Slingshot found on Palestinian protester Mustafa Tamimi (photo: IDF Spokesperson)
Following the killing of Mustafa Tamimi in his village Nabi Saleh, Spokesperson for the IDF presented pictures of a slingshot Tamimi had on him when he was brought to the hospital. This was to be the indicting evidence that the protester was taking part in hostile action against the army – i.e. throwing stones – and therefore responsible for his own death.
Only in the context of the occupation can throwing stones at a bullet-proof army jeep be seen as an offense deserving the death penalty, carried out on the spot (clearly, the soldiers weren’t acting in self-defense). Furthermore, as recent attacks by settlers on soldiers – including a brick thrown from close range on the IDF regional commander – demonstrated, the army’s treatment of Jews is very different (to be clear, I don’t call for shooting Jewish stone-throwers either). But there is a larger issue here, concerning the whole notion of “legitimate” resistance to the occupation.
Facts and context are important: Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza more than 44 years ago. Since then, the Palestinians have been under military occupation, which denies their basic human and civil rights. The Palestinians can’t vote. They are tried in military court, where the conviction rate is astonishing. They don’t enjoy due process. Their property rights are limited, and their lands – including private lands – are regularly seized by Israel. All this is well-known and well-documented.
As far as Israel is concerned, this situation can go on forever. Israel is not attempting to leave the West Bank – it actually strengthens its hold on the territory – and it doesn’t plan to give the Palestinians equal rights within the state of Israel.
The Palestinians therefore have a moral right to resist the occupation. It’s as simple as that.
Asked how what form of protest against the occupation Israel can allow, Peter Lerner of the IDF spokesperson unit wrote this tweet:
To start, this is simply a lie. Israel doesn’t allow any form of protest in the West Bank (well, except for settler protest). Military law demands IDF permission for any demonstration of more than 10 people. The IDF regularly declares the villages of Nabi Saleh, Bil’in and Ni’lin, where protests take place, as Closed Military Zones, and it charges Israelis who attempt to join those demonstrations with violating of this order. Palestinian protest organizers are tried for long prison terms in military courts.
But more important, the kinds of protest Major Lerner is suggesting are effective under civilian authority, not under military control. Major Lerner is part of Israel’s media war for the hearts and minds of Westerners, and the answer he gives is something that people in democracies can identify with. But this is not the situation in the occupied territories: For all Israel cares the Palestinians can have sit-ins and rallies until second coming; it wouldn’t affect Israeli policy one bit. It is worth remembering that in the two decades following 1967, strikes, rallies and general assemblies were the main protest methods in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel used these years of relative calm to introduce its massive settlement project. The only thing that made Israelis notice the Palestinians and start seriously discussing their rights is the the first Intifada.
In recent years, it seems that the West’s favorite sport is to tell the Palestinians what constitutes a “legitimate” way to fight for their rights, and what doesn’t – as if the Palestinians were full members of society and not subject to a form of control that Amira Hass rightly calls “Israeli dictatorship.” Nobody would denounce Egyptian or Tibetan protesters for such acts, but reports of unarmed Palestinian resistance are usually met with Israel claiming evidence of Palestinian “violence” – mostly stones thrown at soldiers, with the occasional Molotov cocktail. As if those could justify the occupation, while in reality they are the reaction to it.
The same goes for those organizations and Israeli propaganda units specializing in the hunt for “Palestinian incitement.” Any suggestions of the Palestinians not viewing IDF soldiers in a positive light is presented as proof of the fact that “they are not ready” to enjoy their rights to justice, freedom and dignity – as if those are someone’s to give. What is the meaning of the word “rights,” if they can be denied collectively for half a century? Is freedom a trophy you need to win from your oppressor? What do people expect of a prisoner to think of his or her guards? Good relations and understanding can be built after the resolution of the occupation – not in the midst of it. Yet Palestinians are expected by the world not only to live under Israeli military control, but also to like Israelis.
Strange as it may seem, even critics of Israel repeat such demands, or ask, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?,” as though a failure to present one means that Palestinian demands are not to be taken seriously.
I oppose violence, in whatever form. More than anything, I oppose violence against civilians. I think that the Palestinian choice of unarmed resistance and of civil society campaigns against the occupation is both wise and heroic. But the real violence is the occupation, and all its victims are civilians.
It is not for Israel to tell Palestinians how to resist our occupation.
