101: How to make a martyr, from al-Durrah to Abu Rahmah

Mohammed al-Durrah and Jawaher Abu Rahmah were both Palestinians who lost their lives to the conflict. Both deaths – 12-year old al- Durrah in 2000, and Jawaher Abu Rahmah this past Friday (31 December) – came to symbolize the Palestinian struggle against occupation.

And in both cases, those who are desperate to prove Israel’s innocence at all costs feverishly sought to discredit accounts of their deaths.

Mohammed al-Durrah’s death in a gun battle near Netzarim junction at the start of the second Intifada was caught on film and broadcast by a French television station. His death became such a powerful symbol that pro-occupation figures (my new term for those defending Israel’s status quo) could not stand it. The IDF investigated who fired the shots and suggested it was Palestinians. A private French businessman accused French Channel 2 of using footage that the local Palestinian cameraman had faked, or “cooked.” The investigations took on the tone of the Warren Commission. Debates raged for years about whose bullets actually pierced the boy’s chest. Seven years after the event, Ynet reported that  the Israeli Prime Minister’s office released a document officially denying Israel’s responsibility for the death and stating that the footage was staged.

I never got the point. The boy died in the conflict and he was 12; his own father could not save him. Thousands of other Palestinian civilians died too and he symbolized their plight, just as the Dolphinarium bombing came to symbolize the death of innocent Israelis. Was it an Israeli bullet or a Palestinian bullet? Who cares? The boy has become the symbol of the following reality: that Israel should not be occupying and controlling the Palestinians, should not be using overwhelming force in an asymmetrical, militarily unsolvable conflict and nobody should be killing children.

The struggle over al-Durrah’s story became a lawsuit between France 2 television against Philippe Karsteny, the French businessman and media analyst who accused the station of a hoax. The suit, verdicts and appeals dragged on, which in my opinion desecrates the memory of the dead. “Because I refused to be brainwashed,” said Karsteny with great self-righteousness, I was sued for defamation” – as if the death of a child, and the raging Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is all about him.

Ten years later, Bil’in has become the symbol of non-violent, joint Israeli-Palestinian struggle against the occupation and the separation wall that has become its symbol.

The Israeli Army is trying very hard to make the non-violent protest impossible. From the arrests and imprisonment of non-violent activists on both sides to the policy of declaring protest areas “closed military zones,” there seems to be some warped belief that spirit and determination can be squelched by mere army orders, signs, barbed wire, warning shots or tear gas. Jews who faced down the British Empire should know better.

Instead, the bizarre response of the Army to the death of Jawareh Abu Rahmah is like an old Jewish joke, except no one’s laughing. A man confronts his friend who returned a pot the friend had borrowed, broken. The friend replies: “First, it’s just a scratch. Second, it was broken when I got it. Third, I never borrowed your damned pot!”

The Army has churned out excuse after excuse for Abu Rahmah’s death. She had been to the doctor recently (so have I, in fact, and I’m not dead). As Lisa Goldman documents here, claims about Abu Rahmah’s health have become increasingly far-fetched, ranging from cancer/leukemia to ear pressure to the remarkable claim that she was stabbed in a family honor killing and then the ultimate assertion that she wasn’t even at the demonstration. But overwhelming confirmation by eyewitnesses shows that she was there, engulfed by a cloud of tear gas, and carried off on a stretcher into an ambulance – events that were “tweeted” in real time.

Further, the incident focused attention on the fact that the Army has resumed using CS, a deadly strain of gas, that has been banned by the IDF itself , and for good reason, as Noam Sheizaf writes here. Doesn’t the IDF get it – that it no longer matters if she had a cold, because the event has already incriminated the IDF and martyred Abu Rahmah?

The IDF seems blinded by the surreal belief that if it can prove Abu Rahmah died by forces other than its own – this will somehow exonerate Israel and salvage its global reputation after 43 years of indefensible occupation.

No matter how she died, Jawaher Abu Rahmah is now becoming a symbol, just like Mohammed al-Durrah. If he was the symbol of helpless children crushed by the jaws of the conflict, she will symbolize something else: the woman Israel killed and tried to pretend it didn’t, because it doesn’t know any other way to deal with civil resistance – or with the occupation and the conflict itself.

It’s so upsetting to watch Israel learn only one thing from its mistakes: how to repeat them.