Israeli military and Palestinians clash over death of West Bank woman
The death of a Palestinian woman following a West Bank village protest in which teargas was fired by Israeli soldiers has become a battleground of competing narratives between the victim’s family, Israeli military sources and advocates on both sides of the conflict.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, described the death of Jawaher Abu Rahma last weekend as an “Israeli crime carried out by the occupation army against our helpless nation”.
In contrast, unnamed Israeli military sources told Yedioth Ahronoth, a mass circulation newspaper: “This is the new Muhammad al-Dura story and an attempt to delegitimise Israel.”
Al-Dura was the 12-year-old boy shot dead in Gaza in 2000 while cowering behind his father, who tried to shield him during a gunbattle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. Images of the terrified boy became a symbol of the Second Intifada.
Abu Rahma, 36, died on Saturday after collapsing as she watched a protest against Israel’s separation barrier in Bil’in. Youths had begun throwing stones at soldiers who responded by firing CS gas canisters. According to witnesses, Abu Rahma began vomiting, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. She died in hospital in Ramallah the next day.
Her death has afforded extra potency as it followed that of her brother, Bassem, who was killed 20 months earlier after being hit by a high-velocity teargas projectile during a similar protest. Another brother, Ashraf, was injured in the foot in July 2008 in the village of Na’alin after an Israeli soldier fired a rubber-coated steel bullet at point-blank range. The incident was captured on video.
The Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, branded Abu Rahma’s death a “war crime”. Hundreds of people joined a protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, at which 11 activists were arrested.
The Israeli Defence Force opened an investigation into Abu Rahma’s death. But on Monday, during anonymous briefings to Israeli journalists, military sources questioned accounts from the family, witnesses and the medical authorities.
“We did not kill her, there is no proof,” senior officers in the IDF Central Command told Yedioth Ahronoth. “This entire story is very strange. The Palestinian reports are full of contradictions. The medical reports were fabricated and withheld from us. We believe she suffered from cancer and that she took unusually high doses of medication.”
The military sources suggested Abu Rahma may not have been present at the protest and that she suffered from a pre-existing condition likely to have caused her death.
The family’s supporters issued a detailed rebuttal of the IDF claims, backed by documentation, and said the military was waging a smear campaign.
None of the witnesses to the incident claimed Abu Rahma took part in Friday’s demonstration, but that she had watched from a distance. Her mother, Soubhiya, has said she was with her daughter on a hill at the edge of the village when they were enveloped in teargas.
“Soon after that she vomited and collapsed,” she said in a statement to the Popular Struggle Co-ordination Committee. “We took her to the nearest road, and from there she was evacuated by ambulance to the hospital where she remained until her death. ”
Islam Abu Rahma, a family member who was with Jawaher, also gave testimony: “The wind moved the gas in our direction, making our eyes itch and tear up. After that [Jawaher] began to cough and foam at the mouth. Soon after that she became weak and lay down on the ground … She became terribly weak, vomited violently and foamed at the mouth. She was having difficulty breathing and lost her sense of direction.”
The IDF has questioned the hospital records concerning Abu Rahma’s treatment. One medical report said a blood sample was taken at 2.45pm, but a separate form said she was only admitted at 3.20pm, they said. According to the family, the sample was taken in the hospital emergency room before her admission shortly afterwards to intensive care.
The military’s claims that Abu Rahma was suffering from asthma and leukaemia, which could have caused or contributed to her death, have been vigorously disputed.
Mohammed Eidh, the director of the Palestine Medical Complex in Ramallah where Abu Rahma was taken, said she “died from lung failure caused by teargas inhalation, leading to a heart attack”. An official report, signed by Eidh and two other doctors, logged her symptoms and vital signs following “unknown gas inhalation”. She had “no history of chronic disease”, it said.
Abu Rahma’s family and doctors said she recently had an inner-ear infection, for which she was given a CT scan, the results of which were normal.
The IDF said the gas used in last Friday’s demonstration was identical to that used in previous protests, and is considered non-lethal in an open-air environment.
According to Mohammed Khatib, a member of Bil’in’s Popular Co-ordinating Committee which organises the weekly protests against the barrier, the Israeli army was “trying to evade its responsibility for Jawaher’s death with lies and invented narratives that have no basis”.
Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer representing the Abu Rahma family, said the IDF had committed a “cowardly act by anonymously spreading lies without any evidence”. He said he had no confidence that an internal military inquiry, based solely on the testimony of soldiers, would establish the truth of the circumstances of Abu Rahma’s death. “This is a proven way to whitewash what happened.”
The IDF issued an official statement on Wednesday saying the inquiry into Abu Rahma’s death had yet to be completed. It added: “The initial information raises questions as to the reliability of Palestinian reports. The medical reports received from the Palestinians also raise many questions and doubts. A number of scenarios have been posited, among them the possibility that Abu Rahma’s death was entirely unrelated to the demonstration last Friday.”
An army spokesman told the Guardian: “There’s something weird about the whole situation and there are many questions about the circumstances of her death.”
He said he had “no idea” how long the inquiry would take “but we hope for answers as soon as possible”.
On 30 September 2000, on the second day of the second intifada, Muhammad al-Dura, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, was caught up in gunfire in the Gaza Strip and killed as he cowered against a wall. His father, Jamal, who was also struck by several bullets, tried to protect his son as they sought cover.
The shooting and the child’s evident distress were filmed by Talal Abu Rahma, a Palestinian cameraman freelancing for a French TV station, and were broadcast around the world. At the end of the clip, Dura is seen slumped over his father’s legs.
The Arab world hailed the boy as a martyr. His image appeared on stamps and streets were named after him. The Israeli army initially apologised for the killing, but then backtracked after conducting a controversial investigation in which it cleared itself and blamed Palestinian gunfire for the deaths.
Despite claims by some pro-Israel groups that the child is still alive and the incident was staged by the Palestinians, Dura’s death remains an abiding symbol in the Arab world and beyond. Guardian