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Twitter flap obscures details of Gaza girl's death

March 27, 2012 12:29 A.M. (Updated: April 1, 2012 9:31 A.M.)
By: Charlotte Alfred
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Israel is calling for the UN to sack an employee for misrepresenting a photograph of a dead Palestinian child, while rights groups and relatives maintain her death in 2006 was the result of an airstrike.

UN humanitarian employee Khulood Badawi posted the bloody image of Raja Abu Shaban amid renewed strikes on Gaza on March 12. Her caption read: “Palestine is bleeding. Another child killed by #Israel”.

Ten days later, Israel’s ambassador to the UN wrote to OCHA under-secretary Valerie Amos calling for Badawi’s dismissal for “hate speech,” a post on his office’s Facebook account said.

“The picture was taken and published in 2006 by Reuters, which reported that this child died in an accident. She was not killed by Israeli forces,” Ron Prosor wrote, according to Fox News.

Death linked to 2006 airstrike

Raja, 2, arrived dead to Shifa hospital on Aug. 9, 2006, around the same time as the bodies of two members of the Popular Resistance Committees, after an airstrike in Gaza City.

The Israeli army insists the airstrike was not in any way linked to her death, but medical records, interviews with relatives of the girl, and news reports from that day suggest otherwise.

“Israeli rockets fell near the house, causing the playground slide to fall on top of her,” Raja’s father Salam Abu Shaban said Sunday, pointing out the strike occurred less than 200 meters away. Her mother agreed.

The cause of death registered in a hospital medical report, seen by Ma’an, from that day in 2006 concludes that Raja died “due to falling from a high area during the Israeli strike on Gaza.”

It notes: “The Gaza prosecutor registered her as a martyr,” a term commonly used to describe Palestinians killed by Israeli forces.

Human rights organizations also say Raja died after the impact of the explosions. Israeli and Palestinian groups maintain her fall was the result of the army activity targeting militants in a nearby field.

In a register of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli forces, the rights group B’Tselem reports that Raja “fell off a swing and bumped her head when a missile fired by the IDF hit an orchard 100 meters from the house.”

Recent investigations have re-confirmed this account, B’Tselem official Sarit Michaeli said Sunday.

Research by the Gaza-based rights group Al Mezan, in the days after Raja’s death, also found the impact of the strike caused her to fall, the rights group confirmed Saturday.

“While the (Israeli army) did not target the girl directly, they launched an attack with three missiles on a densely populated area, which caused the death of the girl, the injury of three civilians and the damage of several houses in the area,” Al Mezan noted in a statement.

’Nothing to do with Israeli action’

These and other details surrounding the girl's death have been lost in the controversy.

The Israeli army's position also remains unchanged. The day after Badawi’s tweet, the army's blog posted that Raja’s death “had nothing at all to do with Israeli action.”

An Israeli army spokeswoman confirmed Sunday the post represented its official position.

Although no military investigation was ever opened into her death, the post was based on a corrected Reuters photo caption from 2006, an army spokeswoman said.

“Palestinian officials declared she was not killed by Israeli forces,” the official said, referring to the caption its blog sourced to an Israeli tweeter named Avi Mayer.

Reuters issued the caption correction on Aug. 10, 2006.

It states: “The three-year-old girl who had been reported killed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza on Wednesday actually died of an accident, Palestinian medical workers said on Thursday.”

The story accompanying that photo elaborates that while the missile which killed two PRC operatives did not itself strike Raja, health officials considered the deaths closely related.

“The head of the Palestinian ambulance service, Muawiyah Hassanein, said the girl fell from a swing at her home near the scene of the attack that killed two gunmen,” the Reuters story says.

"He believed the girl had fallen because of the sound of the blast," the story explains, and it quoted him saying that Raja "was not killed directly from the air strike".

Outrage, and anguish

Despite the connections between the airstrike and Raja’s deadly fall, Israeli officials have continued to express outrage at the tweet using her photo.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor called Badawi’s tweet a “false description that demonizes Israel through a furious fabrication of facts,” in a Facebook post slamming the UN.

Raja’s father has another reason for dismay.

“To bring up my daughter’s picture again six years after her death caused me grief and anguish,” Salam Abu Shaban told Ma’an.

Abu Shaban, who still hopes to seek redress for his daughter’s death in Israeli courts, believes Badawi’s misattribution of the photo was an innocent mistake.

"But when supporters of Israel used this against her I was furious," he said.

"Why do they have to blow up this tragedy again?"

Keyan Saifi contributed to this report
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