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Published on Wednesday, October 23, 2002 by the Hartford Courant
Tribute From A Distant Stranger
Palestinian's Obituary Raises Controversy
by Roselyn Tantraphol

On a recent Friday evening, while quietly embroidering on the porch of her Nablus home, 60-year-old Palestinian activist Shaden Abu Hijleh was killed by Israeli gunfire. Her daughter prayed that reports of her mother's death would not be summarized in a single digit by the press.

"I kept on screaming - I hope she's not just another number," Lana Abu Hijleh recalls.

Meanwhile, across the world in rural northwest Connecticut, a 56-year-old American citizen was so moved after reading online dispatches about Abu Hijleh that she felt compelled to honor this woman she had never met. Gale Courey Toensing, a woman of Palestinian and Lebanese descent who has spent time with Palestinians in refugee camps and is a passionate advocate of Palestinian independence, took an unusual step, paying $300 for a death notice in The Courant that detailed Abu Hijleh's life.

"The reason I did it was so people know what's going on there," said Toensing of Canaan, who is married to Craig E.Toensing, chairman of the State Board of Education.

To the Abu Hijleh family, this is a story about how one stranger communicated a world of compassion through a paid obituary in the back pages of an American paper. To some local Jewish residents, however, the submission raises concerns about what is appropriate to include in a published death notice.

The 400-word notice that ran Oct. 16 on Page B8 of The Courant says Abu Hijleh was "shot dead in her home in Nablus, Palestine, by an Israeli occupation soldier" and gives an account provided by family members that "an Israeli jeep stopped in front of the family's house, a soldier got out, went to the back of the jeep, picked up a weapon and opened fire at the Abu Hijlehs."

"Shaden Abu Hijleh died on the spot when two bullets struck her heart and neck," it reads, going on to detail some of the activist's work on issues ranging from women's rights to literacy.

A New York Times article provides a similar account of Abu Hijleh's Oct. 11 death, saying she was shot dead by Israeli gunfire during a curfew. The article quotes her son, Saed, who was slightly injured, as saying that the shots were fired "without any provocation."

An Israeli Defense Forces spokesman told The Courant Monday that the incident remains under investigation.

"We don't know yet the circumstances of the event," the spokesman said.

Cathrine Fischer Schwartz, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, said about 20 Hartford-area residents called her office last week to express concern.

"I'm sure these items are under dispute," she said. "To put them in the newspaper as though they're factual, as though they've been investigated, I'm not sure that's responsible."

Ken DeLisa, corporate affairs manager for The Courant, said this paid death notice was handled the way all are.

"People want to honor a person's life, and we try to respect that," he said. "We do try to make sure we are being factual, and we do take steps to carry out the confirmations" about the circumstances of the death.

Typically, the paper confirms a death with a funeral parlor. In this case, DeLisa said, the paper had to seek other means of verifying the information.

"We felt The New York Times was a credible source," said DeLisa. The Courant received several calls on the notice, he said.

Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, which provides training for journalists, said she has fielded many questions about the way events in the Middle East have been described in letters to the editor. This is the first she has heard about concerns stemming from a paid death notice.

"The idea of paid obituaries," McBride said, "is to give people who don't qualify for editorial obituaries - the free ones - access to the news pages, to get the news of someone's death out. If you try to control what the motivation is for getting that news out, you would undermine that goal of making it accessible to everyone who can at least afford to pay by the word."

Toensing said she became interested in the regional conflict after studying Palestinian poetry.

At the time Toensing placed the death notice, she had no idea that Abu Hijleh had relatives in the area. But a niece of the Palestinian activist, Soha Al-Jurf, 28, is a Hartford speech therapist.

Al-Jurf said colleagues alerted her to the notice.

"I think the fact that a complete stranger would take out an obituary for a woman she doesn't even know really shows how deeply the situation is affecting people who are not even directly in contact with the conflict," Al-Jurf said.

Copyright 2002, Hartford Courant


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