comments punctuated with heartbreak emojis and #FreePalestine. The prominent Palestinian-American organizer Linda Sarsour, a leader of the 2017 Women’s March, posted a photo of Bushnell on Instagram with a caption that promised he would be remembered as “a man who risked his own life to shock a nation in to action.”

Since the Israel-Gaza war began in October, at least 29,782 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and says 240 soldiers have been killed since the start of its military operation in Gaza.

Hamas and allied fighters took more than 250 people hostage during the attack. More than 100 were freed in exchange for more than 200 Palestinian detainees during a November pause in fighting. Israeli authorities believe that more than 100 hostages remain in Gaza.