Death of a journalist, battle for the truth

How did Imad Abu Zahra die? The conflicting accounts offered by Israelis and Palestinians reveal that the propaganda war has become almost as important as the military one.

Published August 2, 2002 7:57PM (EDT)

In his last conscious moments Imad Abu Zahra, a 34-year-old Palestinian freelance journalist, casts a terrified look into the camera lens of a colleague. The camera catches the blood-soaked trouser leg; an Israeli bullet has ripped open the femoral artery in his upper thigh and his life is flowing out of him. In the hospital doctors save him, briefly. They revive him when his heart stops and repair the damage, but around midnight he dies. The doctors suspect a blood clot. The Jenin hospital is not really geared to doing vein transplants.

That much is clear; then the confusion starts. The army version of the shooting, which took place at the beginning of July and which is still officially "under investigation," is that its soldiers were attacked by a mob, some Palestinians shot at them, they returned fire and Imad was hit. It's a pretty standard reply, and such "investigations" usually go nowhere -- although just 10 days earlier the army had apologized for the killing of three people in Jenin, including two children, while the curfew was lifted.

The Palestinians say Imad was shot without provocation, and point at the incident as an example of Israeli attacks on journalists. They also claim that Imad was left to bleed to death, that the soldiers prevented an ambulance from evacuating him. They have elevated Imad to the ranks of the heroes of the intifada.

Jenin, of course, is ground zero of the largest propaganda battle thus far of the second intifada. Israeli foreign relations and anti-terrorism analysts are still trying to figure out what hit them with the massacre that never was during operation Defensive Shield in April. They consider it of crucial importance: Allegations of a massacre not only did Israel tremendous P.R. damage, they increased the pressure on Israel to end the operation -- in their view prematurely.

Although Israel drew heavy negative press during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, as well as during the first intifada in the late 1980s, the Israelis have long outmaneuvered the Palestinians and the wider Arab world in the propaganda war. But during the current intifada, Israel's savvy media manipulation has not translated into decisive victory in the battle of the headlines. One reason for this is that the Palestinians have become noticeably more adept at wooing the media. In addition, Israel's increasing hostility to the press has squandered much of the credit the country had earned for the apparently cooperative attitude it once displayed.

Some of Israel's blunders are self-inflicted, the result of statements that simply strain credulity. A good example of the latter followed the recent bombing by the Israeli air force of Hamas commander Salah Shehada in Gaza. Apart from Shehada and his bodyguard, 14 innocent civilians died, including Shehadah's wife and daughter. Israeli attempts to media-manage the fallout were confused and ineffective. First, spokesmen said a mistake had been made; then they said Shehadah was planning a "mega-attack" and they hadn't had a choice but to take him out. In the end they returned to the assertion that the attack had been a mistake and that an investigation would be launched. But everybody who has seen the site of the attack and who knows what a one-ton bomb dropped from an F-16 can do knows that collateral damage was virtually certain. Prime Minister Sharon and Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer are both former generals, and both gave their approval; they should have known better, if they really didn't know. The international media, made increasingly skeptical by two years of increasing obstruction and obfuscation by the authorities, didn't accept the official explanations. Much of the Israeli media didn't either.

Israeli officials tend to blame their image problems either on their own communications shortcomings or, increasingly, on skewed reporting by the foreign media. "The playing field is not level," said the director of Israel's Government Press Office, Danny Seaman. "We play by democratic rules and have open access and freedom of expression, while the other side does not." He was unapologetic about restrictions, such as closing Palestinian towns to reporters, that the GPO has imposed since the beginning of the intifada.

Among other measures, the GPO no longer provides accreditation to Palestinian journalists working for the foreign media in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Foreign reporters often depend on these journalists, called "fixers," for translation, contacts and sometimes to make sense of events. During the intifada, Imad Abu Zahra mostly worked as a fixer.

"The Palestinian reporters are proud to announce that their brother and colleague Imad Abu Zahra has become a reporter-martyr," declare the posters that have been printed after Imad's death. It's standard practice now to dedicate a poster to any victim of the conflict, even if the person was not involved in the armed struggle. The full-color posters are plastered all over the entrance to his parents' house and around the site where the shooting took place. On it Imad is shown with a beard, which he hadn't worn in years. This is in itself an example of the current myth-making tendency in Palestinian society. A beard connotes religiosity, and at the moment even Hamas-related militancy. I knew Imad. He was certainly a nationalist, but a far cry from a Hamas militant.

The reporter-martyr poster illustrates the almost total mobilization of Palestinian society behind the struggle against Israel, at least in word if not in deed. Journalists, human rights activists, doctors, taxi drivers, butchers -- almost everybody will advance the nationalist narrative at the expense of facts, if it seems appropriate to do so. Palestinians often say that this is inevitable under the circumstances; they cite the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere in the U.S., where the media are also seen as having taken a more patriotic line. Nevertheless, the high degree of awareness of and support for the Palestinian struggle and increasing sophistication about the buttons that push international coverage, combined with the confused recollection that eyewitnesses often have of traumatic and jumbled events, have made it harder and harder to find out what actually happened.

The brutal battle in the Jenin refugee camp offers the most dramatic example of this. Initially, the Palestinians were successful, owing to a confluence of panic, rumors and ill-advised media tactics by the army, in creating the impression that a massacre had taken place. Many of the people who had fled the camp during the Israeli assault told similar stories. One of them was the burial of a large number of corpses by Israeli bulldozers at several spots in or around the camp. Initially many insisted they had seen this themselves; only after prolonged questioning did most confirm it was hearsay (though some kept insisting they saw it happen with their own eyes). There were also many tales of whole families, numbering up to dozens of people, who were buried when Israeli bulldozers demolished their houses.