Here is the video again. After the army cars stop, you can hear the weapons being loaded. Then there are the blasts, and the silhouettes of the soldiers throwing more and more grenades at the local houses. The occasional shots you see are the gas launchers, fired in several directions. Around one minute into the clip, you can hear the tear gas spreading near the Palestinian photographer (and later again around 1:20). Note that there is nothing else happening in the street, and there is no Palestinian in site. The soldiers aren’t under any kind of threat.
On Sunday morning, I contacted IDF Spokesperson for a comment on the video. It took them the entire week, but I finally got a reply:
“At the time of the described event, tires were set on fire near Nabi Saleh, and a roadblock made of stones was set on a nearby road, which interfered with routine security activities. It should be noted that disturbance of public order takes place in Nabi Saleh every week, as well as popular H.S.A (Hostile Sabotage Activity – an army codename to terrorism).
Regarding the burning tires and the roadblock, the army is basically confirming that the action which was caught on tape was a form punishment against the village’s people. After all, even if you accept the army’s version, nothing in the video indicates an attempt to deal with the security issue itself – i.e. the tires and those who put them there – the soldiers are simply shooting in all directions. This is the heart of the matter: even the army doesn’t try to portray the event shown in the clip as direct action against a security threat, but instead uses things that [may have] happened outside the village, on a nearby road, to justify the soldiers’ behavior.
The last part of the comment is inaccurate, to say the least: No terrorist activity has taken place in Nabi Saleh in recent years. Stones are hurled during demonstrations, and I heard reports of Molotov cocktails, though those were very rare. The protests taking place in the village are strictly unarmed – even the army doesn’t dispute that.
The fact that IDF spokesperson felt a need to add a comment about the weekly protest in Nabi Saleh only goes to show that as I suggested, this was an attempt to terrorize defenseless people, so that they would stop protesting.
From my own personal experience as a soldier and an officer in the West Bank, I can testify that these forms of collective punishment against Palestinian civilians who happen to live where protest is taking place is very common. The only unique thing about this incident is that it was caught on tape.
According to government sources, the army doesn’t have any evidence that the flotilla activists are planning violent resistance, yet it publicly accuses them of conspiring to murder soldiers
Flotilla activists preparing weapons for their encounter with IDF soldiers (photo: Mya Guarnieri)
The top story in two of Israel’s leading daily papers yesterday was a bombshell: The IDF unveiled plans by flotilla passengers to kill soldiers trying to stop the ships from getting to Gaza.
Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most widely read paper, ran a headline declaring “Flotilla activists set to kill,” which was attributed to military sources (but only in the fine print). The story declared, “Intelligence information revealed violent plans.” In the inside pages, the headline declared that this flotilla is considered to be “more violent than the previous one.”
Maariv’s top story covered the same topic: “IDF intelligence reveals: Lethal acid on flotilla boats.” The free paper Israel Hayom had a smaller headline in the front page. “Fear: Flotilla activists will try to kill soldiers.” Haaretz is the only paper that didn’t give the story such prominence in its print edition, but it was the top headline on the paper’s website throughout the previous evening. The Jerusalem Post’s headline read “IDF: Some flotilla activists planning to kill soldiers.”
You can view all front pages of the Hebrew papers in this pic, taken from the media blog Velvet Underground. Yedioth and Maariv are the bottom two.
Front Pages of Israeli papares, June 28 2011 (photo: velvet underground blog)
Chemical Weapons? Against the Israel Navy Seals, Air Force and war ships? Even as a suicide mission, it sounded too fantastic. And how could this flotilla be “more violent,” when the notorious IHH, whose members were on the Mavi Marmara last year, cancelled its participation? Who exactly is going to execute the soldiers with the lethal acid, 64- year-old Alice Walker? It was the kind of propaganda no thinking person could believe, yet the entire Hebrew media – even Haaretz! – went for it.
Luckily, it didn’t take Max Blumenthal to debunk this one. The media’s tone today was entirely different. Government sources have told Maariv that the so-called “intelligence information” was a spin by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, reflecting “a Hasbara [propaganda] hysteria.”
“It’s unthinkable that in cabinet meetings we receive information according to which there are no threats of violent actions from the flotilla activists or [indication of] the presence of terror elements on the ships, and that at the same time, senior political sources, including the army, feed the media with information that is the exact opposite of what we were given.”
Information that the media was only to eager to swallow, one should add.
A day too late, Yedioth Ahronoth’s military correspondent was the voice of reason in his paper:
“There isn’t a shred of evidence that extreme elements will initiate resistance against IDF soldiers. There is no knowledge of the existence of firearms on the ships.”
The damage, however, was done. The reports of the murderous intentions of the flotilla activists traveled around the country and across the world. Not for the first time, a group of unarmed European and American activists traveling on old yachts was presented as a threat to the security of the region’s superpower. The only question is: for how long will the world continue to buy these kind of stories?
