U.S. media coverage of the death of Jawaher Abu Rahmah reflected how the corporate press routinely covers high-profile civilian deaths caused by Israel. The Israeli government, it seems, can count on U.S. media to print its anonymous claims—no matter how baseless.
Two days after Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian woman from the West Bank village of Bil’in, died from tear-gas inhalation during a December 31 demonstration against the separation wall, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) went into spin mode. Anonymous “senior officers” in the Israeli army pushed a number of theories about her death—Abu Rahmah wasn’t at the demonstration, she had cancer, it may have been an “honor killing” and more—that the Israeli press dutifully reported. Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf (+972 Magazine, 1/4/11), who was actually present at the Bil’in demonstration, described these claims as “half-truths and lies.”
U.S. corporate media also used anonymous Israeli military sources to cast doubt on the 36-year-old Abu Rahmah’s killing. In the New York Times (1/5/11), reporter Isabel Kershner characterized the story as a “debate” with “clashing narratives.” Though she noted that the IDF claims were all anonymous while the Palestinian claims were “backed by medical documents,” Kershner went on to give roughly equal time to both arguments.
Among the IDF’s anonymous claims were that they “had never heard of tear gas killing anyone in the open” and that Abu Rahmah may have had “some pre-existing ailment that, alone or compounded by the tear gas, caused her death.” Why anonymous military officials should be treated as experts on medical questions was never explained.
The Washington Post (1/6/11) similarly stated that anonymous military officials “suggested that an existing medical condition might have contributed to 36-year-old Jawaher Abu Rahmah’s death.” The Los Angeles Times’ only brief mention of the case (1/3/11) explained, “Since tear gas is typically nonlethal, it remained unclear whether soldiers used excessive amounts or whether the woman had health problems that contributed to her reaction.”
But the IDF claims were contradicted by extensive eyewitness reports from other protesters, Israeli journalists from +972 Magazine and the family of Abu Rahmah. In a January 4 statement put together by the Popular Struggle Coordina-tion Committee, Abu Rahmah’s mother said her daughter “was not sick with cancer, nor did she have any other illness, and she was not asthmatic,” while the director of the health center that treated Abu Rahmah stated that she “died from lung failure that was caused by tear gas inhalation, leading to a heart attack.”
Furthermore, the claim printed in the New York Times that the IDF “had never heard of tear gas killing anyone in the open”—boosted by Kershner’s own claim that the gas “can be lethal in closed environments but is considered nonlethal in the open air”—was belied by a Ha’aretz report (1/7/11) that noted that a 2004 study conducted by the IDF found that “a high concentration of the gas in a given location could cause serious or even lethal harm.” In fact, a toddler living in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan had died from tear gas just a few months prior to Abu Rahmah’s death (Ma’an News Agency, 9/24/10).
Kershner wrote that the IDF “routinely fires CS tear gas against the protesters to keep them away from the barrier and to disperse stone-throwing youths.” She didn’t mention that the wall has been ruled to be illegal under international law, according to an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (7/9/04); as Human Rights Watch has noted (3/5/10), “85 percent of the barrier’s route lies inside the West Bank, separating Palestinian residents from their lands, restricting their movement, and in some places effectively confiscating occupied territory.”
Moreover, Kershner’s wording seemed to imply that the Israeli army was simply responding to stones being hurled. But as Sheizaf’s eyewitness report stated, “the tear gas was fired by the IDF well before the march got even close to the fence.” Sheizaf wrote that at these demonstrations, “when stone-throwing does occur, it usually begins after the army disperses the march.... As for the soldiers, they are standing on the hill, heavily protected, and the stones normally pose no real danger for them.”
The coverage of Abu Rahmah’s death recalls how corporate media treated the killings of nine civilians by Israeli commandos aboard a Gaza-bound aid flotilla. As Peter Hart wrote in Extra! (7/10), “much of the U.S. media coverage has been remarkably unskeptical of Israel’s account of events and their context.” It appears that half a year later, little has changed.
Alex Kane, a former FAIR intern, is a freelance journalist and blogger based in New York City (alexbkane.wordpress.com). He can be followed on Twitter @alexbkane.