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Death and Lies in Palestine

I did not know Mr. Iain Hook, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Palestine Refugees’ (UNRWA) official who was killed on November 22 by Israeli occupation forces in Jenin Refugee Camp. But I do know many people — Palestinians and internationals — who have worked for the agency. They are, to a person, amongst the most dedicated and compassionate professionals I have the privilege to know. Through a sense of humanitarian commitment they have helped Palestinian refugees to meet their basic needs for more than fifty years, often in the most dire and dangerous conditions. The vast majority of UNRWA’s staff are themselves Palestinian refugees, meaning that the agency has not been a source of charity, but of empowerment and work for those who through ethnic cleansing and war lost everything.

Iain Hook was killed in the line of duty, armed not with a gun, but with compassion and courage. Palestinians mourn with Mr. Hook’s family, and share their pain at his tragic death. It should not take a tragedy like this to remind us all to say thank you once in a while to the people at UNRWA for all they do and have done.

When it became undeniable that Mr. Hook was killed by an Israeli occupation soldier, Israel was quick to produce excuses. When one excuse was exposed as a lie, another was substituted. First, Israel claimed that Mr. Hook had been killed in “crossfire” when occupation soldiers were firing back at Palestinian gunmen shooting from the UN compound where Mr. Hook was working. When it became clear that there was no fighting in the area, another version emerged — that the soldier who shot him mistook the cellular telephone Mr. Hook was carrying for a weapon.

The UN has categorically rejected Israel’s versions of events. Paul McCann, the UNRWA spokesman, said that the preliminary inquiry into the killing “does not agree with the statement that firing could have come from the UNRWA compound. In fact, it is quite clear from our inquiry so far that this report of firing coming from the compound is totally incredible.” McCann added, according to Ha’aretz, “the compound is very small and at no stage did we lose control of it. There were no Palestinian militants in the compound.” (26 November 2002)

UNRWA also said that prior to being shot dead with a single bullet to the back at a time when there was no military action in the area of the UNRWA compound, Mr. Hook had been on his cell phone trying to arrange an evacuation from the area.

McCann told the Independent on Sunday, “we requested repeatedly to the Israelis that they cease fire long enough for us to be able to evacuate not only UN staff, but also a disabled woman who was living in the building opposite the one the Israeli operation was centered on,” but the Israelis ignored the pleas. (24 November 2002)

Speaking from her hospital bed in Jenin, where she was being treated for a gunshot from Israeli troops, Irish eyewitness Caoimhe Butterly told Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now that at one point she saw Hook come out of the UN compound with a big blue UN flag, to alert the Israeli soldiers to the UN presence, only to be told over a loudspeaker, “We don’t care if you are the United Nations or who you are. F**k off and go home!” Butterly added:

“There had been resistance early in the morning from a few fighters in the camp. I witnessed personally the very small group — who was fighting — moved to another neighborhood a good two hours before the Israelis opened fire on the compound, before the sniper hit Iain…There had been no gunman inside the compound… There had been resistance going on close to the compound because a lot of Israelis stationed in the camp were down in that area….it wasn’t from within the compound and it was a good two hours before the Israelis opened fire into the compound.”

After Hook was shot, Israel prevented ambulances from reaching him for more than forty five minutes.

Israel’s ever-changing story fits a clear pattern of deliberate deception designed to mislead the international media. This was most clearly on display recently when the Israeli foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed falsely that a November 15 ambush on Israeli occupation forces in Hebron had been an appalling “Sabbath massacre” of defenseless “Jewish worshippers.” When this was exposed as fiction, Netanyahu simply changed his story to the equally untrue claim that the Palestinian fighters who had been lying in wait for the soldiers had been trying to get inside the Israeli colony of Kiryat Arba to attack defenseless civilians.

