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U.S. Air Force member dies after setting himself on fire outside Israeli Embassy in Washington in apparent protest against war in Gaza

An active-duty U.S. Air Force member has died after he set himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Sunday in an apparent protest of Israel's actions in its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, officials said. An Air Force spokesperson told CBS News on Monday the airman died Sunday night.

Washington's Metropolitan Police Department identified the man as 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell, of San Antonio, Texas. Bushnell was assigned to the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing and was a cyber defense operations specialist with the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland, Texas, the Air Force confirmed Monday. He had been on active duty since May 2020.

Bushnell set himself on fire around 1 p.m. ET and both the U.S. Secret Service and the police department responded, the agencies said.

The embassy said in a statement to CBS News that no staff members were injured.

Police investigate the crime scene after a man set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25, 2024.
Police investigate the crime scene after a man set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25, 2024. Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

MPD also investigated a "suspicious vehicle" it said may be connected to the man who set himself on fire, but that vehicle was cleared around 4 p.m.

In a video that was livestreamed Sunday on Twitch, the man identified himself as Aaron Bushnell and said he was an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force confirmed later Sunday an active duty airman was involved but did not immediately provide his identity.

Prior to setting himself on fire, the man said he would "no longer be complicit in genocide" and that he was "about to engage in an extreme act of protest." After setting himself on fire, he yelled "free Palestine" repeatedly.

The Twitch channel has since been removed, but Talia Jane, an independent reporter who received a link to the video earlier Sunday, archived the video and shared it with CBS News. Jane later posted an edited version of the video, which blurred out the self-immolation, on social media.

"When a tragedy like this occurs, every member of the Air Force feels it," U.S. Air Force Col. Celina Noyes, commander of the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, said in a statement Monday. "We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Senior Airman Bushnell. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, and we ask that you respect their privacy during this difficult time."

Pentagon press secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Monday at a news conference that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was "following the situation," calling it a "tragic event."

"We do extend our condolences to the airman's family," Ryder said.

This was the second time someone had set themself on fire outside an Israeli facility in the U.S. since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. 

A protester set themself on fire outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta last December. A Palestinian flag was found at the scene after what police referred to as an "extreme act of political protest," according to the BBC.

More than four months after Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the death toll in Gaza is nearing 30,000, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.  

Sunday's incident comes less than a week after the United States vetoed a U.N. resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. Negotiations to broker a temporary cease-fire to facilitate the further release of hostages are ongoing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also continued to defend his military's actions in Gaza.

While the State Department twice in December bypassed Congress to approve emergency weapons sales to Israel, President Biden has become more critical of Israel's tactics in recent weeks, at one point calling Israel's response in Gaza "over the top." Mr. Biden has also urged Netanyahu to refrain from a ground assault in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where some 1.4 million Palestinians have already sought refuge from the fighting, unless Israel had a "credible" plan to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians.

Netanyahu, however, seemed intent on launching a ground assault on Rafah, saying Sunday on "Face the Nation" that such an operation would mean, "the intense phase of the fighting is weeks away from completion."

The leaders of several countries have accused Israel of carrying out a genocide in Gaza, with South Africa bringing a case before the United Nations' International Court of Justice. In a January interim judgment, then-ICJ President Joan E. Donoghue refused Israel's request to dismiss the case. The court found it had jurisdiction to consider the case, noting there were plausible claims Israel could be committing genocidal acts. The court, however, did not order a cease-fire.

Netanyahu has denied any claims of genocide, saying after the court's interim ruling the allegation is "not only false, it's outrageous."

When asked if Austin was concerned Sunday's incident could indicate unhappiness among service members about the U.S. military's support for Israel, Ryder said the Defense Department's "support for Israel's inherent right to defend itself is ironclad."

"We've also continued to actively communicate our expectations that Israel take civilian safety and humanitarian assistance into account into their operations," Ryder said.

Eleanor Watson contributed reporting.

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