A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Abu Rahmeh Story
Jeremiah Haber, 05 January 2011
Yair Altman, Palestinians vow revenge following protestor’s death, YNet, 1 January
Jeremiah Haber, More on How the IDF Spin Machine Works in the Abu Rahmeh Killing, 3 January
Jonathan Pollak, Evidence discredits army’s version of Bil’in woman’s death, 4 January
Robert Mackey, Israeli Bloggers Question Israel’s Use of Tear Gas Against Protesters, 6 January
Until new evidence emerges, it is possible – and important – to summarize what can be reasonably believed about the death of Jawahir Abu Rahmeh at the Bil’in protest last Friday. It is always interesting for partisans (and my sympathies are clear) to attempt to step back and examine critically the evidence. Jawahir Abu Rahmeh’s death is a personal and familial tragedy, but the reactions to it speak volumes about where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is heading.For more details on the evidence, see two articles by Avi Issacharof (and one with Amos Harel) here and here. What follows is based, inter alia, on their (mostly) fair reporting.
There is no serious ground for disputing that Jawahir Abu Rahmeh was at the demonstration though not as an active participant. There is no serious ground for disputing that she inhaled tear gas and was affected by it. There is no serious ground for disputing that she died after her inhalation of tear gas, and that her death was related to that inhalation. What is clear to some and not clear to others is the nature of that relation. Amos Harel and Avi Issacharof argue in today’s Haaretz that because nobody else died from tear gas at the demonstration, the tear gas could not have been a decisive factor in her death. This, of course, is fallacious reasoning. Every year millions of people suffer from the flu but only a tiny fraction of those die. It is rare for people to die from flu, but people do indeed die from flu, and not only those who have other medical conditions. (Coincidentally, Haaretz ran an article today about a 15-year old boy who died from the flu “who was not known to have prior conditions.” Nobody questions the cause of his death because it is in nobody’s interest to question it.) It is rare for people to die from tear gas inhalation, but people do die from it, and not only those with other medical conditions. As Paul Woodward pointed out yesterday on War in Context
The U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine warns that at a concentration of 2mg per cubic meter, CS gas “is immediately dangerous to life…” The Army advises, in the event of inhalation: “remove the victim to fresh air immediately; perform artificial respiration if breathing has stopped; keep the victim warm and at rest; seek medical attention immediately.”
There is also no serious ground now for disputing that Ms. Abu Rahmeh had been suffering from water in her inner ear, dizzy spells, and problems of balance several days before the demonstration, that she had gone to doctors and taken tests, including a CT scan, which did not show anything out of the ordinary. Whether this in any way contributed to her death is not known now, nor will it be known, barring exhuming the body and performing an autopsy (even then?) But nobody in or out of the IDF has given any plausible hypothesis linking these symptoms to her death, even as a contributing factor. Until medical experts do so, why would anybody assume otherwise – unless that person had an agenda.
Haaretz and others (including myself) have misdescribed the competing views on the Abu Rahmeh story has a “conflict of narratives.” At the moment, however, it is not clear what the Israeli counter-narrative is, besides “Abu Rahmeh did not die from the inhalation of tear gas.” What we have here is one side with an account, and the other side skeptical of the account, without having any serious evidentiary basis for a counter-account. And only one side, the Israeli side, has had to backtrack repeatedly from early questions raised.
Had the IDF acted wisely, it would have announced that it was launching its own investigation and simply conceded that Abu Rahmeh died from the tear gas, expressed regret, and said that it saw no reason to switch to another method of crowd control because this was a rare occurrence. Instead, General Mizrahi tried to poke holes in the Palestinian account, convincing nobody but the hard-core rightwing bloggers and some Jewish supporters of Israel. As many of those holes have been subsequently filled, this heavy-handed tactic has backfired. Now the story is not whether tear gas is an acceptable method of crowd control, but rather whether the IDF is acting credibly (or rationally) in its move to put out fires. The Abu Rahmeh story is much bigger now than it would have been because of the IDF’s heavy-handed attempt to turn it into a war of competing narratives.
The other side of the story is the complicity of the Israeli media in all this. With the exception of Haaretz media outlets have swallowed everything that Mizrahi and the conspiracy theorists have put forth. Not their finest hour; one could describe it better as a series of “Srak Srak” moments. (That’s a reference to the conspiracy theorists who deny that Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin.)
Unfortunately, this is yet another case of the IDF shooting tear gas at itself.
