Jawahar Abu-Rahmah of Bil’in was rushed to Ramallah hospital last Friday during an unarmed protest against the fence in her village. She passed away Saturday morning. Her death gained relatively wide publicity, and the IDF scramble to pushing its own version of the story, first claiming that Abu-Rahamh took part in a violent riot, and later saying she wasn’t even there, and the whole thing was a Palestinian hoax.
As it happens, I was in Bil’in on Friday, so I got the opportunity to compare the IDF’s version with what I saw with my own eyes, and with what I know. The IDF spokesperson, and even anonymous IDF sources, are seen by Israeli and international journalists as a credible source of information. This story, I believe, shows why Israeli and Foreign journalists should be more careful before repeating the army’s version of events. They should certainly make an effort to bring other sides of the story, and to put things in a wider context.
Here is my take on the version the IDF has been pushing regarding the death of Bil’in’s Jawaher Abu-Rahmah.
1. The event: “a violent riot”
On Friday, the army treated the protest in Bil’in as a usual one. An army spokesperson’s tweet didn’t mention a higher level of violence than in previous weeks, or in other villages:
~250 rioters in Bil’in now hurling rocks @ IDF forces-area declared closed military zone to prevent escalation but open to village residents
Only after the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah was reported, the need to justify the killing came (check out this tweet by Peter Lerner, Spokesman of the Central Command). The IDF Spokesperson released photos of a few kids throwing stones and one unidentified glowing object, later described by the army as a fire bomb. The pictures were clearly taken from a great distance, but that was all the army had for its attempt to create the impression that the soldiers were defending their lives against a violent mob.
The truth couldn’t have been further – as those who have actually been to the Bil’in know. The protest in Bil’in takes place on a road leading to the fence. Usually, most protesters simply try to march towards the fence, until the army decides to disperse them with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. When stone-throwing does occur, it usually begins after the army disperses the march. Very few people throw stones – and it’s usually some Palestinian kids, the “Shabab”. As for the soldiers, they are standing on the hill, heavily protected, and the stones normally pose no real danger for them.
Last Friday, the march was larger then usual. Even PM Salam Fayyad was there, though he didn’t venture outside the village. The march was completely peaceful – there was even a brass band present. From what I could see, the tear gas was fired by the IDF well before the march got even close to the fence – and it was fired directly at the unarmed protesters walking on the main road. I remember feeling surprised, because the soldiers usually let the march go a bit further before they shoot.
You could see it all very clearly on the following video, taken on last Friday’s protest. You can see how far the soldiers are from the protest when they start shooting tear gas. The stones are thrown [min: 3:20] off the road. An effort by the protesters (including a brave sax player) to march again to the fence is met with more gas – this time, the canisters are shot directly at the protesters [min 4:00], in the illegal way that led to the death of Bassam Abu-Rahmah last year.
In my own army service I faced real riots in the West Bank, when hundreds of people were hurling stones at us in a small city alley. Scary as it was, we didn’t use as much fire power as the army now does in Bil’in and in other villages I visited. Not only that the death of Bassam and Jawahar Abu-Rahmah is not surprising, I actually think we are lucky more people weren’t injured or killed in those unarmed protests.
2. The context: “The fence will be removed anyway”
Facing a PR meltdown, the army held a “special briefing” on Monday for bloggers (all of them from the rightwing, pro-IDF side), in which it put forward its own narrative. This sort of unofficial briefing took place with military reporters in all of Israel’s major news organizations. One of the interesting points in the briefing referred to the context of the demonstration. This is from a report by one those bloggers:
Israel’s High Court ruled that the IDF must change the path of the security fence to go outside of Bil’in, thereby agreeing to the Palestinian claims. The new fence is under construction and should be completed within a few months. The IDF will remove the older fence once the new one is complete — therefore the current riots are completely propaganda.
But here are the facts: The huge Israeli settlement Matityahu-East was built on private Palestinian land, taken from farmers in five villages, including Bil’in (this is not surprising: every story in the West Bank ends up being about a settlement). According to a Supreme Court ruling from 2007, the route of the “Security Barrier” was planned with the intention of annexing even more land to that settlement. The Court ordered the fence to be re-built on a different route – one that returns some of the land to the village.
More than three years after the verdict, the army still hasn’t moved the fence. Only recently, when it was about to be charged with contempt of court, did the work on the new route begin. And again – even with the fence moved, much of the village’s land won’t be returned, so Bil’in’s farmers have every right to continue their protest, both morally and according to international law.
3. The Death: Maybe it was a Palestinian who killed her
The unofficial briefings were part of the army’s counter-attack, initiated in Central Command [UPDATE: Yossi Gurvitz reveals that it was Central Command CO himself, Gen Avi Mizrachi, who led the briefing], which is in charge of Bil’in and its surrounding areas (and not in the IDF spokesperson unit). It was meant to discredit the Palestinian version, cast doubt, and more than anything else, move the burden of proof to the other side. This last fact is important: While the Palestinians presented a medical report on the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah as well as a few testimonies, the army never investigated the event. The IDF spokesperson didn’t release an official statement, and all the army’s comments were released through anonymous sources and in informal briefings.
