The short life of Imad Abu Zahrah

A Monitor reporter recalls the life and death of a Palestinian colleague in the West Bank

Imad Abu Zahrah lay on his back on the dusty asphalt of Jenin's main street, bleeding to death from a hole in his right thigh. Israeli bullets cracked into the stone columns lining the avenue.

News photographer Said Dahleh, lightly wounded by Israeli fire, looked on from a side street where he had taken cover. He wanted to pull Abu Zahrah to safety, but stayed back because of sustained shooting.

Moments earlier the two Palestinians had been standing in the street together, watching an Israeli armored personnel carrier that had struck an electricity pole. Mr. Dahleh, wearing a white bulletproof vest marked "PRESS," took a picture of the APC.

Then Israeli soldiers in a nearby tank opened fire from a machine gun fixed to its turret, shooting at the ground in front of the journalists and over their heads. Both men were probably hit by ricochets. Only Dahleh survived.

The killing of Imad Abu Zahrah is partly a testament to the dangers of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it isn't clear that Abu Zahrah was working as a journalist the day he was shot.

His life resonates for different reasons – for what it says about the difficulty of living anything near a normal life in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority stifled him. The conflict idled him, and finally, it killed him. His death resonates personally, because I worked with him once.

Lying in the street, Abu Zahrah pressed his hand into the wound to try to slow the bleeding. Several minutes later, he dragged himself around the corner, into the side street. People helped him and Dahleh take shelter in a stairwell.

Dahleh says he used his cellphone to call for an ambulance. Someone else contacted a taxi driver, who reached them first. As the taxi pulled up, other journalists arrived; they recorded what happened next on videotape.

Abu Zahrah staggers out of the stairwell, the right leg of his faded jeans sopping with blood, his sunglasses dangling from a cord around his neck. He stumbles down the last steps, falls to the ground, and then Dahleh and others help him up.

Abu Zahrah is a stocky man with a square jaw and receding, slicked-back hair. His face is dark with fear. Wide-eyed, he gets into the taxi without a word.

Dahleh says that from the moment Abu Zahrah was shot, as he lay on the street, huddled in the stairwell, and rode to the hospital, "he didn't say anything."

He soon lost consciousness. At the hospital, doctors worked to repair his leg and replenish his blood supply. At one point he followed his father's instructions to open and close his eyes, but he never spoke.

He was shot during the afternoon of July 11 and died early the next morning.

A dangerous place to work

The West Bank is the worst place in the world to be a journalist, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based nonprofit organization. For one thing, reporters and photographers must work around Israeli restrictions, imposed

in the name of journalists' safety and Israel's security, that limit press freedom. Then there is the danger.

Israeli forces shot dead an Italian photographer on March 13 in the West Bank hub city of Ramallah. A Palestinian reporter died on July 31, 2001, when Israeli missiles struck an office of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, in the northern West Bank city of Nablus. The reporter planned to interview a Hamas leader, the target of the Israeli attack.

Although Palestinian militants have also shot at, harassed, and intimidated journalists, watchdog groups say Israeli forces have been responsible for most of the violence directed at the media.

Reporters Without Borders – a Paris-based advocacy group which investigated Abu Zahrah's death – says more than 40 journalists have been hit by Israeli fire during the Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

"Since the intifada began in September 2000, the vast majority of the [more than 30] cases we've documented of journalists being shot at or wounded have come from Israeli fire," says Joel Campagna, Middle East program coordinator for CPJ.

The Israel Defense Forces statement released on Aug. 19 says its armored vehicle was pelted with Molotov cocktails, stones, and other objects, and then came under fire.

"The IDF soldiers fired warning shots into the air and then returned the rioters' fire.... The IDF does its utmost to avoid inflicting harm on media personnel to allow reliable and open media coverage."

Ambition and intensity

In mid-April, I visited Jenin to report on Israel's occupation of the city and its refugee camp. While I was there, Abu Zahrah stopped me on the street, introduced himself, and offered his assistance. Two days later, three other reporters and I asked his help in getting into the refugee camp. The Israelis were still barring journalists from the area and we need a local guide.

My colleagues and I reached his home in the late afternoon of April 17. Abu Zahrah had planned to take us to an apartment where we could stay, but we were scared off by the sounds of gunfire in the city and ended up spending the night at his house.

