I didn't know about the new policy, I said. I apologized. Our guide gave him a cigarette. I said I was from Seattle, near the city where Rachel Corrie grew up. I told him I wanted to learn more about what happened. "Okay," he said. "Come."
The doctor, Samir Masri, is known to all as simply Dr. Samir, and he is now famous in this city because it was his house Rachel was defending when she was killed by one of the giant armored Israeli bulldozers that people here say terrorize them.
In Dr. Samir's home, shades are drawn over every window. The two-story cement structure sits, fully exposed, on the edge of a new "buffer zone" the Israeli government is clearing in Rafah, site of some of the fiercest resistance to Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip. On the other side of the buffer zone, which is hundreds of yards wide, a giant steel wall is being built along the border with Egypt to keep terrorists and gun smugglers from slipping into this city of 140,000 people. The buffer zone keeps getting wider, and Dr. Samir believes his home is next in line for demolition.
A few large windows in his house have been filled in with cinder blocks to guard against Israeli fire. The home's outer wall, which faces the giant Israeli guard towers that line the border, is pockmarked with bullet holes, and some of the bullets have made it through this external wall and entered the house, leaving holes in the interior walls as well. On the house's exterior, the foreigners with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) have written "Stop Shooting" and "We Are Here."
Dr. Samir's wife brings us sweet, strong tea, and then more tea, and more tea. I'm being introduced to the perpetual caffeine-and-sugar high that is part of life as a foreign guest in Rafah.
Dr. Samir was born here, but at the age of 10 he went to live with his father in Egypt. He completed his studies there in 1968, the year after the Six-Day War redrew the political map of the Middle East.
In that war, Israel responded to an impending attack by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan by launching a preemptive attack of its own. When the war ended six days later, Israel had crushed the Arab armies and captured the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and Jerusalem. The 1967 war led to the famous UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called on Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders. It was envisioned that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza would lead to the formation of a Palestinian state. But in the more than 35 years since, Israel has never fully ceded control of the areas—hence the term "occupied territories."
When he completed his studies in Egypt, Dr. Samir says, he traveled to Libya for three years, and then back to Rafah. After the 1993 Oslo Accords, he and his brothers were able to save up enough money to buy this house. They moved into it four years ago, with Dr. Samir and his wife and three children—Imah, 6, Reem, 12, and Kareem, 14—living downstairs. His brothers live upstairs.
Rachel, Dr. Samir says in his broken English, "came to us about 10 to 15 times. In this room she sleep. And my three children beside her. We eat dinner every time with her. She was playing with my daughter. And she talk with my wife about food, about kitchen."
Dr. Samir still sometimes speaks about Rachel in the present tense: "She has a strong personality... polite, active, smart." She was something else, too: "She was the fence to protect our building. I consider her as a hero. I consider her and everyone of ISM as a member of my family."
On March 16, the day Rachel died, Dr. Samir came home to find two huge armored bulldozers and an Israeli tank advancing toward his house. Hidden behind the high cement walls that protect his courtyard garden, he looked through a small hole and watched the standoff between Rachel and the bulldozer unfold.
"They start to destroy the land and remove some building, a new building," he says, "and they start, step by step, to come near to my building.
"I notice everything. I saw her standing in front of bulldozer. The bulldozer far away, about 30 meters. He [the driver] saw her."
ISM activists who were there that day tell a similar story. They say they had been in the area for about two hours, playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the bulldozers. In the past, the bulldozers would sometimes roll straight up to the foreigners, who would stand their ground, waving banners and shouting through megaphones. Sometimes the bulldozers would even push the protesters with their blades, but then stop. One ISM member in Rafah told me the activists' "white privilege" worked as a sort of force field against injury to themselves and damage to the property they were protecting. This day would be different.
"She has a microphone, and a speaker, and a uniform, phosphoric uniform," Dr. Samir says. (By "phosphoric uniform," he means the bright Day-Glo orange jacket Rachel had been wearing.) "She said, 'Stop! Stop! Stop!' [The bulldozer] is starting to come, step by step, near my house wall. He carry some sand, you know. And the [blade] is down, like this, step by step."
The bulldozer's advance, according to ISM activists who witnessed it, pushed up a mound of dirt that Rachel came to be standing atop, so that she was looking straight at the bulldozer driver in his high cab. The bulldozer kept advancing.