Maariv’s story today offers a comment from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, claiming the information that was passed to the media came from IDF spokesperson unit. In response to my question today, the IDF spokesperson’s office made it clear they stand behind the information that was released yesterday.
Jawahar Abu-Rahmah of Bil’in was rushed to Ramallah hospital last Friday during an unarmed protest against the fence in her village. She passed away Saturday morning. Her death gained relatively wide publicity, and the IDF scramble to pushing its own version of the story, first claiming that Abu-Rahamh took part in a violent riot, and later saying she wasn’t even there, and the whole thing was a Palestinian hoax.
As it happens, I was in Bil’in on Friday, so I got the opportunity to compare the IDF’s version with what I saw with my own eyes, and with what I know. The IDF spokesperson, and even anonymous IDF sources, are seen by Israeli and international journalists as a credible source of information. This story, I believe, shows why Israeli and Foreign journalists should be more careful before repeating the army’s version of events. They should certainly make an effort to bring other sides of the story, and to put things in a wider context.
Here is my take on the version the IDF has been pushing regarding the death of Bil’in’s Jawaher Abu-Rahmah.
1. The event: “a violent riot”
On Friday, the army treated the protest in Bil’in as a usual one. An army spokesperson’s tweet didn’t mention a higher level of violence than in previous weeks, or in other villages:
~250 rioters in Bil’in now hurling rocks @ IDF forces-area declared closed military zone to prevent escalation but open to village residents
Only after the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah was reported, the need to justify the killing came (check out this tweet by Peter Lerner, Spokesman of the Central Command). The IDF Spokesperson released photos of a few kids throwing stones and one unidentified glowing object, later described by the army as a fire bomb. The pictures were clearly taken from a great distance, but that was all the army had for its attempt to create the impression that the soldiers were defending their lives against a violent mob.
The truth couldn’t have been further – as those who have actually been to the Bil’in know. The protest in Bil’in takes place on a road leading to the fence. Usually, most protesters simply try to march towards the fence, until the army decides to disperse them with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. When stone-throwing does occur, it usually begins after the army disperses the march. Very few people throw stones – and it’s usually some Palestinian kids, the “Shabab”. As for the soldiers, they are standing on the hill, heavily protected, and the stones normally pose no real danger for them.
Last Friday, the march was larger then usual. Even PM Salam Fayyad was there, though he didn’t venture outside the village. The march was completely peaceful – there was even a brass band present. From what I could see, the tear gas was fired by the IDF 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. Not only that the death of Bassam and Jawahar Abu-Rahmah is not surprising, I actually think we are lucky more people weren’t injured or killed in those unarmed protests.
2. The context: “The fence will be removed anyway”
Facing a PR meltdown, the army held a “special briefing” on Monday for bloggers (all of them from the rightwing, pro-IDF side), in which it put forward its own narrative. This sort of unofficial briefing took place with military reporters in all of Israel’s major news organizations. One of the interesting points in the briefing referred to the context of the demonstration. This is from a report by one those bloggers:
Israel’s High Court ruled that the IDF must change the path of the security fence to go outside of Bil’in, thereby agreeing to the Palestinian claims. The new fence is under construction and should be completed within a few months. The IDF will remove the older fence once the new one is complete — therefore the current riots are completely propaganda.
But here are the facts: The huge Israeli settlement Matityahu-East was built on private Palestinian land, taken from farmers in five villages, including Bil’in (this is not surprising: every story in the West Bank ends up being about a settlement). According to a Supreme Court ruling from 2007, the route of the “Security Barrier” was planned with the intention of annexing even more land to that settlement. The Court ordered the fence to be re-built on a different route – one that returns some of the land to the village.
More than three years after the verdict, the army still hasn’t moved the fence. Only recently, when it was about to be charged with contempt of court, did the work on the new route begin. And again – even with the fence moved, much of the village’s land won’t be returned, so Bil’in’s farmers have every right to continue their protest, both morally and according to international law.
3. The Death: Maybe it was a Palestinian who killed her
The unofficial briefings were part of the army’s counter-attack, initiated in Central Command [UPDATE: Yossi Gurvitz reveals that it was Central Command CO himself, Gen Avi Mizrachi, who led the briefing], which is in charge of Bil’in and its surrounding areas (and not in the IDF spokesperson unit). It was meant to discredit the Palestinian version, cast doubt, and more than anything else, move the burden of proof to the other side. This last fact is important: While the Palestinians presented a medical report on the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah as well as a few testimonies, the army never investigated the event. The IDF spokesperson didn’t release an official statement, and all the army’s comments were released through anonymous sources and in informal briefings.
