The Israeli military said yesterday it was investigating the death of a Palestinian woman after she inhaled tear gas fired by soldiers during a protest against the military's separation barrier in the West Bank.
The woman, Jawaher Abu Rahma, 36, collapsed vomiting after being caught in a cloud of tear gas – 20 months after one of her brothers, Bassem, was killed by a high-velocity tear gas projectile during a similar weekly protest against the barrier.
A Palestinian man was shot yesterday in an unrelated incident as he approached troops at a military West Bank checkpoint near Nablus while holding a bottle. A military spokesman told Reuters that the man, named as Ahmed Muslamani, 24, did not heed orders to halt, and they opened fire as he came closer. The military spokeswoman said she did not know the contents of the glass bottle, and added: "The soldiers apparently felt threatened."
The long-standing protests at Bil'in are the best known of a series of similar unarmed protests each week against the separation barrier and local settlements in villages in various parts of the West Bank.
Israel started building a 450-mile barrier early in Second Intifada, which started in 2000, saying it was to prevent attacks from the West Bank. But several section of the barrier run deep into the occupied West Bank, cutting Palestinians off from their land.
There were conflicting reports yesterday over whether the dead woman had any medical condition that made her especially susceptible to tear gas. One of her brothers, Samir, yesterday denied suggestions that she had suffered from asthma.
He said she had had trouble with one ear and protest organisers said she had suffered recently from flu or another illness which may have included respiratory problems, but that she had recovered well before Friday's protest.
Michael Sfard, the Israeli lawyer representing the woman's family, said troops used "incredible quantities of gas" at the protest, a weekly event that often degenerates into clashes between stone throwing protesters and soldiers.
Witnesses however said that Ms Abu Rahma was some way from such a confrontation at the time. She died in hospital in Ramallah on Saturday
Ilham Abu Rahma, 19, a cousin and neighbour of the dead woman, said she was on a first floor verandah at her house when she saw Ms Abu Rahma standing on a wall across the street talking to a relative and looking down the hill towards olive trees where soldiers were confronting stone-throwing youths. The protesting youths were between her and the soldiers. She said she was conscious both of tear gas and the foul smelling "skunk" which the military add to the water fired from water cannon during some protests. She went inside her house and shut the windows.
She said Jawaher had started walking up the street away from the protest. "I heard Hilmi (her brother) telling me to come and help Jawaher. She was vomiting yellow stuff and lying on the ground. She waved me away to say she was still being sick. I couldn't carry her." With the help of another cousin, Ilham got her into the house, where she said they waited nearly half an hour for an ambulance. She added: "There was saliva in the corner of her mouth. She was pointing at her chest and saying, 'Am I going to die?'"
Ilham Abu Rahma said she did not know why her cousin, who worked as a local baby-sitter, had been so much more gravely affected by the tear gas than others in the same areas. "Maybe it was just because the wind blew up a cloud of gas to where she was," she added.
The Israeli military described Friday's protest as a "violent and illegal riot". It said it was investigating the incident but complained that it had not been shown the medical report by the Palestinian authorities.
Dr Mohammed Eideh, who treated Ms Abu Rahma in Ramallah, said she died of "respiratory failure and then cardiac arrest" caused by tear gas inhalation. More than 100 Israelis held a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening to mark the woman's death, and 11 arrests were made during a further protest outside the US Ambassador's house north of Tel Aviv.