A U.N. report released Thursday found no evidence of a massacre -- a conclusion reached earlier by Human Rights Watch, which investigated the events after the Israeli withdrawal. The U.N. report said that 52 Palestinian deaths could be confirmed -- the same number given by UNRWA, the U.N. agency that looks after Palestinian refugees. B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, says the number may be slightly higher because some names still have to be checked, but no research into the fighting in the camp has turned up more than some 60 to 70 possible victims, many of whom were almost certainly combatants. (The U.N. report said as many as half of the dead may have been civilians, but that it was impossible to be precise. Twenty-three Israeli troops also died in fierce fighting in Jenin.)

The U.N. report, which was requested by the General Assembly after Israel killed an initial fact-finding mission by imposing conditions on it that the U.N. deemed unacceptable, accused both sides of serious human rights violations. It said that Palestinian militants had amassed weapons and had placed combatants among civilians in the camp, a violation of international law. But it also accused Israel of holding up medical and other aid into the camp, and raised questions about the massive firepower Israel rained upon densely populated civilian areas, leaving 17,000 people homeless.

Although there was no massacre, the U.N. report and reports by human rights groups suggest that Israel may have committed human right abuses during the assault. There are persistent reports of inhabitants being used as human shields by the soldiers, for example. Ambulances may have been prevented, without just cause, from reaching the wounded; aid organizations have said they were not allowed into the camp to provide food, water and medicine.

These infractions, if they occurred, are extremely serious, but they would never have led to the international outcry that followed the reports of a massacre. But if some Israelis feel hard done by, the fact remains that what actually happened was horrific. The destruction in the center of the camp was so vast that many international observers clearly regarded the question of whether there had been an intentional massacre or not as irrelevant.

The case of Imad Abu Zahra shows that many Palestinians are now acutely aware of what will make a story stand out in the international media and that they consciously or inadvertently play up these issues. The clearest discrepancy in the story about Imad, even as told by eyewitnesses, concerns the time that elapsed between when he was hit and when he reached the hospital. Said Dahlah, a photographer who works for the Palestinian news agency Wafa and who is a friend of Imad's, says that the shooting went on for "a long time." According to Dahlah, who was also wounded, nobody could reach Imad and it took him 20 minutes to crawl out of the street where he was shot, around the corner and into a doorway, where he took shelter for another 10 minutes before he was helped into a taxi that took him to the hospital. Said and his father Shawki, who watched the incident form his tax office across the road, said that an ambulance tried to reach Imad but the shooting held it up. Later Shawki changed his story to say that he tried to phone an ambulance but couldn't get through.

A driver at the ambulance service in Jenin says there were no ambulances available when the call came in that Imad was wounded. Anyway, he says, five to 10 minutes after the call came in, he saw Imad at the municipal hospital in Jenin. A doctor at the hospital confirms that Imad could never have bled for 30 minutes, because he would not have made it to the hospital alive. He estimates that the wound was sustained 10-20 minutes at most before his arrival in the hospital. Foreign observers who are on a solidarity mission with the Palestinians in Jenin arrived on the spot of the incident just before Imad was helped into the taxi. They heard no firing when they approached the area and had the impression he was hit just before they arrived.

In sum, the ambulance story and even the allegation of shooting to keep people away from Imad looks like an attempt to link his story to others where people were supposedly left to bleed to death and where ambulances were said to have been blocked.

Other aspects of the story may also be problematic but are much harder to confirm one way or the other. One eyewitness, again Said Dahlah, says that Imad wore markings that identified him as a journalist. Shawki Dahlah, who saw it all happen from across the street, could not confirm that. None of the pictures taken shortly after the shooting show Imad with a jacket of any kind, only a yellow T-shirt. Said can be seen still wearing his jacket, Imad's wound was in his leg, yet he is supposed to have taken off a shirt identifying him as a journalist. No jacket or shirt that he was supposedly wearing has been produced, even though the family has kept his other blood-soaked garments.

The problem centers on whether Imad was really working as a journalist that day. There is no evidence that Imad consistently worked as a photojournalist, despite assertions by his family that he now and then sold pictures to local publications. According to Said Dahlah, Imad took pictures of Israeli tanks in the middle of the main road in the center of town. But neither Imad's camera nor the roll of film he was supposedly shooting has turned up. Shawki Dahlah eventually said that he was not sure that Imad had a camera, and if he did it was only a small, "not very professional" one.

The day of the shooting, the Israeli curfew of Jenin had been lifted. Imad's mother says that he left to do some shopping in the market -- according to her, with his camera bag. Later, just before he was shot, he phoned to tell her he was coming home. Other photographers and cameramen, including Dahlah, had gone out to cover new Israeli roadblocks on the edge of town. Imad hadn't, which suggests he was not working that day. Eyewitness reports also offer conflicting reports on how close he was to Said Dahlah when he was shot. Dahlah was caught by a ricochet in the lower leg. He said it happened at virtually the same time Imad got wounded, from the same burst of gunfire and that they were standing right next to each other, which does not really tally. There are also conflicting reports on whether there were no incidents before the shooting started; it is even unclear if Palestinian gunmen were already in the area at that time. They certainly were later on during the confrontation, according to the foreign observers, when a riot had started and shots were exchanged.

All this does not change the fact that Israeli soldiers shot an unarmed man who did not pose a threat and that he died as a result of his injury. But the other elements -- that a working and identifiable journalist was shot and left to bleed to death as gunfire prevented rescuers from saving him -- are at least partly embellished, in an either conscious or unwitting attempt to make the incident more explosive and to link it to past alleged Israeli misconduct.

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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