Here the stories get a bit confused. Some say Rachel kneeled atop the mound of dirt. Others say she tried to run down off the mound, away from the bulldozer, but lost her footing. Either way, all the activists who saw it agree that the bulldozer pushed the mound of dirt over Rachel, burying her alive and dragging the giant blade across her body, first forward as the bulldozer advanced, and then backward as the bulldozer driver backed up.
Because the Israeli justification for demolishing homes in Rafah is security-related—"Every house that's been taken down, it has been taken down because it's been used to shoot at us," an Israeli army spokesperson says—I ask Dr. Samir if there would be any reason for the Israelis to consider his home a threat. Any shooting from this house? Any underground tunnels from Egypt surfacing here?
"You can't ask that," he says. He and his family, he says fiercely, are "normal."
"I don't think about anything. Just that I want to survive, like other people all over the world."
He is "1000 percent" sure that eventually the Israeli bulldozers will come again, and that they will destroy his home.
What will he do if that happens?
"I don't know. In the street—in the street I will go. Sleep in tent."
GETTING TO RAFAH
Rafah is one of the most dangerous places in the Gaza Strip—"a combat zone," according to Captain Jacob Dallal, the Israeli army spokesperson.
To get to this dangerous place, where a loose mound of dirt topped with an old car tire and a few wilting flowers now marks the spot where Rachel Corrie was killed, you must first catch a plane to someplace else. There is simply no way for a foreigner to fly directly to the Gaza Strip, a skinny, 140-square-mile piece of land stuffed with about 1.3 million Palestinians. The Gaza International Airport, hailed as a marker of Palestinian autonomy when it opened in 1998, is not taking flights. It has been useless since December 2001, when the Israeli army tore up its runways in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. The operation was just another salvo in the tit-for-tat violence that has raged intermittently in this region since the second Palestinian uprising—or intifada—began in September 2000. More than 2,000 Palestinians and 700 Israelis have died in the fighting.
The absence of a working airport in Gaza leaves an American heading to Rafah with two choices. Fly to Cairo, trek across the Sinai desert, and then try to enter Gaza from Egyptian territory. Or do what Rachel did: Buy a ticket to Tel Aviv and catch a ride down one of the wide, modern highways that take you straight out of the Middle East's only democracy and straight through the gates of Gaza, one of the most crowded and desperate places on Earth.
For foreigners, the gates to Gaza are in fact just one gate, a small ramshackle archway so short in stature one wonders if it was intentionally designed to foreshadow the diminished possibilities ahead. Palestinians themselves use a separate gateway, one that is even bleaker. It is a series of metal corridors that look like cattle chutes, down which Gazans must pass for security checks when the Israeli government allows them to leave their territory—which has a 70 percent unemployment rate—to find work in Israel.
In January, Rachel Corrie, 23, passed through the foreigners' gate and headed south into Gaza, down a road that is decidedly not a modern highway, intent on helping the ISM in its efforts to stop the Israeli army from demolishing Palestinian homes in Rafah. It was her first trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The ISM is made up of volunteers from around the world who pay their own way to travel to communities in Gaza and the West Bank where they feel their presence can help shield Palestinians. The group has about 50 members in Israel and the Palestinian territories right now, nine of them in Rafah.
I am on the road that Rachel traveled, riding in a bright yellow station wagon with a sign on it that says "Journalist." The point is for there to be no mistake. Friends who know I am heading to Rafah have already read me my last rites several times. They have reminded me that about two and a half years ago, two Israeli soldiers took a wrong turn in the West Bank and ended up getting lynched in the city of Ramallah, their bodies displayed on live television as a Palestinian waved his bloody hands triumphantly out a window. At the recommendation of a veteran American correspondent in Jerusalem, I have rented a bulletproof vest and paid hundreds of dollars to hire this garish car, its driver, and a guide known as a "fixer." The correspondent told me he never goes anLoraywhere in the territory without such arrangements. The purpose, he said, is to get my "Jewish ass out of Gaza alive."
My Jewish ass has been to Israel several times, but never to Gaza, and I am a bit scared. I have been told not to use any of my Arabic, lest I be suspected of being an Israeli spy. Above all, I have been told not to mention my religion.
The road that Rachel traveled leads first past the Jabaliya refugee camp, the largest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, home to some 100,000 people. It was in this camp that the first intifada began in 1987. The uprising lasted five years and ended with the 1993 Oslo Accords, which, in the view of many here, promised much and delivered little. In Jabaliya, Palestinian refugees (many of whom are actually second- or third-generation "refugees") live in squalor, frozen in a perpetual state of exile. The Arab world has refused to repatriate them, and their leaders use their unfortunate circumstances as bargaining chips in negotiations over a future Palestinian state. The Palestinians in the occupied territories are not the only refugees created by the violent birth of the state of Israel in 1948: Hundreds of thousands of Jews became refugees then as well, forced to leave Arab countries where they were no longer welcome. Unlike the Arab states, the Jewish state took refugees in and made them citizens.
