JERUSALEM -- Kayla Jean Mueller, the 26-year-old American held captive by the Islamic State in Syria until her recent death, sharpened her activist skills and aid work during a brief stay in Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2010.
Mueller was captured in August 2013. The Islamic State claims that she was killed last week when a Jordanian fighter jet bombed the building where she was being held in the north-central Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital.
The U.S. administration confirmed her death Tuesday after examining photographs of her body that were sent to her family, but did not confirm the cause.
The aid worker from Arizona arrived in the region to work with Syrian refugees in 2012. Two years earlier, she spent two months in Israel, working with African migrants in Tel Aviv and volunteering in the West Bank with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement.
Of Mueller’s time with the movement, the organization wrote Tuesday that Kayla had “worked with Palestinians non-violently resisting the Israeli occupation” in the West Bank.
“She marched with us and faced the military that occupies our land side by side with us. For this, Kayla will always live in our hearts,” said Abdullah Abu Rahma, coordinator of weekly protests in the Palestinian village of Bil’in, which has farmland on the other side of Israel’s separation barrier dividing Israeli and Palestinian territory.
In addition to joining the protests in Bil’in, Mueller also spent time in the West Bank city of Hebron. Home to some 250,000 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, and roughly 700 Israeli settlers, Hebron is a continual site of tension between the two communities. One of Mueller’s jobs there was to ensure the safety of Palestinian children as they made their way to school.
ISM, which also drew worldwide attention in 2003 when another U.S. activist, Rachel Corrie, was killed in Gaza after being hit by an Israeli military bulldozer in the process of demolishing a Palestinian home, is a highly contentious organization for some Israelis.
Still, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among those to send condolences to Mueller’s family, writing: “On behalf of the people of Israel, I wish to send condolences to President Obama, the American people and the family of Kayla Mueller. We stand with you.”
Mueller's friends have created a blog to honor her activism, including highlighting her experiences working with the Palestinians.
According to the blog, Mueller wrote on Oct. 29, 2010:
“I could tell a few stories about sleeping in front of half demolished buildings waiting for the one night when the bulldozers come to finish them off; fearing sleep because you don’t know what could wake you.... I could tell a few stories about walking children home from school because settlers next door are keen to throw stones, threaten and curse at them.”
“The smell and taste of tear gas has lodged itself in the pores of my throat and the skin around my nose, mouth and eyes. It still burns when I close them. It still hangs in the air like invisible fire burning the oxygen I breathe. When I cry tears for this land, my eyes still sting. This land that is beautiful as the poetry of the mystics. This land with the people whose hearts are more expansive than any wall that any man could ever build.”