Anonymous Soldiers as Medical Experts? Only when the NYT covers Israel killing a Palestinian

This article was originally published in the April 2011 issue of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s Extra! magazine.  It was only recently put online. 

U.S. media coverage of the death of Jawaher Abu Rahmah reflected how the corporate press routinely covers high-profile civilian deaths caused by Israel. The Israeli government, it seems, can count on U.S. media to print its anonymous claims—no matter how baseless.

Two days after Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian woman from the West Bank village of Bil’in, died from tear-gas inhalation during a December 31 demonstration against the separation wall, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) went into spin mode. Anonymous “senior officers” in the Israeli army pushed a number of theories about her death—Abu Rahmah wasn’t at the demonstration, she had cancer, it may have been an “honor killing” and more—that the Israeli press dutifully reported. Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf (+972 Magazine, 1/4/11), who was actually present at the Bil’in demonstration, described these claims as “half-truths and lies.”

U.S. corporate media also used anonymous Israeli military sources to cast doubt on the 36-year-old Abu Rahmah’s killing. In the New York Times (1/5/11), reporter Isabel Kershner characterized the story as a “debate” with “clashing narratives.” Though she noted that the IDF claims were all anonymous while the Palestinian claims were “backed by medical documents,” Kershner went on to give roughly equal time to both arguments.

Among the IDF’s anonymous claims were that they “had never heard of tear gas killing anyone in the open” and that Abu Rahmah may have had “some pre-existing ailment that, alone or compounded by the tear gas, caused her death.” Why anonymous military officials should be treated as experts on medical questions was never explained.

The Washington Post (1/6/11) similarly stated that anonymous military officials “suggested that an existing medical condition might have contributed to 36-year-old Jawaher Abu Rahmah’s death.” The Los Angeles Times’ only brief mention of the case (1/3/11) explained, “Since tear gas is typically nonlethal, it remained unclear whether soldiers used excessive amounts or whether the woman had health problems that contributed to her reaction.”

But the IDF claims were contradicted by extensive eyewitness reports from other protesters, Israeli journalists from +972 Magazine and the family of Abu Rahmah. In a January 4 statement put together by the Popular Struggle Coordina-tion Committee, Abu Rahmah’s mother said her daughter “was not sick with cancer, nor did she have any other illness, and she was not asthmatic,” while the director of the health center that treated Abu Rahmah stated that she “died from lung failure that was caused by tear gas inhalation, leading to a heart attack.”

Read the whole article here.

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