03 January 2011
A female protester dies at a Bil’in protest from tear gas inhalation. The IDF is not only faced with a public relations nightmare, but also with the real possibility that there will be pressure to change its mode of operations, and to use a less effective (from its standpoint) tear gas. There may even be pressure to conduct a military investigation, which the IDF certainly doesn’t want. So the only thing that it can do is to attack the credibility of the woman’s family and witnesses.
So this is how they do it:
With the willing help of a rightwing blogosphere, they start the rumor mill and run with the “multiple accounts” trick that is the mother’s milk of conspiracy theorists and bloggers. Jawahir Abu Rahmah wasn’t even at the demonstration, wrote a friend of the family in a facebook post, she was at home 500 meters away. Even if that were true so what? The gas goes everywhere, and it may be more lethal indoors. But how do we really know she even died from gas inhalation? Rumors start to fly that she was pregnant and that this was an honour killing. The IDF and the “responsible” rightwing blogosphere reports the libels as “unconfirmed” – but report them nonetheless.
And then, the insinuations begin…why won’t the PA release the medical report? What is it trying to hide? (By the way, has the PA ever received a medical report from the IDF?)
But – aw, crap – the PA then releases the medical report! So now the task is to use the medical report to try to discredit the testimony. She had been treated with doses of antibiotics – maybe that means she had leukemia. Ergo, she had cancer. Ergo, she died of cancer (by a remarkable coincidence, at the very time of the protest. ) And no postmortem was conducted; only the family’s word was taken for it. And the body was buried on the same day. What are the Pals trying to hide? Why can’t they be like Jews, who rarely conduct postmortems and bury their dead a long time after death?
All this information is presented by the IDF twice – first as fact to a select group of rightwing bloggers who will lap up any vomit (sorry, it’s a Biblical phrase) the IDF Spokesperson gives them. After all, there is a hasbara war. Then, as “questions” that the IDF will release late in the evening for the morning papers. The differences in formulation are striking. For the press they give one set of information; for the bloggers, another
Fortunately, one newspaper, Haaretz, after printing on its website Anshil Pfeffer’s report of the IDF “questions” (with Michael Sfard’s rebuttal) updates the article with good reporting by Avi Issacharoff. And surprise, surprise – it does turn out that Abu Rahmeh had a medical condition – she had water in her ear, balance problems, all associated with local infections, which explains the antibiotics in the medical record.To be on the safe side, a physician had her get a CT scan – the medical document appears in the print Haaretz — and the scan is normal. She sees a physician in a Ramallah hospital who tells her not to worry, and to see him in a month.
According to a document obtained by Haaretz, Badwan prescribed a common remedy for dizziness and instructed her to bathe her ear in hot water. Samir said Badwan thought the problem was caused by water trapped in the middle ear, but nevertheless ordered a CT brain scan.
Physicians consulted for this article said Badwan probably suspected another condition.
After receiving normal results from the December 27 brain scan, Abu Rahmah saw Dr. Nasser al-Mualem at the Ramallah hospital, who according to Samir said her problem was common and told her to return in one month.
The medical documents seem to support Samir’s claim that with the exception of the headaches and dizziness, his sister was in generally good health. None of the doctors consulted for this article could think of a condition or symptoms that could be fatal in the presence of tear gas.
Badwan – like my doctor, or any doctor – wanted to rule out something more serious, and so he acted like a good doctor and ordered a test. The test said things were ok. I hardly call that “suspecting another condition”; I call that “being on the safe side”.
We now have a ridiculous account out there of a woman who was not at a demonstration dying of cancer (or being stabbed by her family), and then being whisked to a hospital, buried suddenly, with documents not released for (mirabile dictu) two days — and trumpeted by the hasbara-niks as “another example of Pallywood.”
Who cares about the facts when we are now are in a “battle of narratives”
And that is precisely what the IDF wanted. No investigation, for the moment.
Tuesday, January 4 2011|Jonathan Pollak/Lisa Goldman
The following is a detailed response to the army’s claims regarding the death on 1 January 2011 of Jawaher Abu Rahmah, who was taken to the hospital on 31 December after inhaling tear gas at the weekly demonstration against the separation barrier in Bil’in, a small Palestinian village near Ramallah. The response was written by Jonathan Pollak, media coordinator of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee. *
Contact details for all the eyewitnesses listed below are available upon request for journalists.
The evidence surrounding the events leading to the death of Bil’in resident Jawaher Abu Rahmah disproves completely the army spokesperson’s version, to the point of putting the army in a ridiculous light. The army’s version is based on claims made anonymously, without any supporting evidence – unlike the version of the Abu Rahmah family and the Popular Coordinating Committee of Bil’in, which is detailed below.