Past Jabaliya, the road enters Gaza City, home of the Palestinian parliament, where intersections now bear the scars of recent Israeli incursions—curbs crunched by tank treads, concrete rubble piled at corners. This is a city of roughly 350,000 people, where the personal compound of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat holds the wrecked remains of his helicopter, still painted in the green, red, and black colors of Palestinian nationalism (the helicopter was destroyed by a retaliatory Israeli missile strike two years ago). As the road heads out of Gaza City, the route Rachel traveled to Rafah hugs the Mediterranean coastline, passing light sandy beaches where Islamic custom requires modest attire, and passing another, special beach, where foreign tourists (if they ever come) will pay an entry fee for the privilege of being allowed to wear bikinis. Then the road turns inland, toward the dreaded Abu Holi checkpoint.
Abu Holi, which controls all traffic on the only road connecting northern and southern Gaza, is the supreme embodiment of everything Palestinians hate about Israeli occupation. It is unpredictable: You never know, when you head for Abu Holi, whether the checkpoint will be open or closed, or for how long. It is infuriating: Through its capriciousness, Abu Holi makes it impossible for anyone to make firm plans to travel from one part of Gaza to another, straining every part of the social fabric, from friendships to commerce.
On the other side of Abu Holi the road then passes the turnoff for the useless Gaza International Airport and runs by a destroyed Palestinian police station. Then the road passes al-Najar Hospital, where Rachel was brought after the bulldozer backed up and allowed her friends to dig her out—where she was pronounced dead from suffocation, where the hospital director, Ali Moussa, says, "We will remember this girl all our life."
Finally, the road arrives in Rafah, with its crushing poverty and its bullet-riddled houses facing the giant Israeli army watchtowers that look down on the city from the border with Egypt. It is along this border, the border between Egypt and Gaza, that Israel is constructing a massive metal wall.
Rafah has some small pockets of modernity—an Internet cafe, one restaurant. But more visible are the carts drawn by donkeys, the children wearing thin, dirty clothes. Fallen houses are scattered throughout the city, and not all of them owe their destruction to Israeli bulldozers—many seem to have slowly crumbled into ruin. A few roads are paved, but most are not. Houses are made of thin cement walls painted white; roofs are often sheets of corrugated metal. Murals paying homage to the Palestinian resistance and the destruction of Israel pop in vibrant colors from whitewashed walls. One shows crossed black Kalashnikovs behind an image of Jerusalem's gold-topped Dome of the Rock mosque. Another shows a blue Star of David burning in orange-and-red flames.
There is no need to guess how Rachel, a wisp of a girl from touchy-feely Olympia, reacted to this journey, and to her new hardscrabble surroundings. Her revulsion at the condition of the Palestinians in Gaza is clear from e-mails she sent home to her parents, and from an interview she gave to the Arab news channel MBC two days before her death. The tape of the interview shows Rachel standing on the roof of a Rafah home that looks directly at the Israeli watchtowers, at the new buffer zone, at the mammoth wall the army is building.
"I feel like what I'm witnessing here is a very systematic destruction of people's ability to survive," she says into the microphone, her neck wrapped in a kaffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian headscarf worn by Arafat. Behind her, Israeli tanks and bulldozers are moving about, digging up the orange-brown earth. "I feel a lot of horror about the situation."
In Rafah, Rachel found a group of people who shared her belief that the Palestinian people need foreigners to protect them from Israeli attacks. "I think it's a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop," she wrote home. "I don't think it's an extremist thing to do anymore."
Her cohorts at ISM Rafah were an international group, with members from both Europe and the U.S. It was a young group—most people were under 30, and many were closer to 20. And it was a group that held the potential for romance—a Swedish ISMer named Stefan Villkatt would soon become Rachel's boyfriend. Stefan left Rafah shortly before Rachel's death to return to Sweden. Later, he would show up at her memorial service in Olympia wearing a kaffiyeh and telling reporters that he had been planning to go back to Rafah to see Rachel at Easter when he found out she had been "martyred."
