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
"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
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
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
"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
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