Stephen M. Walt

More on the Bilin incident

This is a follow-up to my previous post on the death of Jawahar Abu Rahmah. I’m trying to get ready for a trip to Southeast Asia and hadn’t intended to write about it again, but subsequent events deserve a brief commentary. After the initial press reports cited in my original post, IDF officials mounted a ...

This is a follow-up to my previous post on the death of Jawahar Abu Rahmah. I’m trying to get ready for a trip to Southeast Asia and hadn’t intended to write about it again, but subsequent events deserve a brief commentary.

After the initial press reports cited in my original post, IDF officials mounted a wide-ranging challenge to the story that Ms. Abu Rahmah died as a result of inhaling tear gas. In particular, an IDF spokesman (who apparently met with a select group of sympathetic bloggers and questioned whether Rahmah had been at the rally), noted some alleged inconsistencies in the medical records, and suggested that Rahmah might have been suffering from other illnesses, including cancer. The clear implication was that the IDF’s actions had nothing to do with her death.

This transparent attempt to evade responsibility was immediately countered by Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard, who represents the Abu Rahmah family, by Noam Sheizaf of the website +072mag, and by Jonathan Pollack of the Popular Struggle Coordinating Committee. You can read or listen to their responses here, here and here. By late yesterday, YnetNews had reported that other IDF spokesmen were criticizing the initial attempt to spin the story, saying that army officers "were quick to make assumptions before all facts had been checked."

I have three quick thoughts. First, although the details of this incident have not been fully resolved, there’s little reason to doubt that Ms. Abu Rahmah died at least partly because she inhaled tear gas at the rally.  In this regard, read the insightful commentary by Jerry Haber here and here. Second, we’ve seen this pattern of behavior before, most recently in the Israeli response to the Goldstone Report and its initial reaction to the Mavi Marmara incident. In each case, an embarrassing incident was met with a cloud of disinformation and denials, most of which do not stand up to scrutiny and which were gradually abandoned as more facts come to light.

Third, Israel’s behavior is neither surprising nor unique in this regard; plenty of other states act the same way when they are engaged in an illegitimate enterprise and confronted by embarrassing revelations about it. When the Iran/Contra scandal began to unravel during the Reagan administration, for example, its protagonists didn’t come clean voluntarily. Instead, they kicked up enormous clouds of dust to justify or conceal their actions. When the Bush administration was priming the country for the invasion of Iraq, it ended up telling various lies in order to make the case for war. When France was waging a brutal colonial war in Algeria, it told repeated untruths about it too.  Authoritarian governments like the bad old Soviet Union made "disinformation" a household word, precisely because they knew that the truth would undermine their cause. 

The Israelis have kept the Palestinians under military occupation for nearly 44 years, while steadily seizing more and more land, and using their superior military power to stifle any form of resistance. This policy requires concealing what is really going on, and forces the IDF to work overtime to spin unpleasant realities. The problem is that the more you conceal things, the more corrosive it is to the body politic as a whole, and the more discredited you are when the truth comes to light. As it will.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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