In addition to Stefan, there was Chris Allert, 31, also from Olympia, who joined the ISM in April 2002 after hearing about the intense fighting in the West Bank town of Jenin. It was Chris, a pale former computer programmer with downcast eyes and a distant expression, who convinced Rachel to come to Rafah rather than the West Bank, which usually gets far more attention from activists and the international media. Both he and Rachel liked the idea that they would be helping underdogs among the underdogs.
There was Will Hewitt, 25, another Evergreen student who arrived in Israel around the same time as Rachel. The two met up during ISM training near Jerusalem and arrived in Rafah on the same day, January 26. Will says that he has "been at war with the multinational corporations for some time now," and he considers the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle to have been his "baptism of fire." He still dresses in the WTO-protester costume: black fleece vest over a black hooded sweatshirt, its hood pulled up to frame his gaunt face and industrial glasses.
"I know that the U.S. gives massive amounts of money to Israel, and a lot of the money they give to Israel goes directly to the Israeli military," Will says. "A lot of my motivation in coming is that I'm already implicated. Everyone in the U.S. who pays taxes is already implicated."
And then there was Joe Smith, 21—yet another Evergreen student who, with his thick beard and red-checked kaffiyeh, looks like a better-fed, Palestinian-territory version of John Walker Lindh. Joe is from Kansas City, Missouri, and says he (like other Evergreen students) is getting independent study credit for his time in Rafah. He plans to gather the stories of local Palestinians and use them to write a play. "I saw ISM as a way that I could directly use my white, Western, American male privilege to directly serve underprivileged people of color," he says. Joe arrived in Rafah in January planning to stay only one month. Like a number of other ISM activists, he found he couldn't bring himself to leave. He now plans to stay through the summer. "This place is really addictive," he says.
When I arrive in Rafah, nine days after Rachel's death, there are nine foreign ISM members still in the city, most of whom were here when Rachel died.
In addition to the Olympia contingent—Chris, Will, and Joe—there is also Tom Dale, 18, from Lichfield, England; Nick Durie, 19, from Glasgow, Scotland; Richard Purcell, 31, from Brighton, England; Greg, 27, from Chicago; Alice, 27, from London; and Lora Gordon, 20, from Pittsburgh. (Greg and Alice did not want their last names used.) Lora and Alice are Jewish, but they keep quiet about their religion.
Of all of the ISM members in Rafah, Lora's journey to Gaza is the most interesting—and ironic. Lora dropped out of Grinnell College in Iowa last year because of money problems, and then found herself increasingly interested in the Middle East and her Jewish roots. She came to Israel on a "birthright" program run by Livnot U'Lehibanot, a religious organization that pays the travel expenses of American Jews who want to come to Israel to solidify their Jewish identity. When she finished with her birthright program, she took up residence with the foreign supporters of the Palestinian resistance—which, it is safe to say, was not what the birthright program directors were hoping for.
"It's really done a number on my Jewish identity," Lora says.
THROUGH THE WINDOW
From an early age, Rachel Corrie spoke up when she thought others were behaving badly. Her first-grade teacher, Donna Dannenmiller, speaking at a memorial service held for Rachel on March 22 at Evergreen, recalled a tattletale who ratted on classmates when they broke the rules.
"Imagine this six-year-old," Dannenmiller said, "coming up to me, her first-grade teacher, looking me square in the eye, saying, 'Donna! Did you know that at recess...!' And then she would proceed to explain, from her kid's point of view, what injustice was going on on the playground."
Pictures of a young Rachel show a skinny blond girl who wore pink socks and blue barrettes and a T-shirt with a rainbow on its chest. She could be impish and goofy, her teachers recall. But she could also turn powerfully serious when she was concerned about something.
"I can see her still, sitting at our discussion circles, cross-legged on the floor," Rachel's other first-grade teacher, Barbara Weaver, said at the memorial. "She asked a lot of 'Why?' questions. 'Why would that be?' 'Why would that happen?'"
Everyone who knew Rachel as a child tells the story of her speaking at a press conference on world hunger in 1989. She was in the fifth grade. A video of the event shows her wearing a dark blue sweater stitched with white snowflakes and evergreen trees, talking in a high, earnest voice: "I'm here because children everywhere are suffering, and because 40,000 people die each day from hunger.... We have got to understand that the poor are all around us and we are ignoring them."
Rachel's father works in the insurance industry. Her mother devotes her time to community work. They provided Rachel with a comfortable, middle-class childhood in an Olympia home with brambles out back.