Among other things, the army claimed (through proxies) that Jawahar Abu-Rahmah died of cancer, that she wasn’t present at the demo, and that only after her death (from natural causes), the Palestinians decided to claim she died of tear-gas poisoning.
IDF has heard about the honor killing theory, that Abu Rahma was stabbed to death for being pregnant as a family “honor killing”, however they cannot confirm this and the direction they currently are investigating is death from a chronic illness.
As I said, I was present at the demo and I saw an ambulance leave the site twice. I don’t know who was in the ambulance, but this tweet by Jewish Voice for Peace director (who was present in Bil’in) mentions Jawahar by her name:
One eye injury and Jawahar – sister of bassem who was killed last year at a demo -was taken to the hospital for gas inhalation.
The tweet was posted on 2:36PM, while the protest was still ongoing (I left Bil’in shortly before 4 pm) and long before anyone knew of the deterioration in Jawahar’s condition.
Those witnesses also describe, in detail, Jawahar’s evacuation to the hospital.
Islam Abu Rahmah: “I was standing with Jawahar, 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 (Jawahar) began to cough and foam at the mouth. Soon after that she became weak and lay down on the ground. I managed to carry 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 difficult 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 who evacuated Jawahar: “We received Jawahar near the entrance that is parallel to the fence, which is where the demonstration was taking place. She was still partially 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).
During the infamous bloggers’ briefing, the IDF rejected claims that the tear gas it uses can be lethal:
We have never heard of anyone dying from inhaling tear gas (5 years of experience with this particular tear gas). There were hundreds of other rioters in the same open air location, in broad daylight and yet she was the only one “allegedly” affected by the gas.
This is a lie. There have been numerous reports on people hurt by inhaling IDF tear gas, including a number of fatalities. +972 Magazine reported on the death of a Jerusalem toddler from tear gas in Silwan just a few months ago. But when you only call your supporters to the special briefing, such details are not likely to be mentioned.
One last point on that: Israel has released – through anonymous sources, of course – personal medical details from the file of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah (no privacy for Palestinians). An Israeli journalist told me yesterday that it was the Shabak (Israel’s internal security service) that was sent to Ramallah to obtain the dead woman’s file from the local hospital. Today’s Haaretz article confirmed this: It states [Hebrew] that there was an “intelligence effort” to obtain details on the case. I, for once, find it incredible that this is what our secret service does: help the PR effort and the cover up of what seems like an unlawful killing. But maybe I’m too naive.
4. Controlling the media
One of the key elements for Israel’s partial success in spinning the flotilla incident last May in its favor was its ability to control the information. Some 60 journalists on board the Mavi Marmara were detained by Israel, and all their media and equipment was confiscated. Later, IDF spokesperson released only the footage that served its narrative. That’s how we got to see several soldiers attacked – but we never saw how nine passengers died, and dozens more were wounded.
On Friday, the army blocked the main entrance to Bil’in. While it didn’t stop Israeli and international protesters from joining the demonstrations (they marched through the hills to the village), I know of at least one international press crew that was turned away.
Without coverage from western media organizations, whatever happens during a protest becomes a matter of different versions – the army’s vs. the Palestinians’. In such events, the local press, and some of the international reporters as well, tend to prefer the IDF’s story.
Today, the IDF’s version on the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah is a front page story on the daily tabloid Maariv (the headline: “Bil’in conspiracy?”). Yedioth gives the army’s claims a full two-page spread, with an op-ed stating that this is another A-Durah-style fabrication. Haaretz and Yisrael Hayom also mention the IDF claims on their headlines, and one should separately note the clear words of Haaretz’s editorial on the affair today.
The bottom line is that the army didn’t present one piece of evidence in its effort to avoid responsibility for the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah and to discredit the unarmed protest, the people of Bil’in and their supporters in Israel. To this moment, the army didn’t even release an official statement, but instead spread doubts, rumors and lies. Unfortunately, for much of the Israeli public, this seems to have been enough.
Other flotilla related news from Israel: army declares all recordable media was confiscated from journalists on ships “for security reasons”; Defense Minister Barak losing key supporter in his party
On the hours following the Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, there were rumors of an Israeli “hit list” that has fallen from the pocket of one of the soldiers.
The Turkish TV even had some pictures of the list:
Later on, we learned that the passengers who attacked the ship were able to take three IDF soldiers (apparently an officer and two commandos) as prisoners and held them for 15 to 30 minutes. It seemed that the list was taken from these soldiers.
