“You shed tears, and take some pictures and leave, but nothing changes for us!”
My friend and I were standing in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip in 2004 looking at the barren parcel of land where Rachel Corrie, a young American woman, had stood her ground and died a year earlier. We were surrounded by curious children, each wanting their picture taken.
The old man wearing the traditional galabya was speaking directly to me in rapid-fire Arabic. Our eyes met, I stopped and listened. Was he angry or frustrated? I couldn’t tell and I had no clue what he was saying. He threw up his hands and walked away.
In the car driving back to Gaza City, our driver translated. “That old man was telling you that many foreigners have come to Rafah to see the miserable conditions, to take pity on the people and sympathize. They take pictures and then return to their countries, but nothing changes for the Palestinians.”
That was 2004 and the turning point for me.
Shamefully, I knew that old man in Rafah was right. Too often, people who are privileged to travel, to see the world and understand the horrific injustices that exist elsewhere, return to their comfortable lives and forget.
Then there are people like Rachel Corrie who was killed in Rafah on March 16, 2003. She had arrived two months earlier as an International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteer.
On the day of her death, she was standing in front of the home of a local Palestinian pharmacist. Israeli bulldozers were destroying homes in the neighborhood to create a buffer zone near the Egyptian border for security purposes. Rachel, along with other ISM activists, stood in front of the house in an effort to stop the demolition. The driver of the bulldozer ran over her, not once, but twice.
Rachel was no ordinary traveler. She had the courage of her convictions.
By Rachel Corrie, aged 10 — 1990
I’m here for other children.
I’m here because I care.
I’m here because children everywhere are suffering and because forty thousand people die each day from hunger.
I’m here because those people are mostly children.
We have got to understand that the poor are all around us and we are ignoring them.
We have got to understand that these deaths are preventable.
We have got to understand that people in third world countries think and care and smile and cry just like us.
We have got to understand that they dream our dreams and we dream theirs.
We have got to understand that they are us. We are them.
My dream is to stop hunger by the year 2000.
My dream is to give the poor a chance.
My dream is to save the 40,000 people who die each day.
My dream can and will come true if we all look into the future and see the light that shines there.
If we ignore hunger, that light will go out.
If we all help and work together, it will grow and burn free with the potential of tomorrow.” ― Rachel Corrie
Nearly ten years after Rachel’s death, I met her parents in Gaza. They had started the Rachel Corrie Foundation to carry on their daughter’s work for peace and justice, and they frequently brought delegations to Gaza.
They filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the State of Israel, symbolically asking for $1 in compensation but demanding a transparent and thorough investigation of their daughter’s death.
In August 2012, the Haifa District Court exonerated the driver of the bulldozer and the Israeli government. Upon reading the verdict, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “the action described in the suit was ‘a military action in the course of war’ according to all criteria and that the state (therefore the Defense Ministry) is exempt from responsibility for it.”
There was worldwide condemnation of the verdict, including from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “The killing of an American peace activist is unacceptable. The court’s decision confirms a climate of impunity, which facilitates Israeli human rights violations against Palestinian civilians…”.
I knew very little about Israel’s apparent impunity from international law when I first visited the Gaza Strip in 2004. I tagged along with an American psychologist who had volunteered to bring an international award to Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, a well-respected Palestinian psychologist.
Dr. El-Sarraj started the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. When Israel refused to allow him to travel to Australia to receive the honor from his colleagues, my friend and I took the award to Gaza.
We had an informal ceremony in Dr. El-Sarraj’s office with some of his staff in attendance. I didn’t have words to share my disbelief and anger, and so I remained silent. Why would Israel prevent this man from traveling abroad? He was obviously influential both in and out of Gaza, and his writings showed a man who advocated peace and justice for both Palestinians and Israelis.
My friend said a few congratulatory words and presented the plaque to Dr. El-Sarraj who graciously accepted it and put it on his bookshelf along with other awards and memorabilia. I snapped some pictures.
I felt something snap in my gut too.
Rachel Corrie was killed as she stood waving her arms to stop the house demolition in Rafah. Dr. El-Sarraj was imprisoned, along with thousands of other Palestinians, in this tiny enclave called the Gaza Strip. The old man in Rafah knew nothing would change. There was something profoundly wrong with this picture.
A few days later, we left Gaza through the Erez checkpoint into Israel. There was no line of people waiting to exit, only the two of us. We sat on our luggage waiting to be directed through the turnstile at the end of a long caged tunnel. We waited and waited and waited.
We couldn’t see the Israeli soldiers but we knew they were watching us, and listening. My friend’s patience was wearing thin. I was passing the time by reading. Finally, after waiting more than an hour, a voice over the intercom instructed us to go through the turnstile.
I vividly recall the terrified eyes of the female Israeli soldier in 2004 who was checking my embarrassingly large suitcase for explosives. We didn’t say a word to each other, but I knew about the female Palestinian suicide bomber who had blown herself up and killed four Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint just months earlier.
Why would people treat each other this way? Why couldn’t Israelis and Palestinians coexist peacefully? Was there a right side and a wrong side? One I could support and the other I could condemn? Why had this “conflict” continued for so long?
I had many questions in 2004 and I knew I needed to educate myself.