"She grew up in a protected community," says Colin Reese, Rachel's former boyfriend. "She grew up in this liberal city, and she was limited in the scope of her experiences by how comfortable and how luxurious the United States is. I think she felt awkward as a result of that, because she knew so many people didn't have the same opportunities that she had."
Colin and Rachel met one night at a house where Evergreen students sometimes got together to read one another's writing and poetry. Everyone was drunk. Rachel and Colin ended up sitting together on a couch beneath an open first-floor window. She was a writer of poems, a compulsive doodler, the keeper of scads of private journals. Colin was tall and skinny like Rachel, but unlike her he was a bit more practical-minded, interested in studying economics.
"I was extremely confused and lost back then," Colin says. "And I think she was a little confused and lost, too."
Colin and Rachel talked for a time, and then they decided they wanted to leave together. There was a door on the other side of the room, but Rachel had another idea. She grabbed Colin and pulled him with her through the open window.
Even by Evergreen standards, Rachel was an exceptionally busy activist. She got into labor and environmental issues. She protested the war in Afghanistan (though she wasn't among those who thought the U.S. deserved the September 11 attacks). She worked at a mental health clinic. Picture a whirlwind of political activity, but also picture someone whose organizing efforts ended at her own doorstep: "She was the messiest girl I ever knew," Colin says. "Her ability to organize people and events and protests and so many things was so strong, [but] you did not want to see her closet."
Her relationship with Colin was intense but mercurial; she broke up with him a lot, he says. Their final breakup came around January, sometime after Rachel became intensely interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and learned about a group called the ISM.
ANARCHY AS POLICY
There are a number of remarkable things about the ISM in Rafah. First, there's the group's effectiveness. The ISM activists have acted as human shields for Palestinians working to repair Rafah water wells that have been destroyed by Israeli bulldozers. ISM Rafah has saved houses from demolition—in one case, Joe says, a bulldozer was coming toward a house not far from Dr. Samir's when the foreigners arrived and stopped things. "The bulldozer stood there for a second, didn't know what to do, and then turned around and left," Joe says. When a Palestinian was shot a while ago near the Rafah-Egypt border crossing and Israeli soldiers wouldn't let anyone walk into the area to retrieve the body, the ISMers say they took a stretcher, walked into the area despite Israeli fire, picked up the body, and removed it for burial.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the ISM is that it manages to contain so many contradictions while still functioning.
The group claims to operate completely independent of the Palestinian Authority and its various internal factions, but it also claims to be "Palestinian led." The group is dedicated to nonviolent direct action in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but it is using that nonviolent direct action in the service of a liberation movement whose favored direct-action tactic in recent years has been suicide bombings. And here is the most glaring contradiction: Virtually all of the foreign activists currently in Rafah characterize themselves as anarchists. They reject notions of hierarchy and even the very idea of a political state. Stefan, Rachel's boyfriend at the time of her death, is an anarchist and says that although Rachel didn't like labels, she could fairly be described as an anarchist too.
Yet the sole reason that Rachel, Stefan, and the other ISM anarchists go to Rafah is to aid a people whose driving aim for four decades now has been the creation of a state. In other words, the big dream of the Palestinians is antithetical to the big dream of the Rafah activists. This puts the foreign anarchists in a curious position as they work long hours in their nonhierarchical "affinity groups," helping the Palestinians pursue their nationalist aspirations.
One day I ask Joe, one of the three Evergreen students still in Rafah, about this as we are sitting around the cluttered ISM office on the third floor of a Rafah apartment building. The place looks like a college dorm—cushions, empty teacups, a laptop, sleeping bags—except that there are no empty beer bottles, no crumpled cigarette packets, no bong; the ISM members abstain from such indulgences in Rafah out of respect for their Muslim hosts. Joe is wearing smart eyeglasses and talking at a breakneck speed. Tom, who happens to be walking by at the moment, hears my question. He nods and gives me a thumbs-up. Apparently he has also considered the strangeness of the ideological landscape here.
"Yes, this is the difficult thing," Joe says of my question. And then he launches into a long and convoluted answer that is worth listening to for the glimpse it provides into the mind of an American ISMer:
"The way I think about it," Joe says, "is that I feel that I want to support the Palestinians as innocent individuals who have the right to live their lives and have the right to self-determination. And I'm doing work on the ground to directly serve these citizens.... This is their land, this is their lives that they're determining, and if [a state is] what they feel that they want, then I'll support that because that's what I'm here to do. And I don't judge them and try to say that a state is inherently oppressive."
However: "If it was up to me, I wouldn't create a Palestinian state," he says.
