Rattling the Cage: Officers and gentlemen

Bil’in woman's death last weekend remains a puzzling tragedy; by suggesting it’s all made up, IDF is demonstrating contempt for an innocent dead woman.

Demonstrators tear gas Bil'in 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Demonstrators tear gas Bil'in 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The death last weekend of Jawaher Abu Rahmah is a puzzling tragedy. The IDF, however, has turned it into an example of how the occupation brings out this country’s ugly side.
Abu Rahmah died after inhaling tear gas at last Friday’s weekly protest against the security fence in her West Bank village, Bil’in. She was 36. People are not supposed to die from tear gas in the outdoors, and in the rare cases they do, they suffer, as a rule, from some serious preexisting condition, such as respiratory or heart disease, that gets severely aggravated by the tear gas. But the dead woman’s family and employer say she had been basically healthy, and the only preexisting condition her medical records turned up was an inner ear infection.
The Ramallah hospital where she died Saturday listed the cause of death as “lung failure caused by tear gas inhalation, leading to a heart attack.”
If tear gas was all that killed her, it would be extremely unusual. What’s more, about 1,000 people were at the protest, and while many felt the harsh effect of the tear gas, none except for Abu Rahmah was hospitalized for it. (One other demonstrator was hospitalized after being hit in the face by a flying tear gas projectile.)
It may be that Abu Rahmah wasn’t as healthy as her family and employer evidently thought and her medical records showed. We may never know; citing religious reasons, the Muslim family did not allow an autopsy before burial.
In its response, the IDF could have raised reasonable, legitimate doubts about whether tear gas inhalation was solely responsible for her death. It could have acted decently – and you would think that of all times for the IDF to act indecently, this would not be one of them, because prior to Jawaher Abu Rahmah’s death, the last fatal victim at the Bil’in protests was her younger brother, Bassem, killed in 2009 when an IDF tear gas projectile hit him in the chest.
But instead of presenting reasonable doubts, IDF “senior officers” are suggesting that this woman wasn’t even at the demonstration. They’re suggesting she was never taken to the hospital at all, that she might have died at home, and of leukemia. They’re suggesting that a Ramallah hospital and Red Crescent ambulance wrote up a bunch of false documents about her treatment, and that her family, neighbors and others at the protest are just plain lying about seeing her overcome by the tear gas, foaming at the mouth, vomiting, losing consciousness, being taken by ambulance to the hospital and dying.
“[S]enior officers sounded certain of their claim that this was no [lethal] tear gas attack by IDF soldiers – but rather a fabrication and provocation meant to harm Israel,” wrote Yediot Aharonot.
The IDF says there’s no evidence Abu Rahmah was at the protest, noting that these demonstrations are heavily photographed, yet there’s no photo of her.
BUT SEVERAL people at the demonstration say they were standing near her, off to the side of the crowd, away from the action, which would explain why she wasn’t photographed.
“I saw her around the start of the demonstration, and later on I saw her being put in the ambulance,” Jonathan Pollak, the leading Israeli activist in these protests, told me. “I know her family very well; I knew her and I knew what she looked like.”
The IDF says that as of Friday night, the Palestinian Authority was reporting no serious injuries in Bil’in, with two people having been mildly injured, hospitalized and sent home. On Saturday morning, these senior officials say, the story suddenly changed from two people at home with minor injuries to a woman dead in the hospital.
That’s odd – on Friday afternoon, or early evening at the latest, even I knew, just from surfing the Web, that a woman had been critically injured in Bil’in. It was all over the Israeli media that day; I even saw it on at least one American website. The Jerusalem Post website wrote:
“Bil’in: Protester inhales tear gas, left critically injured – A female Palestinian, Jawaher Abu Rahmah, was taken to hospital in Ramallah after inhaling tear gas sprayed toward protesters in Bil’in on Friday. The 36-year-old was in critical condition and did not respond to treatment...”
Yet the IDF didn’t know anything about this until the following day. I don’t know which is worse – if these senior officials are lying, or if they’re telling the truth.
Another “contradiction” cited by the IDF is that one document shows Abu Rahmah only being admitted to the hospital, Palestine Medical Complex, on Friday at 3:20 p.m., while another already shows her being given a blood test at 2:45 p.m.
To this, her brothers told The New York Times that the earlier time was when she took a blood test in the emergency room, while the later time was when she was admitted to the intensive care unit.
But even without such an explanation, to take what seems like a time discrepancy in two hospital documents as evidence that hospital officials manufactured a paper trail for a dead woman they never saw – that’s malicious. Hospital clerks, nurses and doctors fill out lots of forms and are known to make mistakes. I watched a nurse at a major Israeli hospital weigh my newborn son, then write down the wrong weight on his card – but, unlike these IDF senior officials, I’m not a conspiracy freak so I didn’t run to the press.
The bit about leukemia is based on the drugs that her hospital records say she was treated with – the IDF says they’re given for cancer of the blood, or leukemia. But if these senior officials are suggesting that the hospital papers were forged, that she never went to the hospital at all, then I don’t see how they can at the same time use hospital documents as evidence that Abu Rahmah had leukemia.
At any rate, Physicians for Human Rights, which is going over this case very intently, has found no indication she had the disease. “The IDF has not presented any evidence at all that she had cancer, and we haven’t found any, either,” Ran Yaron, director of PHR in the occupied territories, told me.
So enough of this garbage. The IDF is feeding the worst kind of Israeli callousness and smugness – the kind that comes from accepting anything that’s said against any Arab as God’s truth, while dismissing anything that’s said in any Arab’s defense as the Big Lie.
“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 to the hospital, where she remained until her death.”
That’s from her mother, Soubhiya. The IDF is suggesting she made that all up. The IDF is suggesting everybody made it all up, and by doing so is demonstrating contempt for an innocent dead woman, for her family, for the Palestinians as a whole.
“This is an attempt to delegitimize Israel,” the senior officials told Yediot, and I’m sure they were unaware of the irony in their words. Whether or not Jawaher Abu Rahmah suffered from a preexisting condition, the IDF certainly does: blindness and numbness.