Until new evidence emerges, it is possible – and important – to summarize what can be reasonably believed about the death of Jawahir Abu Rahmeh at the Bil'in protest last Friday. It is always interesting for partisans (and my sympathies are clear) to attempt to step back and examine critically the evidence. Jawahir Abu Rahmeh's death is a personal and familial tragedy, but the reactions to it speak volumes about where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is heading.
There is no serious ground for disputing that Jawahir Abu Rahmeh was at the demonstration though not as an active participant. There is no serious ground for disputing that she inhaled tear gas and was affected by it. There is no serious ground for disputing that she died after her inhalation of tear gas, and that her death was related to that inhalation. What is clear to some and not clear to others is the nature of that relation. Amos Harel and Avi Issacharof argue in today's Haaretz that because nobody else died from tear gas at the demonstration, the tear gas could not have been a decisive factor in her death. This, of course, is fallacious reasoning. Every year millions of people suffer from the flu but only a tiny fraction of those die. It is rare for people to die from flu, but people do indeed die from flu, and not only those who have other medical conditions. (Coincidentally, Haaretz ran an article today about a 15-year old boy who died from the flu "who was not known to have prior conditions." Nobody questions the cause of his death because it is in nobody's interest to question it.) It is rare for people to die from tear gas inhalation, but people do die from it, and not only those with other medical conditions. As Paul Woodward pointed out yesterday on War in Context
The U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine warns that at a concentration of 2mg per cubic meter, CS gas "is immediately dangerous to life…" The Army advises, in the event of inhalation: "remove the victim to fresh air immediately; perform artificial respiration if breathing has stopped; keep the victim warm and at rest; seek medical attention immediately."
There is also no serious ground now for disputing that Ms. Abu Rahmeh had been suffering from water in her inner ear, dizzy spells, and problems of balance several days before the demonstration, that she had gone to doctors and taken tests, including a CT scan, which did not show anything out of the ordinary. Whether this in any way contributed to her death is not known now, nor will it be known, barring exhuming the body and performing an autopsy (even then?) But nobody in or out of the IDF has given any plausible hypothesis linking these symptoms to her death, even as a contributing factor. Until medical experts do so, why would anybody assume otherwise – unless that person had an agenda.
Haaretz and others (including myself) have misdescribed the competing views on the Abu Rahmeh story has a "conflict of narratives." At the moment, however, it is not clear what the Israeli counter-narrative is, besides "Abu Rahmeh did not die from the inhalation of tear gas." What we have here is one side with an account, and the other side skeptical of the account, without having any serious evidentiary basis for a counter-account. And only one side, the Israeli side, has had to backtrack repeatedly from early questions raised.
Had the IDF acted wisely, it would have announced that it was launching its own investigation and simply conceded that Abu Rahmeh died from the tear gas, expressed regret, and said that it saw no reason to switch to another method of crowd control because this was a rare occurrence. Instead, General Mizrahi tried to poke holes in the Palestinian account, convincing nobody but the hard-core rightwing bloggers and some Jewish supporters of Israel. As many of those holes have been subsequently filled, this heavy-handed tactic has backfired. Now the story is not whether tear gas is an acceptable method of crowd control, but rather whether the IDF is acting credibly (or rationally) in its move to put out fires. The Abu Rahmeh story is much bigger now than it would have been because of the IDF's heavy-handed attempt to turn it into a war of competing narratives.
The other side of the story is the complicity of the Israeli media in all this. With the exception of Haaretz media outlets have swallowed everything that Mizrahi and the conspiracy theorists have put forth. Not their finest hour; one could describe it better as a series of "Srak Srak" moments. (That's a reference to the conspiracy theorists who deny that Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin.)
Unfortunately, this is yet another case of the IDF shooting tear gas at itself.