A Palestinian man surrounded by a tear gas cloud in Bil’in on 31 December 2010 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills.org)
Since yesterday, the army has been promoting in the Israeli media a mendacious version regarding the events that led to the death of Jawaher Abu Rahmah of Bil’in on Friday, 31 December 2010. According to the army’s version, Jawaher was not injured by tear gas and was possibly not even present at the demonstration. The army spokesperson did not see fit to publish an official statement on the matter, instead passing the information to the media in the name of anonymous “army sources.”
The facts of the matter, which are supported by the testimony of eyewitness who were present at the demonstration, as well as by the ambulance driver who evacuated her to the hospital, contradict completely the army’s version:
Soubhiya Abu Rahmah, mother of Jawaher: “I was standing beside Jawaher on the hill that is near the place where the demonstration took place, when we were injured by a cloud of tear gas. Jawaher began to feel unwell from inhaling the gas and started to move back from the place; soon after that she vomited and collapsed. We took her to the nearest road, and from there she was evacuated by ambulance to the hospital, where she remained until her death. She was not sick with cancer, nor did she have any other illness; and she was not asthmatic.”
Ilham Fathi: I was on the roof of my house, which is located a few meters from where Jawaher stood. When the cloud of tear gas moved in our direction, I went downstairs in order to close the windows. While I was closing one of the windows, I saw her lose consciousness from the gas and ran over to her, together with Islam Abu Rahmah, in order to pull her away. We picked her up together and carried her to my garden. We called for help and she began to vomit and foam at the mouth.
Islam Abu Rahmah: “I was standing with Jawaher, 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 (Jawaher) began to cough and foam at the mouth. Soon after that she became weak and lay down on the ground. I succeeded in carrying 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 difficulty 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 driver who evacuated Jawaher: “We received Jawaher near the entrance that is parallel to the fence, which is where the demonstration was taking place. She was still partly 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).
The army has also claimed that the reports about Abu Rahmah’s injuries started to arrive only several hours after the incident, in the evening. That claim is contradicted by a report sent via the Twitter account of NGO Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which reports the injury of Jawaher, including her name, in real time (click here to view). The tweet was sent at 2:36 pm Israel/PA time (4:36 am on the East Coast of the United States). Wafa, the Palestinian news service, published a report that includes the injury of Jawaher Abu Rahmah shortly after the event (click here to view).
Also according to “army sources,” which remain anonymous, Jawaher Abu Rahmah suffered from a serious illness, possibly leukemia; the “sources” postulate that she died from a pre-existing condition rather than tear gas inhalation. Several sources reject that claim.
Dr. Uday Abu Nahlah: “Jawaher Abu Rahmah was employed in my home on a regular basis. On Thursday she was at work as usual, healthy, only one day before her death.”
Jawaher had an inner ear infection, which affected her balance, for which she was recently given a CT scan. The radiologist who performed the CT scan, Dr. Hamis Al Sahfi’i, confirmed that the brain scan was normal (for the CT scan results click here). Jawaher had a minor health issue involving fluids in her inner ear. Her physicians insist that she did not suffer from any illness or from any symptoms that might, if combined with tear gas, lead to her death.
There is not, nor could there be, any indication that Abu Rahmah had cancer; in fact, she was in good health. The director of the hospital refutes the claim that she died from a pre-existing condition:
Mohammed Aida, director of the Ramallah health center where Abu Rahmah received her care: “Jawaher Abu Rahmah died from lung failure that was caused by tear gas inhalation, leading to a heart attack. She arrived at the hospital only partly conscious, and then lost consciousness completely.” (Click here for the hospital’s official medical report.)
Mohammed Khatib, a member of Bil’in’s Popular Coordinating Committee: “The army is trying to evade its responsibility for Jawaher’s death with lies and invented narratives that have no basis. They are spreading these lies and invented narratives via the media, which is not bothering to do basic fact checking. Our version is supported by named sources and with medical documents. In a properly functioning society, the army’s version, which has been spread by anonymous sources, would not be considered worthy of publication.”
*Translation by Lisa Goldman, who is responsible for any errors that may have occurred during the transition from the original Hebrew to the English.
Updated | Saturday | 10:58 a.m. As my colleague Isabel Kershner reported, this week Israel’s military tried to deflect blame for the death of a Palestinian woman who collapsed after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank.
The woman who died on Saturday, Jawaher Abu Rahmah, was a 36-year-old resident of the town of Bilin, where there have been weekly protests against the barrier for six years. The protest organizers insist that they are committed to unarmed demonstrations, although Israeli troops who block the marchers — and use tear gas to disperse the crowds — are often pelted with rocks by young Palestinians. In 2009, Ms. Abu Rahmah’s brother, Baseem, was killed at one of the protests, after being struck by a tear-gas canister. The episode was captured in a graphic video posted online.
