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U.S. Air Force Member Sets Self on Fire Outside Israel’s Embassy in D.C. to Protest War in Gaza

U.S. Secret Service vehicles block access to a street leading to the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC on Feb. 25, 2024. A man reportedly set  himself on fire near the embassy on Sunday afternoon.

An active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force 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.”

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DC Fire and EMS (DC FEMS) said in a post on X (formerly Twitter) that it responded to an incident outside the embassy at 12:58 p.m. to find the fire extinguished by U.S. Secret Service members. 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.”

The burn victim, who identified himself in video of the incident as 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell, reportedly succumbed to his injuries on Sunday night, according to independent journalist Talia Jane, who posted on social media that she is in contact with Bushnell’s family and friends.

DC FEMS initially said an adult male was transported with critical, life-threatening injuries to an area hospital, and authorities have confirmed neither the identity nor updated condition or status of the person when asked by TIME.

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) said in a post on X that it also investigated a suspicious vehicle near the scene but that no hazardous materials were found. Embassy spokesperson Tal Naim told media outlets that no embassy personnel were injured. Secret Service, MPD, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are investigating the incident.

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.” 

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

Bushnell reportedly sent a message to media outlets before his planned self-immolation. “​​Today, I am planning to engage in an extreme act of protest against the genocide of the Palestinian people,” he warned. He also reportedly live-streamed the act on the web-broadcasting platform Twitch, which has since removed the video for guideline violations and has not responded to a request for comment from TIME.

“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 off-screen, “Can I help you?” After setting himself aflame, he repeatedly shouted “Free Palestine.”

Protests have become commonplace 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 Tel Aviv’s bombardment of the enclave has in turn killed some 30,000 people.

Israel’s diplomatic outposts have since become sustained areas of protest against the war in the Middle East, and it is not the first time someone had set themselves on fire outside it.

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.

This is a developing story.

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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