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U.S. Serviceman Dies After Setting Self on Fire Outside Israeli Embassy to Protest War in Gaza

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An active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force has died after he set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, in apparent protest of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, which he described as a “genocide.”

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) identified the deceased demonstrator in a statement to TIME on Monday as 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell, whose identity and death were first reported on social media by independent journalist Talia Jane.

Bushnell, who was wearing fatigues on Sunday in Washington, was a DevOps engineer based in San Antonio, Texas, according to his LinkedIn profile.

DC Fire and EMS initially said in a post on X on Sunday that it transported an adult male in critical condition to an area hospital after being dispatched at 12:58 p.m. to an incident outside the Israeli embassy, where it found the fire had already been extinguished by U.S. Secret Service members on the scene. Secret Service spokesperson Joe Routh told TIME in a statement that officers of its uniformed division responded to what appeared as “an individual that was experiencing a possible medical / mental health emergency.”

Embassy spokesperson Tal Naim told media outlets that no embassy personnel were injured. MPD told TIME that it is working with the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to investigate the incident. MPD said in an earlier post on X that it also investigated a suspicious vehicle near the scene but that no hazardous materials were found.

Spokespersons for the U.S. Air Force confirmed to CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post that the man who set himself on fire, prior to his public identification, was an active-duty airman. Defense Department policy states that service members on active duty should “not engage in partisan political activity.” Military regulations also prohibit wearing the uniform during “unofficial public speeches, interviews, picket lines, marches, rallies or any public demonstration which may imply sanction or endorsement by [the Defense Department] or the Military Service.”

Read More: The History of Self-Immolation as Political Protest

Bushnell reportedly sent a message to media outlets before his self-immolation. “​​Today, I am planning to engage in an extreme act of protest against the genocide of the Palestinian people,” he warned.

On Facebook Sunday morning, he also wrote: “Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.” The post included a link to a live-stream of his protest on the web-broadcasting platform Twitch, which took down the video for violations of its community guidelines and terms of service.

“I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I’m about to engage in an extreme act of protest,” the airman repeated, in footage reviewed by TIME, as he walked toward the driveway of the Israeli embassy. “But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.”

After Bushnell doused himself with liquid and reached for his lighter, unidentified law enforcement or security officers could be heard asking him, “Can I help you?” After setting himself aflame, Bushnell repeatedly shouted “Free Palestine.”

More From TIME

Protests have grown worldwide against Israel’s military actions in Gaza as well as against U.S. support for Israel since war broke out after the Oct. 7 assault from Palestinian militant group Hamas that Israeli officials claim killed about 1,200 people. Gaza’s health ministry, overseen by Hamas, has said that Israel’s bombardment of the enclave has in turn killed some 30,000 people.

Israel’s diplomatic outposts have become sustained sites of demonstration against the war in the Middle East, and it is not the first time someone has set their body ablaze outside one.

Self-immolation has a long history as a form of protest, gaining particular prominence during the Vietnam war and in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

In December, an unidentified person with a Palestinian flag was left in critical condition after they lit themself on fire outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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