Among other things, the army claimed (through proxies) that Jawahar Abu-Rahmah died of cancer, that she wasn’t present at the demo, and that only after her death (from natural causes), the Palestinians decided to claim she died of tear-gas poisoning.
The army went as far as spreading a rumor that Jawahar was killed by a family member:
IDF has heard about the honor killing theory, that Abu Rahma was stabbed to death for being pregnant as a family “honor killing”, however they cannot confirm this and the direction they currently are investigating is death from a chronic illness.
As I said, I was present at the demo and I saw an ambulance leave the site twice. I don’t know who was in the ambulance, but this tweet by Jewish Voice for Peace director (who was present in Bil’in) mentions Jawahar by her name:
One eye injury and Jawahar – sister of bassem who was killed last year at a demo -was taken to the hospital for gas inhalation.
The tweet was posted on 2:36PM, while the protest was still ongoing (I left Bil’in shortly before 4 pm) and long before anyone knew of the deterioration in Jawahar’s condition.
Numerous eyewitnesses – all going on record – account for Jawahar’s presence on the hill at the edge of the village, overlooking the demo. The long-range gas grenades were landing nearby, and the western wind carried the gas to the hill and onto the edge of the village. I was standing on a hillside and felt it myself. People around me were constantly coughing, and we all had red eyes.
Those witnesses also describe, in detail, Jawahar’s evacuation to the hospital.
Islam Abu Rahmah: “I was standing with Jawahar, her mother and my grandmother in order to watch the confrontation that was going on just in front of us, in the area of the fence. The wind moved the gas in our direction, making our eyes itch and tear up. After that she (Jawahar) began to cough and foam at the mouth. Soon after that she became weak and lay down on the ground. I managed to carry her as far as the Abu Khamis home, about 40 meters in the direction of her house, but then she became terribly weak, vomited violently and foamed at the mouth. She was having difficult breathing and lost her sense of direction. We got a few women to help her by waving a paper fan over her face in order to provide some oxygen. After that she was taken to the hospital.”
Saher Bisharat, the ambulance who evacuated Jawahar: “We received Jawahar near the entrance that is parallel to the fence, which is where the demonstration was taking place. She was still partially conscious, answered questions, and said that she had choked on gas. I took her straight to the hospital.” (Click here to view the Red Crescent report).
During the infamous bloggers’ briefing, the IDF rejected claims that the tear gas it uses can be lethal:
We have never heard of anyone dying from inhaling tear gas (5 years of experience with this particular tear gas). There were hundreds of other rioters in the same open air location, in broad daylight and yet she was the only one “allegedly” affected by the gas.
This is a lie. There have been numerous reports on people hurt by inhaling IDF tear gas, including a number of fatalities. +972 Magazine reported on the death of a Jerusalem toddler from tear gas in Silwan just a few months ago. But when you only call your supporters to the special briefing, such details are not likely to be mentioned.
One last point on that: Israel has released – through anonymous sources, of course – personal medical details from the file of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah (no privacy for Palestinians). An Israeli journalist told me yesterday that it was the Shabak (Israel’s internal security service) that was sent to Ramallah to obtain the dead woman’s file from the local hospital. Today’s Haaretz article confirmed this: It states [Hebrew] that there was an “intelligence effort” to obtain details on the case. I, for once, find it incredible that this is what our secret service does: help the PR effort and the cover up of what seems like an unlawful killing. But maybe I’m too naive.
4. Controlling the media
One of the key elements for Israel’s partial success in spinning the flotilla incident last May in its favor was its ability to control the information. Some 60 journalists on board the Mavi Marmara were detained by Israel, and all their media and equipment was confiscated. Later, IDF spokesperson released only the footage that served its narrative. That’s how we got to see several soldiers attacked – but we never saw how nine passengers died, and dozens more were wounded.
On Friday, the army blocked the main entrance to Bil’in. While it didn’t stop Israeli and international protesters from joining the demonstrations (they marched through the hills to the village), I know of at least one international press crew that was turned away.
Without coverage from western media organizations, whatever happens during a protest becomes a matter of different versions – the army’s vs. the Palestinians’. In such events, the local press, and some of the international reporters as well, tend to prefer the IDF’s story.
Today, the IDF’s version on the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah is a front page story on the daily tabloid Maariv (the headline: “Bil’in conspiracy?”). Yedioth gives the army’s claims a full two-page spread, with an op-ed stating that this is another A-Durah-style fabrication. Haaretz and Yisrael Hayom also mention the IDF claims on their headlines, and one should separately note the clear words of Haaretz’s editorial on the affair today.
The bottom line is that the army didn’t present one piece of evidence in its effort to avoid responsibility for the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah and to discredit the unarmed protest, the people of Bil’in and their supporters in Israel. To this moment, the army didn’t even release an official statement, but instead spread doubts, rumors and lies. Unfortunately, for much of the Israeli public, this seems to have been enough.