Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thoughts on the Rachel Corrie

Somewhere I have a picture of myself standing at the altar of an Episcopal Church chapel, not a remarkable chapel except for the gaping hole in the ceiling and the unexploded bomb lying in front of the altar.

The picture was taken in 2003. The hole in the ceiling and the bomb had been part of the chapel since 2000. The bomb had been bequeathed to the church by the Israeli “Defense” Force. The chapel is (or was—I have no way of knowing if it still stands) the place of worship for the staff and the Christian patients at Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, a ministry of the Anglican Church. Exactly what the hospital was doing that Israel needed to “defend” itself against is not clear.

The American government might refer to the bomb as “collateral damage,” one of the unpleasant side-effects of war.

The late summer of 2003 was (compared with the situation of the last two years) a relatively peaceful time for the Palestinians of Gaza. Our group stayed in an elegant new hotel. It was built about the same time as the Yasser Arafat International Airport was built with funding from Japan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Germany, and Morocco’s King Hassan II. Our hotel (we were, I think, the only guests) had been built by a Saudi Arabian company in preparation for the influx of tourists Gaza City expected as it reemerged as a major city on the Riviera-like coast of Gaza, a natural tourist destination.

We were lucky to have gained entrance to Gaza. Tourists were unheard of at that time—or since. Our Inter-Faith Peace Builders Delegation was in Palestine/Israel August 5-14, 2003. The Second Intifada was ending. But hostilities were a real possibility. Less than six weeks earlier, the I“D”F had killed four people in Gaza City, including the Hamas leader Amran al-Gul. We were in Bethlehem a scant five weeks after the I“D”F officially withdrew from the city of Jesus’ birth—leaving a force large enough to control the city.

Of images from nine days in Palestine, those of the thirty-six hours we spent in Gaza remain most vivid in my memory. The images are, I am afraid, only that. My notes are stored away, unpacked from moving, so I cannot check facts.

The contrasts in Gaza were riveting. Gaza City itself, though obviously a war zone, seemed to be a city capable of returning to some kind of “normalcy.” Automobiles drove in the street. A building of UN offices was visible from our hotel windows, with the huge letters “UN” painted blue on all sides as if to persuade combatants to avoid it when they were engaged in hostilities. Our guide said Gazans referred to it as the “United Nothing” because it did nothing to enforce its own resolutions.

We played on the beach at Gaza City. We threw a Frisbee with some boys in the sand exactly as any group of kids would do at Santa Monica or Ipanema. Mothers in hijabs and jilbabs watched their children play. Other watchful mothers wore western clothing. For the first time in our trip we relaxed and simply enjoyed the natural beauty of Palestine. Our hosts were over-generous and helpful. That evening we had dinner at a seafood restaurant. We must have had a dozen courses of seafood, mostly varieties we had never eaten before—an astounding feast! After dinner we went to a night club, that is, a large open courtyard (perhaps in a hotel) where a noisy crowd, even families—Christian and Muslim—enjoyed themselves together listening to music and smoking hookas.

And then, suddenly the next day, with preparation by lecture only, we were in the Refugee Camp at Rafah. No American can hear enough lectures to prepare for that reality. Who goes camping for 60 years? The Camp is a honey-comb of houses built with common walls between them and layers on top of layers, built up as new generations of refugees create their own families. We entered the camp by the door of a home that faced the perimeter street, went through the home—a dark space of several rooms virtually bare of anything Americans would think of as necessities—furniture, for example.

We went out the back door and into the street—the narrow walkway between rows of three-storey houses. Without our host, we would immediately have been lost in the maze. A group of kids gathered to stare at these Americans trooping through their city. We did not go far. A camp resident approached us; he wanted us to see his home's kitchen wall that had been destroyed by an I“D”F bomb—his privacy now visible to the guard tower a couple hundred yards away, kitchen utensils still buried in the rubble. I am perplexed by what I remember (rather, do not remember) about the camp. Memory does not last in discomfort. Our host explained to us why raw sewage ran in the streets. Every time the people of the neighborhood managed to get a pump to drain the streets, the Israeli soldiers in the guard tower destroyed it with gunfire.

All of the details of my memory may not be accurate. My affective understanding is absolutely clear. The Refugee Camp was a dehumanizing, uncompromisingly difficult and oppressive habitat for anyone. That it exists at all is an indictment of the world’s supposed beliefs about justice, freedom, and the rights of human beings. That it exists by resolution of the United Nations and by tacit permission from the United States is incomprehensible.

And that the devastation inflicted by the Israelis in January of 2009 must surely have destroyed almost anything that made the camp habitable for human beings is hardly a matter for discussion.

I hear on the news these days defenders of the Israeli blockade of Gaza say that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Gazans are not starving. Gazans have plenty of the materiel necessary for human existence. That is simply, with no qualification necessary, a lie. The citizens of Rafah did not have the basic requirements for civilized existence in 2003, and their situation has, if anything, worsened since then. The Rafah Refugee Camp is not a war zone, contrary to Israeli propaganda. It is the most densely populated spot on the globe where people live in poverty and a kind of closeness that no American or resident of Tel Aviv would tolerate for one day. That they will use whatever force they can muster to change their situation is surprising only in its lack of resources.

And to Rachel Corrie. To the Rachel Corrie. We stood at the spot where Rachel Corrie had died five months earlier trying to protect the home of a Rafah family—not in the camp, but living in almost the same poverty, and certainly with the same restrictions imposed by the Israelis—from destruction by an Israeli bulldozer. The man whose home Rachel helped save didn’t allow us into his home for fear of reprisals from the I“D”F. We left quickly when Israeli tanks appeared on the periphery of the neighborhood—Palestinians running between us and the tanks for unrequested protection.

Unsurprisingly, the Irish ship, the Rachel Corrie, has been intercepted by the Israeli “Defense” Force as it tried to land somewhere near that beautiful Gaza City beach to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza. Everyone in the world who keeps up with what passes for news knows the context of this interception:

The citizens of the Rafah Refugee Camp must be prevented from any kind of uprising that will threaten the Israeli “liberal democracy.” They must be left with only their desperate poverty, their lives totally bereft of the accoutrement Americans and Israelis are certain make this life worth living. Otherwise, they might interfere with the Israeli goal of an Israel without Palestinians.

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