Israel's Attempt To Blame Victim Fails

January 07, 2011 1:39 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

The death of a 36-year-old woman, Jawahar Abu Rahmah, at a protest against the route of Israel's "separation wall" in the West Bank village of Bil'in last Friday, is deeply troubling on many counts.

Abu Rahmah died at the hands of the IDF simply because she was standing in the general vicinity of the protesters when the soldiers started shooting off tear gas.

Almost as bad, the Israeli authorities intentionally set out to lie about the circumstances of Abu Rahmah's death. The IDF both lied to journalists and then actually enlisted a group of bloggers to spread the story that she died of natural causes (asthma or cancer), and that her supposed killing by soldiers firing tear gas was some kind of Palestinian stunt.

Frankly, I find this story sickening. As critical as I am of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians, I still believe in Israel itself. And it is painful to see that the Netanyahu  government will do anything, say anything, lie about anything —  not in the legitimate effort to defend the country itself but to perpetuate the deadly occupation and please the settlers.

Of course, that approach has worked repeatedly in the past, but usually when there were no "credible" (by Israeli standards) eyewitnesses and no video.

But this time the authorities were caught red-handed, and their whole effort to absolve themselves and blame the dead woman exploded in their faces.

The actual events that took place at Bil'in were documented in the media almost as soon as they occurred.

As Haaretz reported hours after the killing, "A Palestinian woman died yesterday after inhaling tear gas at a demonstration Friday in Bil'in." It described the demonstration, which was attended by a thousand people, as the usual weekly march against the route of the wall, marches often met with tear gas.

But this time was different. An Israeli participant told Haaretz that "soldiers began firing unusually large quantities of tear gas canisters at the crowd when it was still hundreds of meters from the [separation] wall."

It was a terrible story, but not particularly extraordinary. The Israeli army has, in recent years, increased the level of force against Palestinian protesters precisely as the protests are gaining traction with the Israeli and Palestinian publics, and with sympathizers from abroad.

In fact, security personnel at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv have now detained American Jews they believe will participate in the demonstrations, deeming them "leftists" — this in a country built and established by secular socialists.

The only hint that the authorities intended to challenge the eyewitness accounts of Abu Rahmah's death came in an aside in the Haaretz story about an IDF request to the Palestinian Authority for Abu Rahmah's medical records. The story noted anonymous official suggestions that perhaps she "died from asthma-related complications" — complications resulting from the gassing, of course.

I first heard that the Israeli authorities had launched a disinformation campaign about Abu Rahmah's death on Monday, three days after her death (and the worldwide media attention that accompanied it).

A friend called me to say that, at that very moment, IDF officials were conducting a conference call with right-wing bloggers close to the Netanyahu government and AIPAC to give them "hasbara" (talking points) to use to combat the facts about Abu Rahmah's death. We both agreed that given the existence of video and eyewitness testimony depicting the killing, it would be impossible to manufacture any sort of a credible rebuttal.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday, the New York Times reported on the manufactured controversy.

Under the headline, "Israeli Military Officials Challenge Account of Palestinian Woman's Death," reporter Isabel Kershner directly alluded to the attempted whitewash, although she was cautious about choosing sides between the actual version of events and the one made up by the IDF.

This, in itself, was a victory for the authorities and their mouthpieces in Israel and the United States who believe that simply planting doubts by flooding the media with fairy tales will ultimately bury the facts. (See this from Commentary, which is a typical, albeit restrained, version of the disinformation spread by the IDF's blogger brigade.)

Of course, intentional disinformation worked with the Turkish flotilla and even with the 2008-09 Gaza war. In the latter case, the documented fact that the Israelis broke the cease-fire with Hamas in order to initiate a massive war was lost when the Israeli government and AIPAC succeeded in convincing the media and the US government to focus not on who broke a working cease-fire but on Hamas's violent response to Israel's attack.

But times are changing.

Yesterday, New York Times reporter Robert Mackey revisited Kershner's story and exposed the entire Israeli campaign to blame the victim. He quotes a Haaretz investigation that concluded that Abu Rahmah had been killed by the tear gas (and that she was only a bystander, not a protester). And he reported on the blogger conference call and the ridiculous line sold to the AIPAC/neocon crowd (which they disseminated).

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.

Mackey posted a five minute video of the Bil'in demonstration so that viewers could see for themselves that the soldiers fired at close range without provocation.

Plus, he linked to an analysis from Israeli reporter (and IDF veteran), Noam Sheizaf, who explained exactly what happened at Bil'in (he was there) and precisely how the IDF managed its disinformation campaign.

He also quotes Ron Kampeas, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency bureau chief in Washington, who "explained that when he worked for The Associated Press in Israel in the 1990's, Israel's military repeatedly ascribed the deaths of Palestinians who had inhaled tear gas to preexisting health conditions."

The bottom line is that the whitewash failed. Other than in Israel, where the right-wing media is calling the truth about Bil'in "a blood libel" (a weird and anachronistic term which right-wingers mistakenly think has resonance outside of Israel), the truth about the killing of Jawahar Abu Rahmah is now out. She is dead because she was tear-gassed. End of story.

Except it isn't. The killing goes on.

So long as the status quo is maintained there will be more and more innocent victims on both sides. It's not the soldiers who killed Abu Rahmah. It is the occupation — and that means the politicians and their cutouts (in Israel and out) who do everything in their power to sustain it.

The good news is that people — including many Israelis and American Jews — are fighting back in record numbers, without fear and without hesitation. After all, as past activists have taught us, silence really does equal death.