Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 March 2010
Issue No. 991
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A prayer for Rachel Corrie

The supreme sacrifice of one US student who gave her life to save Palestinian homes and families will not be in vain, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed*

And I thought people like Rachel Corrie only existed in books and movies -- people who can stare death in the face and put their own lives on the line to save someone else's. Rachel Corrie just did that.

The 23-year-old student activist travelled thousands of miles from her Ivy League University in the United States to form a human shield protecting Palestinian families. This happened in March 2003 when all of us were obsessing over Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Full of idealism and dreams about creating a better and just world, Rachel Corrie was too young to die. At a time when most of her friends and fellow students were having a good time experimenting with drugs, booze and sex, Rachel joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a peace movement against the Israeli occupation, and travelled all the way to the occupied Palestinian territories.

She wanted to help and make a difference for long tormented Palestinians. She was so passionate about her cause that she spent many months learning Arabic and educating herself and her family and friends about the Middle East and the appalling humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories. Rachel first went to the West Bank for training with the ISM. Then she volunteered to go to Gaza, to Rafah in particular, as she felt it was forsaken and needed her attention.

There were many international activists like her on the ground trying to help Palestinians by providing aid, teaching their children and, more importantly, protecting them from the murderous Israeli forces. Rachel enthusiastically joined these valiant efforts. She would visit Palestinian homes offering whatever help she could extend to the besieged families. One such family was that of Samir Nasrallah, a pharmacist, and his brother and their five children. Rachel helped the children with their homework and even spent nights in their room, sleeping at their feet in their parents' bed when they were too terrified to do so amid constant gunfire and patrols by Israeli forces.

In a poignant e-mail to her parents on 7 February 2003, she wrote: "I have been in Palestine for two weeks, and I still have very few words to describe what I see. I don't know if the children here have ever existed without tank- shell holes in their walls and the towers of an occupying army surveying them constantly. Even the smallest of these children understand that life is not like this everywhere. An eight-year-old was shot and killed by an Israeli tank two days before I got here, and many of the children murmur his name to me, Ali. The children also love to get me to practise my limited Arabic by asking me "Kaif Sharon?" "Kaif Bush?" and they laugh when I say "Bush Majnoon," "Sharon Majnoon" back in my limited Arabic. (How is Sharon? How is Bush? Bush is crazy. Sharon is crazy.)

Nevertheless, I think about the fact that no amount of reading, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here. You just can't imagine it unless you see it, and even then you are always well aware that your experience is not at all the reality. I wonder if you can forgive the world for all the years of your childhood spent existing in resistance to the constant stranglehold of the world's fourth largest military -- backed by the world's only superpower -- in its attempt to erase you from your home."

Rachel Corrie arrived in Gaza in January 2003 and she was killed in cold blood seven weeks later on 16 March 2003. She died protecting the home and family of Nasrallah. An Israeli armoured bulldozer ran over her, literally, when she refused to move out of its way so it could demolish the home of the Nasrallahs and their young children Reem, Iman and Karim.

Her fellow activists from the ISM and other eyewitnesses recounted in a Haifa court this week how the bulldozer drove over her even as she pleaded with the operator to stop the demolition of the house. She wore a fluorescent orange jacket and stood on a mound excavated by the bulldozer shouting over a bullhorn. The operator of the killing machine couldn't have missed her. It was a cold-blooded, deliberate killing. It was nothing but murder.

This week, Richard Purssell, a British activist and eyewitness, recalled how he watched in horror as Rachel was dragged four metres by the 56-ton D9 Caterpillar bulldozer moving forward at a "fast pace". She disappeared under the rubble and lethal blades of the bulldozer, and then it reversed, trampling Rachel, or what remained of her, once again. When her horrified fellow activists rushed to her, she was still breathing. "I think my back is broken," she said before she breathed her last.

My eyes watered reading this in a gut-wrenching interview Rachel's gracious parents Cindy and Craig Corrie gave to the US journalist Amy Goodman. Rachel's parents have been fighting an endless legal battle in a court in Israel to get justice for their heroic daughter. The Israeli authorities have tried everything to undermine this quest and are treating it as a "civil case" only after pressure from US authorities.

In a civil case, there's not going to be any action against those responsible for her killing. The best Rachel's family could hope is "damages" or compensation. But that is not what the Corries are looking for. They want the world to know the truth about their daughter's killing and why she died.

Why did Rachel die? She was guilty of standing in the way of the mighty state of Israel and its mission to build Greater Israel, from the river to the sea, on Palestinian homes and bodies. By giving her life to save Palestinian homes and families, Rachel has put her killers in the dock and the state of Israel on trial. An unarmed, vulnerable student has put the world's most ruthless, diabolic regime on the mat.

Rachel's killing is only one example of the evil nature of those who claim ownership of the Promised Land. This is what Palestinians have endured over the past seven decades, on a daily basis. Living with death and destruction in their own land, day after bloody day. If they can do this to a young, peaceful citizen of the most powerful nation on earth and their biggest supporter, financer and protector, it's not too hard to imagine what Israelis could do to a helpless people totally at their mercy. And they have repeatedly demonstrated this with deadly effect.

How can we ever forget the iconic images of 12-year- old Mohamed Al-Dorra, crouching in a foetal position behind his father, under attack from a hail of Israeli bullets, even as his desperate father tried to shield him with his own body? In the end, neither father nor son survived, even as the whole world watched in morbid fascination -- all this just before 9/11. In the long history of occupation, Palestinians have lost count of the children like Mohamed Al-Dorra they have buried over the years. As Stalin put it, a single death is a tragedy, a million a statistic.

The Palestinians have become a mere statistic for the world. For all its hallowed peacemaking institutions and high-sounding hollow rhetoric of its leaders, it doesn't give a damn about Palestinians, or people like them.

The sacrifices of blessed and generous spirits like Rachel Corrie will not go in vain, however. They never do. Innocent blood never remains dormant. What relation did Rachel have with the Palestinians? She had nothing in common with them -- faith, language, culture or colour. The only bond she shared with them was that of humanity. Yet she died for them. Will the maker of this world allow this ultimate and sublime sacrifice to be squandered? I don't think so. This long night of oppression cannot last forever and hope will dawn out of this river of blood. God bless you Rachel Corrie, and may your tribe forever grow.

* The writer is opinion editor of Khaleej Times .

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