Ms. Abu Rahmah’s mother told The Times this week that she and her daughter did not take part in the protest march on Friday but “were watching the protest from a distance when a cloud of tear gas wafted their way, causing her daughter to collapse.” She died the next day.
The day after her death, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz obtained the woman’s medical records from her family. “The medical report filed in the Ramallah hospital where Abu Rahmah was taken shows that her death was caused by respiratory failure resulting from the inhalation of tear gas,” Haaretz reported.
After Israeli activists who took part in the demonstration with Palestinians collected the Israeli military’s spent gas canisters and took them to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv (to underscore that the shells fired by Israel’s soldiers are made by an American company), Israeli military officials defended their forces’ actions at the protest at a briefing for selected journalists and bloggers. Insisting on anonymity, they argued that tear gas was not normally lethal outdoors and suggested that Ms. Abu Rahmah might have died from a preexisting medical condition.
Several Israeli journalists who contribute to +972, a group blog that takes a generally skeptical view of Israel’s government, have criticized the military’s efforts as “spin.”
One of the bloggers, Yossi Gurvitz, called the military briefing as “a psyops campaign against the Israeli public,” based on guesses about the woman’s health rather than hard facts and presented to Israeli journalists and “a select group of right-wing bloggers, people you can rely on not to ask difficult questions and who would understand their role in the Hasbara [P.R.] choir.” Mr. Gurvitz provided links to two posts on the woman’s death from Israeli blogs — The Muqata and Israellycool — written by commentators who generally support the government and were invited to the military’s briefing. Neither had been at the protest.
Another contributor to +972, Noam Sheizaf, a journalist and former soldier, was present at the demonstration in Bilin during which Ms. Abu Ramah collapsed. In a post attacking the military’s response to the death, Mr. Sheizaf suggested that the military’s use of tear gas against the protesters on Saturday was excessive. Mr. Sheizaf embedded the YouTube video of the demonstration at the top of this post and reported:
From what I could see, the tear gas was fired by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] 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.
Mr. Sheizaf also pointed out that the dead woman’s medical file contained no conclusive evidence that she suffered from any life-threatening illness and noted a report in an Israeli newspaper (in Hebrew) that the records had been obtained by an Israeli intelligence service.
A Palestinian witnesses who spoke to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Wednesday confirmed that Ms. Abu Rahmah had collapsed after inhaling tear gas, but added that she had been standing near “kids who were throwing stones at the army.” The report did not say if gas was fired before or after stones were thrown.
The firing of tear gas shells at demonstrators in the West Bank has resulted in casualties in the past. In 2009, an American peace activist, Tristan Anderson, was badly wounded after being hit in the head by a tear gas shell while protesting against the West Bank barrier. As The Lede reported last year, a tear gas shell fired by an Israeli soldier at a West Bank protest over Israel’s use of force to stop the Gaza flotilla struck a 21-year-old Jewish-American student in the face. The student, an named Emily Henochowicz, lost an eye as a result.
As The Lede has explained previously, despite losing a legal battle in Israel’s highest court, Israel’s military has responded to the protests by arresting and imprisoning two leaders of the weekly marches in Bilin, charging them with “organizing and participating in an illegal demonstration” and “incitement.”
Another +972 blogger, Dahlia Scheindlin, argued that the way the Israeli military’s attempts to avoid blame for the death of Ms. Abu Rahmah are a distraction from more important issues, that using an army to respond to unarmed demonstrations is both wrong and counterproductive. Ms. Scheindlin wrote:
The Israeli Army is trying very hard to make the non-violent protest impossible. From the arrests and imprisonment of non-violent activists on both sides to the policy of declaring protest areas “closed military zones,” there seems to be some warped belief that spirit and determination can be squelched by mere army orders, signs, barbed wire, warning shots or tear gas. Jews who faced down the British Empire should know better.
Instead, the bizarre response of the Army to the death of Jawareh Abu Rahmah is like an old Jewish joke, except no one’s laughing. A man confronts his friend who returned a pot the friend had borrowed, broken. The friend replies: “First, it’s just a scratch. Second, it was broken when I got it. Third, I never borrowed your damned pot!”
Taking note of what he called Ms. Scheindlin “clarifying anger,” a journalist for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ron Kampeas, explained that when he worked for The Associated Press in Israel in the 1990s, Israel’s military repeatedly ascribed the deaths of Palestinians who had inhaled tear gas to preexisting health conditions.