On the Iara Lee footage you can see one of the passengers showing the list to the camera (44:18 min), saying that:
“We got pictures of challenger 2 [apparently a code for ship name]… it came from the Israelis. Different ships and who’s on them, who to concentrate on… they have pictures of who they wanted.”
The last page shown on this film (45:22 min) – actually it’s the first page in Hebrew, which is read from right to left – reads “List of Passengers and Ships.”
The head of the Turkish organization IHH, Bulent Yildirim, whose name was on the list, referred to it as a “hit list”, claiming the IDF’s intention was to kill the 16 people listed on it. Another one of the names is that of Palestinian-Israeli leader Sheikh Raad Saleh, who was rumored to have been killed on the hours following the attack. As it turned out, one of the casualties looked very much like Saleh, and that, together with his name on the IDF list, caused the confusion.
I don’t think this was a hit list. Killing the passengers on the ships, with so many witnesses around, seems like an absurd idea – and the way things unfolded shows it very well. It would have been much easier to get to these people anywhere else in the world.
To me the list looks more like a standard intelligence document with name of suspects needed for arrest/questioning. The IDF calls them Bingo Lists. I think the army wanted to put its hands on these people, or even just inform the soldiers who they are, so that they take some care when dealing with them. In the days following the deportation of the passengers, there were reports in the Israeli press from unnamed army sources, who ere extremely upset that some of the people on the Mavi Marmara were released. We can assume that they meant the people on the Bingo List.
Still, the list tells us something very important: that the IDF knew who was on the ships – and that it even considered some of the passengers as hostile, possibly even terrorists. So how can we explain the IDF’s claim that the soldiers were surprised by the attack on the first soldiers that landed on the upper deck?
One rumor I heard is that the army simply blew it. They came to arrest people, but the whole operation was poorly planned and executed. According to this theory – and it’s no more than a theory – the whole “surprise” narrative was born to cover for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and especially navy commander Eliezer Marom, who personally supervised the operation from one of the Israeli ships. If the Israeli public knew the whole story, the theory goes, it would have been their neck on the line.
Some 60 journalists were arrested by Israel following the raid on the ships, and all their recordable media confiscated by the army. I contacted IDF spokesperson asking for official comment on these matters for an article I published in Ha-Ir magazine this weekend (Hebrew scan here). The response I got was that the confiscation was done “for security reasons”.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be going to Washington next week. Barak is the administration’s favorite guy in the government, and the White House is counting on him to force Netanyahu into concessions. This strategy has failed so far, and even Barak’s few remaining allies in his party are giving up hope on him.
Labor party strongman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was quoted today saying that if the government doesn’t come up with its own peace initiative “in the next few weeks”, he would join the fraction calling for the party to leave the government. Ben-Eliezer was Barak’s most important supporter in his party, but relations between the two cooled after Ben-Eliezer supported an international probe into the raid on the flotilla.
It seems that Netanyahu’s government is beginning to feel some real pressure, and currently Barak is its weakest link.
How cruel is the Israeli siege on Gaza? the IDF spokesperson’s tweets can give an idea.
I follow the IDF spokesperson on twitter (tweets are in English, btw). Every few days, there is an update there on the humanitarian aid and fuel trucks intended to pass through the Erez crossing point into Gaza.
Here are some examples:
Jan 14: #IDF: 108 aid trucks and supply of fuel and natural gas scheduled to cross into #Gaza today. Erez Xing open.
Jan 13: 171 aid trucks and a supply of fuel scheduled to cross into #Gaza today. Erez Xing open.
Jan 11: 74 aid trucks and supply of fuel and natural gas scheduled to cross into #Gaza today through Erez Xing
There are some Israelis who Re-tweet these messages to their followers. Some Israeli embassies do that too. I guess they see it as further evidence to Israel’s claim that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza because of the siege. But the truth is that these numbers tell a totally different story.
There are no natural resources in the strip and hardly any food is grown there, so all the population is dependent on supply of food, fuel and gas from the outside. The economy is on hold since the war, and 80 percent of the people live on humanitarian aid.
According to the CIA factbook, there are 1,551,859 people living in Gaza.
Let’s take the best day of the month, according to the IDF. That was Jan 13, in which 171 trucks crossed the border into Gaza. That’s 171 trucks for 1.5 million people, or one truck for 9,075 people (1,551,859 divided by 171). Now imagine having to feed, give clothing and supply heating and power to 9,075 people – like the population of a not so small US town – with a single truck. Read the rest of this entry »