Less Lethal? Ask the Abu Rahmah Family

Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank village of Bil'in had no cause to ring in the New Year as tragedy struck the Abu Rahmah family for the fourth time in three years.

After inhaling tear gas fired by the Israeli military at a December 31 demonstration, 36-year-old villager Jawaher Abu Rahmah died the next day from cardiac arrest. Rather than admit wrongdoing, the Israeli military briefed behind closed doors friendly bloggers who then shamefully blamed her death on cancer, or failing that, on an "honor killing."

Previously, Jawaher's 29-year-old brother Bassem was killed by the Israeli military in April 2009 when he was hit in the chest with a high-velocity tear gas canister.

The tear gas that killed both siblings was manufactured by Jamestown, PA company, Combined Systems, Inc. (CSI), which ironically markets its products under the website: www.less-lethal.com. Cold comfort for the grieving Abu Rahmah family.

As if Jawaher and Bassem's killings were not more than enough for the family to bear, their cousin Abdallah, a 39-year-old schoolteacher, languishes in an Israeli jail, convicted on Orwellian charges that included assembling spent tear gas canisters into a peace symbol. Having served his one-year term for "incitement" and for organizing "illegal demonstrations," Israel refuses to release him and Amnesty International has declared him an official "prisoner of conscience."

In addition, an Israeli soldier deliberately shot a younger brother Ashraf in the foot after he was arrested and handcuffed for participating in a demonstration in the nearby village on Nil'in in July 2008.

The Abu Rahmah family has paid such a devastating price solely for exercising its fundamental right to freedom of expression. The residents of Bil'in, joined by Israeli and international peace activists, have organized weekly nonviolent demonstrations against Israel's Apartheid Wall, which runs through the village and severs access to its agricultural lands.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an advisory opinion in 2004, declaring the wall to be illegal, and ordering its demolition and compensation paid to Palestinian affected by it. In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the wall rerouted around Bil'in.

To date, Israel has failed to implement either court decision, demonstrating its contempt for the rule of law. As a result, Bil'in's residents continue to protest rightfully against Israel's theft of their land.

In his address to the Muslim world in Cairo two months after Israel killed Bassem Abu Rahmah, President Obama called upon Palestinians to "abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed...That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered."

Given the president's encouragement of Palestinian nonviolent resistance, one would reasonably expect the Obama administration to denounce Israel's violent repression of peaceful protest in places such as Bil'in.

Unfortunately, given the opportunity several times to comment on Israel's imprisonment of Abdallah Abu Rahmah, the normally silver-tongued State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley came down with a bad case of dry mouth.

Worse than failing to condemn Israel's violent repression of peaceful Palestinian protest, the Obama administration actually enables it by continuing the free flow of weapons to Israel that it misuses to crack down on Palestinian dissent.

From 2000-2008, the State Department authorized the transfer to Israel of more than 400,000 tear gas canisters and other "riot control" equipment valued at $19.5 million, which was paid for by U.S. taxpayers as part of their annual multi-billion dollar appropriation of military aid to Israel.

Although the Obama administration has not yet released comparable data from its first two years in office, there is no indication that the transfer of tear gas to Israel has slowed.

In addition to the deaths of Bassem and Jawaher Abu Rahmah, Israel also killed two Palestinian civilians with tear gas in 2002, and severely injured with CSI-provided tear gas canisters two U.S. citizens -- Tristan Anderson and Emily Henochowicz -- who participated in nonviolent Palestinian demonstrations. The former suffered brain damage, the latter lost an eye.

Israel's misuse of U.S.-supplied tear gas to suppress nonviolent Palestinian protest places it in violation of U.S. laws designed to prevent U.S. military aid from being misused to commit human rights abuses.

The Arms Export Control Act limits the use of U.S.-supplied weaponry to "internal security" and "legitimate self-defense" and prescribes sanctions on countries that violate these terms. Bil'in in particular and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in general are not "internal" to Israel, and it is never "legitimate" for an occupying army to imprison, maim, and kill unarmed civilians who exercise their human right to freedom of expression.

The State Department must make good on its Human Rights Day pledge (made ironically one year to the day after Abdallah Abu Rahmah's imprisonment) that "there is a single universal [human rights] standard that applies to every country, including our own. We apply it to the Israelis, and we also view...Palestinians as being human beings under the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] and entitled to those rights."

The United States should make this commitment tangible by upholding its own laws and cutting off supplies of tear gas and other weapons Israel misuses to oppress Palestinians.

As President Obama prepares to deliver next month his FY2012 budget request to Congress, which is expected to include a record-breaking $3.075 billion in military aid to Israel, citizens outraged that their tax dollars are being misspent to enable Israel's violent repression of Palestinian protest can take action here.

Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of more than 325 organizations working to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality. He is a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service.

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