Israel’s official narrative is that Israeli occupation forces never shoot innocent, unarmed people. All who are killed are by definition “terrorists,” or at least being used by “terrorists” as human shields. In addition to claiming that fire was coming from the UNRWA compound, an Israeli army statement about the killing of Hook contained the usual lurid and infantile claim that “In two cases terrorists opened fired while using civilians as human shields. In one of the cases, a terrorist opened fire while taking cover behind a woman holding an UNRWA flag.” (23 November 2002)

It is no wonder that Israel grabs for the most implausible excuses, given the enormous number of children it kills and injures on a daily basis. On November 19 in Tul Karm, 15-year old Amr Qudsi was shot dead by the occupation forces. Israel said he was throwing bombs. On November 25, 8-year-old Jihad al-Faqih was shot dead in Nablus, when Israeli occupation forces opened fire on schoolchildren breaking the permanent curfew that has been imposed on the city for six months. Witnesses and hospital officials said the boy had been standing in a side alley when he was shot. “The IDF [Israel Defense Forces]”, according to Ha’aretz, “said the boy threw two explosive devices at troops carrying out operations in the Casbah.” (26 November 2002)

On the same day that Hook was killed, 12-year-old Muhammad Bilalweh was also shot dead in Jenin by Israeli occupation forces. Three other children were injured by Israeli bullets and shrapnel, according to the human rights group LAW. The Israeli army statement said absolutely nothing about the children it had killed and injured, and expressed “regret” at the death of Mr. Hook without even bothering to name him. Meanwhile, a clear sense of where the army’s priorities and values lie was demonstrated by its admission that “Three IDF jeeps and the personal gear of an Israeli soldier were damaged.” (23 November 2002)

No matter what the case, whether it is a 53-year-old British UNRWA official, or an 8-year old-boy standing next to his house, the lie is always the same. The victim was a “terrorist” or appeared to be a “terrorist,” who with a cell phone, a rock, his bare hands, or even a Pepsi bottle full of solvent, threatened the lives of heavily armed occupation troops riding around in 65-ton Merkava tanks in the middle of a refugee camp.

Because Mr. Hook is a senior UN official, the Israeli claims were not allowed to pass unchallenged. But in the case of so many hundreds of Palestinians, the Israeli lie passes as “news” if the incident is even reported at all. The child killed at the door of his home was “throwing a molotov cocktail,” the farmer killed while tending his fields was an “armed terrorist attempting to infiltrate an Israeli settlement,” the Bedouin woman and her children blown to bits by flechettes while sleeping in a tent were a “terrorist cell.” And so on.

Butterly, speaking to Democracy Now, observed:

“The types of human rights violations and war crimes that were seen so blatantly in April go on on an every day basis and I think it’s just the fact that internationals were involved — that Palestinian blood has been so cheapened that it doesn’t normally get mentioned — that this is nothing new. Really, the hospital is normally jam-packed full of the casualties of the everyday struggle to survive in Jenin where going to the market, or to the school, or to the mosque, is a potentially suicidal act at this stage.”

Earlier this year, UNRWA was the target of a vicious campaign of incitement by Israel and some of its staunchest allies in the U.S. Congress, who accused the agency of assisting Palestinian “terrorists.” Mr. Hook’s two sons had not yet arrived in Jerusalem to take their father’s body home before Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, was launching new accusations at UNRWA. The Associated Press quoted Avi Beker, Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress declaring that “UNRWA has been transformed into a shield for terrorism.” (26 November 2002)

While Iraq is threatened with invasion if one of its officials so much as forgets to mention something to a UN official, will Israeli troops be allowed to shoot a UN official dead with total impunity? Will the UN give up on its stated aim to investigate Mr. Hook’s killing in Jenin as quickly as it abandoned the UN Security Council-mandated investigation into Israeli war crimes in the same camp earlier this year? And will the media ignore the repeated lesson that when they rely on Israeli government statements to justify and explain the killings of so many unarmed men, women and children in the Occupied Territories, they are habitually misleading their audiences? Let us hope that the answer to all of these questions is “no,” and that Mr. Hook’s sacrifice will not have been in vain.

ALI ABUNIMAH is co-founder of ElectronicIntifada.net.

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