Twilight Zone Lightning Strikes Again

Her brother was killed at a Bil'in protest and now Jawaher Abu Rahmah has died there as well. The IDF said she may have died of cancer, but her family is sure she was killed by tear gas.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Amani Abu Rahmah sat on her dead sister's bed this week. Huddled in a woolen blanket, her head covered in a white scarf, she did not take her gaze off the floor, not even for the village women who came to console her - neighbors, acquaintances, schoolgirls and women representing one of the Palestinian Authority ministries.

Abu Rahmah, 25, has been in a deep depression ever since her brother, Bassem Abu Rahmah, was killed two and a half years ago when an Israel Defense Forces tear-gas canister was fired into his chest during a demonstration against the fence in Bil'in. This week their sister, 35-year-old kindergarten teacher Jawaher Abu Rahmah, died after inhaling tear gas fired by IDF soldiers at yet another weekly demonstration against the fence.

Photos of Jawaher Abu Rahmah, in Bil'in this week. Credit: Miki Kratsman

The IDF initially claimed she was taken to hospital and then sent home, where she died. Then they claimed she was not even at the demonstration.

This week we gathered many testimonies from people in Bil'in confirming that Abu Rahmah was standing and watching the demonstration from the outskirts of her village when she collapsed amid a cloud of gas, was taken to hospital and died there.

Finally, the IDF claimed she died of cancer. Her brothers said that in the two weeks prior to her death, their sister suffered from dizziness, and spots appeared on her hands. She was diagnosed as having an ear infection. There is medical documentation of this. Her brothers rejected all claims that she had any other illnesses.

Jawaher was unmarried, and lived in a modest home in Bil'in with her mother and sister. Of the family's seven sons and daughters, only five are alive. Jawaher was injured on the last day of 2010 and died on the first day of 2011 - making her the first Palestinian fatality of the year.

The day after she died, IDF soldiers killed Mohammed Daraghma, a 21-year-old laborer, who was holding a water bottle that frightened a soldier at the Bekaot roadblock.

The siblings and mother do not cry. Here in their courtyard, in the shade of the mulberry tree, they mourned Bassem, who was killed on April 17, 2008. Memorial posters for him hang outside the house. "Farewell, Bassem, you were a friend to us all," they read. His sister's memorial posters have his image in the background.

We sit with our backs to an unfinished house. It is being built for one of the brothers, financed by Jawaher's salary. For the past 10 years she worked as a caregiver for children in Ramallah; before that she worked with the elderly. Because of the family's poverty she completed only six years of schooling. She sometimes participated in the demonstrations against the fence.

Her mother, Subhiya, was the first villager to be wounded in the demonstrations, about five years ago. An olive grove of about half an acre in size was "stolen" from the family when the separation fence was built. Subhiya says their trees were uprooted and planted in the Jewish settlements strangling Bil'in. The father of the family died of leukemia and diabetes about five years ago, after going blind and becoming unable to work.

One of the brothers, Ashraf, smiling and charming, walks around the courtyard wearing a keffiyeh. He was bound and shot by IDF soldiers in 2008. A video of the incident aired on television; the soldiers are now on trial.

Last Friday Jawaher ate breakfast with her brother Samir. She told him she hoped the new year would be better than the last one, Samir recalled. After the meal she tidied up the house and went to buy beverages for her cousin's wedding, which was to be held next door that evening.

The weekly demonstration against the fence began at noon. This time it was larger than usual, to mark the new year. Local youngsters were down in the valley; Jawaher stood on the hill overlooking them, across from the apartment buildings of Upper Modi'in, the gigantic Jewish settlement erected on their lands as determined by the fence route.

Jawaher stood with her mother Subhiya and a relative, Islam Abu Rahmah, 16, who was there with her grandmother. A strong eastern wind enveloped the women in a cloud of white smoke. The two older women hurried home to take shelter from the gas. The tear-gas canisters landed near the white house in the valley, about 150 meters from where they stood.

Several dozen young people were below in the valley, trying to approach the fence, facing the dozens of soldiers positioned on the other side. Jonathan Pollak, one of the leaders of the protest movement, said that this time the IDF used especially large amounts of gas.

We met Islam where she had been standing with Jawaher on Friday. She said Jawaher had wanted to get even closer to the demonstrators. Islam said she had been afraid, and suggested they go home, but Jawaher said, "We'll stay here. We are not better than Bassem." Suddenly Jawaher said she was not feeling well. Foam started coming out of her mouth, her face was covered in perspiration and her eyes rolled backward until she fell to the ground, Islam recalled. Islam tried to pull Jawaher back away from the gas, as much as possible.

Jawaher asked Islam to call Samir. It was about 1:30 P.M. Alham Abu Rahmah, 19, who saw Jawaher collapse from her balcony, rushed downstairs. Jawaher started to vomit, her face turned red and she grabbed her chest as if choking, Alham recalled. The two girls lifted Jawaher and pulled her into Alham's house, where they laid her on a sofa. They fanned her face with their hands.

Samir, who lives nearby, arrived within minutes. He saw his sister on the sofa; she told him she felt like she was going to die. Samir asked his nephew Ahmad to call an ambulance. There is always one at these weekly demonstration, and it came immediately.

The paramedic hooked up Jawaher to an oxygen tank and took her blood pressure, Samir said. At about 2:30 P.M. they arrived at the hospital in Ramallah. Their mother, Subhiya, was with them in the ambulance. Her daughter's breathing became more labored during the ride. When they arrived at the hospital she vomited again. She was taken to the intensive care unit, where she was hooked up to machines. Before dawn she sank into a coma, her heart stopped beating and she was resuscitated three times.

A field researcher from B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Iyad Hadad, came to the hospital at around 3 P.M. that day and saw Jawaher as she deteriorated. At 9 A.M. the following morning, she died. She was buried that day in the village cemetery, next to her brother Bassem.

The IDF Spokesman informed Haaretz this week that the investigation into her death has not yet been completed. "The initial information raises questions about the reliability of the Palestinian reports ... Among other things, the possibility that Abu Rahmah's death was not related to the demonstration is also being investigated."

Subhiya, twice bereaved, says she will let her children continue to demonstrate. "If the Israelis continue to attack us, we will not be able to remain silent. I want to tell the Israelis: Get off our lands and let us live. My life was already destroyed when Bassem was killed, but I was proud of him. Now I am proud of Jawaher, too."

Donors take initiative

The family of Dalal Rasras, the 3-year-old with brain damage whom I wrote about in Haaretz two weeks ago, has begun to receive donations from Israelis who read about her. The money will enable her to be hospitalized at the Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem. One Israeli, M.D., gave NIS 20,000.

When we met laborer Mohammed Dababsa some months ago, he had been unable to speak for eight months. Dababsa, 21, from Tarqumiya, had been beaten by police after he was caught in Ashkelon, where he works, without a permit to be in Israel. We conducted our interview in writing. After the article was published, reader Pnina Erenthal, a senior speech clinician at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, took it upon herself to help him.

With the help of B'Tselem and Physicians for Human Rights, she brought him to the hospital's speech and hearing clinic for treatment. He was diagnosed as suffering from psychogenic aphonia due to the trauma from the beating. Erenthal says she offered Dababsa psychological support while attempting to relax the muscles of his layrnx. This week, when he returned to the clinic, he could make faint sounds for the first time in eight months.

The first thing Dababsa told Erenthal was what had happened that night in Ashkelon. "We were very excited, both he and I," Erenthal said this week.



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