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Little girl's death a microcosm of Mideast

The mystery of the schoolyard death allows each side to continue blaming the other.

Published February 13, 2005

[AP photo]
Relatives of Norhan Deeb, 10, mourn as her body lies in the family house before her funeral in the Rafah refugee camp on Jan. 31.
Read the previous coverage

Who killed 10-year-old Norhan Deeb?

Was it an Israeli soldier shooting from an outpost near the girl's school in the Gaza Strip?

Or was it a Palestinian firing into the air to celebrate a joyous occasion?

Israelis and Palestinians blame each other, leaving only two things certain about Norhan's recent death: She was standing in the courtyard of a U.N.-run school when a bullet hit her in the face. And she was yet another casualty of a conflict in which truth and trust have often proved as elusive as peace.

"The fact that it's so hard to figure out what happened and that neither side believes the other's reports is symbolic of a larger problem - that the sides simply don't think the other one is trustworthy," says Aaron Hoffman, a Purdue University professor who studies trust-building between nations.

"The effect is that it makes it much harder at a political level for the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to forge an agreement that really has a chance of lasting and of solving the problems on the ground."

Norhan's death is the most dramatic of several incidents that have cast a shadow over the otherwise brightening prospects for peace in the Middle East. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinians' moderate new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, declared a truce in hostilities that have killed more than 1,000 Israelis and nearly 3,500 Palestinians in the past four years.

But Hamas and other radical groups say they are not bound by the agreement and have continued attacking Israeli settlers in Gaza. And still to be resolved are the enormous issues that have thwarted previous attempts at peace:

Can Jerusalem be a capital for Israelis and Palestinians alike?

Should Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their ancestral homes in Israel?

Should Israel be allowed to keep the huge West Bank settlements that Palestinians say make it impossible to build a viable Palestinian state?

At another time, the death of one little girl might have passed unnoticed. But coming in such a charged atmosphere, it has spawned a controversy that underscores how hard it will be to settle a generations-old conflict.

"It's a thoroughly politicized environment," Hoffman says, "in which the truth is essentially trampled."

* * *

Around 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 31, Norhan Deeb and other pupils lined up for afternoon assembly in the courtyard of their school in the Rafah refugee camp. Norhan began screaming and fell to the ground, a classmate told the Associated Press.

The AP story also reported:

Palestinian witnesses said the shot came from a nearby Israeli military post. The Israeli military said it checked the claims and found two cases in which soldiers opened fire, but neither was in the area where the girl was shot.

"According to our examination, the girl apparently was not shot by Israeli army gunfire," the military spokesman's office said.

The story quoted U.N. spokesman Johan Eriksson as saying that U.N. officials couldn't definitively identify the source of the gunfire, but all signs pointed to the Israeli troops.

"The only firing that took place at that time in the entire Rafah area" came from the direction of the Israeli post, Eriksson said.

Hours later, the story continued, Hamas militants fired several rounds of mortar shells at Jewish settlements in Gaza. The group said it was avenging Norhan's death.

Among the newspapers that carried the AP story was the St. Petersburg Times, which ran it on Page 5A with a large color photo of relatives mourning over Norhan's body. The headline read: "Gaza Girl's Death Blamed on Israel - Shooting Threatens Fragile Calm."

But the circumstances grew murkier over the next few days when at least three Israeli news organizations reported a Palestinian had been arrested.

The story in Ha'aretz was the most general. It said only that the Palestinian Authority had arrested a Palestinian who opened fire in the refugee camp at the time Norhan was shot.

A report in the Jerusalem Post the same day added two details: The man was a "suspect" in Norhan's death and was being questioned. The Post did not give a source for its information.

YNET, an Internet site of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, provided yet another detail: Norhan died from a shot fired by Muslims celebrating the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Associated Press tried to confirm the accounts, but said in a subsequent story that "officials from all the (Palestinian) security services in Gaza denied the reports."

Nonetheless, versions of the Israeli stories have appeared on the Internet sites of pro-Israel groups in the United States. Among them is the Pinellas-based organization PRIMER - Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting - that has often accused the St. Petersburg Times of a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel bias.

PRIMER members have e-mailed the paper asking why it did not publish a "correction" to the original story or report that Norhan "in fact" had been killed by celebratory Palestinian gunfire.

"People should know the truth, and the St. Petersburg Times should know that we will not let them get away with their shoddy reporting just because they have a personal bias against Israel," says PRIMER's Internet site.

Times Managing Editor Stephen Buckley said the newspaper did not run a follow-up story because it felt the original one reflected the uncertainty over who did the shooting.

Yael Hartmann, a spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, said the IDF never received any information that a Palestinian had been arrested. However, she added, the army is convinced Norhan's death was caused by Palestinian gunfire.

"There is no possible way it could have come from a bullet of ours," Hartmann told the Times.

The nearest Israeli outpost to the school is 900 meters away (some 2,950 feet) but the maximum range of bullets used in the soldiers' M-16 rifles is 350 meters, Hartmann said. According to the soldiers' log books, no Israeli troops were shooting in the area around the time of Norhan's death, she said.

Hartmann said the Palestinian Authority did not respond to an IDF request to help investigate Norhan's death.

Palestinian officials could not be reached for comment, but previously have accused the IDF of covering up incidents in which its soldiers were alleged to have killed innocent civilians.

In the absence of a thorough investigation, the question of who shot Norhan Deeb likely will remain a mystery. And that might suit both sides, says Hoffman, the professor at Purdue.

"In so many minds, young kids symbolize innocence, and some little girl lining up in a schoolyard - it's a great way for Palestinians to paint Israelis as barbarians, and a great way for Israel to try to paint Palestinians as barbarians who kill their own. It's great political theater, but it's grotesque."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified February 13, 2005, 01:29:08]

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