THEY BREATHE the same air, drink the same water, are covered by the same blue sky, yet the extremists among the Israeli settlers in occupied Palestine live in a different universe from that of their Palestinian neighbors.
Ariel Sharon, who originally championed the settler movement in defiance of international law, is now determined to evacuate the 8,000 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer. President Mahmoud Abbas and all the Palestinian militant factions agreed to a cease-fire to expedite the Gaza evacuation and restart peace negotiations. In a move designed to re-ignite the intifada and destroy the Gaza withdrawal plans, however, extremist Israeli settlers declared their intention to attack the al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem on Sunday, April 10.
The Haram al Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, is actually a 35-acre compound which includes the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and many other cultural and religious treasures. All Palestinians feel an obligation to safeguard these Islamic holy places—not just for the world’s Muslims, but for all people of good will. Thousands of Palestinians remained within the Sanctuary after Friday prayers on April 8. Israeli police forbade the Sunday demonstration, arresting some of the extremist settlers who defied orders to disperse.
“We will sacrifice our blood and bodies for the sake of our Holy Land,” said 41-year-old Abu Adham from Gaza’s Khan Younes refugee camp, “and we will never, never, never allow those people to attack our holy places.
“We are standing alone in front of this injustice,” he added, “but we will never give up when it comes to [attempts to] destroy our holy places.”
Abu Adham’s exact feelings are shared by hundreds of people in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and even in Jerusalem itself, where eyewitnesses emphasized that thousands of Palestinians who remained as residents after 1948 were able to move inside Al Haram under very difficult security obstacles and spend Saturday night inside the mosque, so as to protect it from any harm by extremist Jewish settlers the following morning.
Even more important than the physical victory, however, was the moral victory of young Palestinians, who understood that Al Quds — the Arabic name for Jerusalem, which literally means “The Holy” — has been historically Palestinian for centuries. Fair-minded people everywhere saw how the right-wing Israeli extremists are desperate to destroy any chance for a just peace. That Sunday, university students throughout occupied Palestine mounted peaceful demonstrations to protest “Al Quds in Danger.”
The previous day, Israeli troops again violated the cease-fire being observed by the Palestinian resistance when soldiers killed three teenagers who had chased a soccer ball into a “forbidden zone” in Rafah, near the Gaza-Egypt border. Although the Israeli occupiers apologized and militant leaders attempted to preserve the calm, other Palestinians militants fired Qassam rockets at illegal Israeli settlements. Apologies weighed against murdered children—is there any balance to such an equation?
Mohammed Omer reports from the occupied Gaza Strip, where he maintains the Web site <http://www.rafahtoday.org>.
March 16, 2003 was like any afternoon in Rafah’s Block O near the razed border with Egypt. Huge American-made Caterpillar bulldozers were threatening civilian homes, while a group of peace activists from the International Solidarity Movement wearing bright orange vests and shouting through bullhorns asked the Israeli army driver to observe international law and spare the civilian dwellings. As she had done many times before, Rachel Corrie, 23 years old, took her turn directly in front of the bulldozer. That day, however, as her friends screamed in horror, the driver, the sharp blade of his machine lowered, drove over her. Then, without raising the blade, he reversed the machine over her buried body as her ISM comrades raced to dig her out.
Screams, shouts, sirens—all of Rafah turned upside down as word spread that one of the “internationals” had been grievously injured. “No, no, it’s impossible they ran her over!” cried ambulance driver Saed Awadllah—but Rachel’s broken and lacerated body proved the “impossible” had happened. Dr. Samir Nasrallah, whose house she had been trying to protect, rushed to assist. Her only words before passing out were, “I think my back is broken,” and she died before reaching the hospital.
“She was a great example for me and my family,” Dr. Nasrallah said about Rachel. “Her death left a terrible emptiness in our hearts. When the Israeli army crosses the line to killing unarmed internationals, surely they kill Palestinians with even greater impunity.”
Throughout Rafah, Corrie was already known and loved for her work in protecting water wells and homes on the border—and especially for her work with children. Her e-mails to her friends and family are eloquent descriptions of the daily war crimes suffered by the people of Rafah. Her body was still en route out of Gaza when shahada (martyr) posters, showing the brutal slash on her face and the bruising around her eyes, appeared on virtually every wall in Rafah. Three days after she was killed the United States invaded Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of Americans were joined by people of conscience worldwide protesting an unjust war. The Palestinian ambassador to Cuba hailed Rachel Corrie as “the beautiful face of America.”
Rachel died without achieving her goal of learning to speak fluent Arabic, and the peace and justice she sought for Palestine is only marginally closer. But her smile, her laugh, her willingness to share the daily dangers of Rafah’s people transcended any language barrier. She was the first international to be killed in Rafah—but not the last. In the following two months, an Israeli soldier shot British photographer Thomas Hurndall as he was moving children out of the line of fire, and British cameraman James Miller, holding a white flag, was killed by Israeli tank fire.
Two years after her death, justice remains as elusive for Rachel Corrie as it does for the people of Rafah. One would think the Israeli government would spare no effort to learn how an unarmed citizen of the U.S., its great friend and ally, had been brutally killed by its army. Instead, despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary, after a cursory investigation, it ruled Corrie’s death “accidental.” To this day, her family has been unable to see the entire Israeli report, a situation the U.S. government accepts without protest.
In Rafah, the second anniversary of Rachel Corrie’s death was marked by children gathering to light candles and plant olive trees in her honor. As the intifada ground on, Israeli authorities refused re-entry to all the ISM volunteers who left Gaza to renew visas, and kept new international volunteers out. But Rachel’s example has inspired even more Americans to work for justice for Palestine. Although she died before she had her own family, her own children, Rachel has earned a lasting place in the hearts of her huge “second family” in Rafah.— Mohammed Omer