Abu Zahrah's career seemed a series of dead ends. In 1997 the Palestinian Authority had detained him for a few days and closed a weekly newspaper he had started five weeks earlier. Apparently he had been too critical of the PA.

He spent some time working in a restaurant in Tel Aviv, perfecting his Hebrew. He told us about his ambition to attend an Arabic-Hebrew translation school in Israel, but that plan was on hold as long as the intifada lasted. It had already lasted a year and a half.

His business card said, in Arabic and English, "Journalism * Advertisment [sic] * Media" and he was looking for work. He said he had sold some pictures to news organizations.

Garrulous, intense, sometimes on edge, he was cynical about the PA and suspicious of other Palestinian journalists in the city, who he said were cowed by the Authority. That night, we stayed up late, discussing his theory that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is a puppet of Israel and the US.

The next day, he succeeded in getting us into the camp, the scene of terrible fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants. At one point, he broke down in tears when he realized that some charred human remains we encountered were those of a friend, a onetime journalist who had turned to arms to fight Israel.

After spending most of the day in the camp, we paid him for his work and left Jenin.

Israelis on the move

On July 11, Imad and Dahleh met in downtown Jenin. Jenin was one of six West Bank towns and cities then being occupied by Israeli forces, and that day the Israelis had lifted their curfew.

The two men heard the sound of Israeli armor moving through the city center. They no doubt remembered the events of June 21, when Israeli forces had fired on civilians in roughly the same area, killing three children and a middle-aged woman. The killings were a big story.

Dahleh carried a digital still camera and was on assignment for a Palestinian news agency.

It remains unclear whether Imad was equipped for work. Another Jenin photographer, Said Dahleh's brother, Saifuddin, says Imad wore a cloth vest marked with the words "TV" and "press," and Imad's family says he carried two cameras. But neither the vest nor the cameras have been recovered and none of the items appear in the video footage shot that day.

Said and Imad approached the area where the Israeli APC had hit the electricity pole. They stood some 50 yards away.

"The soldiers didn't say, 'Go away,' or 'Don't take pictures,'" says Said. Instead, they opened fire. "I escaped to another street. I looked back and saw Imad on the ground. I came back to take him, but they fired again."

Coincidentally, Said's father Shawki was also on the street. A trained nurse who runs a taxi stand, he says the gunfire prevented him from coming to Imad's aid: "I saw him dying and I couldn't help." He did manage to arrange for the taxi that evacuated the wounded men.

He and other Palestinians interviewed at the scene say the Israelis fired without warning.

They say a crowd did attack the Israeli vehicles – but with fruit and stones, not gunfire – and only after the shooting of Imad and Said.

A 'special son'

Three days after Imad's death, two colleagues and I went back to Jenin to pay our respects to Abu Zahrah's father, Subhi. A former English teacher, he had warmly welcomed us into his home in April.

A few mourners sat on plastic chairs outside the house, under a green plastic tarpaulin. Some trees in the garden bore posters with Imad's picture. Inside, male visitors arrived to kiss Subhi's unshaven cheeks, shake his hand, and sit for few minutes as they sipped bitter Arabic coffee.

In the main room of the house, the dead man's mother received female mourners. "I'm very sad to have lost my son," she says. "But for his work, for his telling the world the truth, I am very glad. I thank God." Her face turned down, her hair hidden by a white scarf, she says he was her "special son."

In a disheveled, dusty bedroom, Imad's brother Mujib showed us coverage of Imad's death and funeral recorded from the Qatari satellite channel, Al Jazeera, and a local television station. Family members gathered as we watched. As the images of Imad getting into the taxi played across the screen of the small television, Imad's sister and other women began to weep.

The cadence of their grief rose during the scenes of Imad's body being brought home before the burial.

In a conflict where nearly every death is a symbol, the videotape shows that Imad's was no exception. Mourners carry the corpse on a stretcher, shrouded in a Palestinian flag, into the Abu Zahrah living room, where the women of the family crowd around it, crying and ululating.

His mother wraps Imad's head in a black-and-white keffiyeh, the emblem of Palestinian nationalism. Her face is rigid. She doesn't shed a tear.

His life has achieved new meaning: He is a martyr.

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