And if it were up to him, what would he recommend the Palestinians create instead?
"Well, I don't know. It's kind of complicated because I'm an anarchist," Joe says. "I believe in autonomy for all peoples and I believe in self-determination and I believe that states inherently take that away and are designed to rule and control people. I believe in kind of a world community made up of autonomous individual communities. And Palestine and Palestinian culture is clearly a distinguished ethnic/cultural identity. And Israeli Judaism is clearly an ethnic/cultural identity. And I would never want to do anything to try and say that they had to abandon either of them."
In his own anarchist way, Joe has now arrived at the heart of the problem, which will be familiar to anyone who has paid any attention to this conflict: Joe believes in the right to self-determination, but he can't figure out what to do when two "autonomous individual communities" self-determine that they both deserve the same piece of land. He can't figure it out because the anarchist logic can't deal with such a situation, which requires someone in charge, a willingness to make difficult decisions, and leaders to convince people to abide by new rules.
Bringing anarchy to this terrible conflict is like offering famine to starving people in Africa—people here have already had enough; they don't want any more. What they need—as they will tell anyone who will listen—is a political solution. What Joe offers is a wildly impractical dream that makes no sense.
Later, Tom tries his hand at answering the question: "I agree with you that it's a huge irony that we're helping, or at least ostensibly helping, build a state—that a lot of anarchists are doing that. They would reply, and to some extent I would reply, that what we are really here for isn't a state. We're here for the people, and as soon as they get a Palestinian state, we'll be against that one, too."
The Palestinians in Rafah have embraced the foreigners, despite their confusing ideology. This is probably because it is not grand political theories that the people of Rafah really care about. Half-baked, freshman-level political rhetoric is far less important here than daily survival. And what the people of Rafah know is that the foreigners care about them, and that the foreigners' white skin—at least until recently—has the power to turn around a tank, stop the shooting, stall the march of a bulldozer.
VIEW FROM JERUSALEM
A few days after leaving Rafah I head to Jerusalem to get the Israeli government view. Captain Jacob Dallal of the Israeli army sits down with me in the large West Jerusalem building that houses the government press office—a building that, unlike the buildings in Rafah, is fronted with large glass windows, none of them covered up or shattered. There has been a suicide bombing in Netanya on this day, injuring three dozen people, but Captain Dallal does not mention it. Such attacks are now part of the routine fabric of life here.
Captain Dallal is a slight, handsome man who wears a dark olive-green uniform and speaks with the brusque certainty for which Israelis are famous. He has clearly had the Rachel Corrie conversation a thousand times already, and sometimes slouches and looks off into the distance as we talk.
To begin with, he says, Dr. Samir's house was never under threat of demolition. Although the spot where Rachel was killed is extremely close to Dr. Samir's home, and although bulldozer tracks from that day seem to be headed in the direction of Dr. Samir's back wall, Captain Dallal says, "This was not an operation to demolish houses."
On the day that Rachel Corrie died, the army was using its giant American-made armored bulldozers to search for explosives that might have been planted in the buffer zone by Palestinians, according to Captain Dallal. It was not demolishing homes. (Since the beginning of the second intifada more than 700 homes have been demolished by the Israeli army in Gaza, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, the Palestinian equivalent of the Red Cross.) The protesters following the bulldozers were warned to stay away, and the army believed most were complying. "We did not know this woman was in the area," Captain Dallal says.
The mound of dirt the bulldozer pushed up near Dr. Samir's house obscured the driver's vision of Rachel, who was on the other side of the mound, according to this version of events. The armor covering the bulldozer also obscured the driver's vision.
"It's a very tragic incident," says Captain Dallal. "It was an accident. We don't want protesters—responsible or irresponsible—to be hurt." But, he says, "There's ways to make legitimate protests, even civil disobedience. This isn't civil disobedience. This is a very dangerous protest in one of the most dangerous places in the territories."
The Israeli army is conducting an investigation into Rachel's death and should be finished shortly. But Captain Dallal doesn't expect it to contradict what he told me. Rachel's family as well as her congressman, Brian Baird, have asked for an independent investigation.
After walking me through the official Israeli version of the Rachel Corrie incident, Captain Dallal moves on to a topic he's anxious to talk about. Something that has happened recently in Jenin.
"I don't think people in America, and especially those who wish the Palestinians well, would want to support a group that was found harboring an Islamic Jihad terrorist," he says. He explains: On March 27, the Israeli army went hunting in Jenin for a suspected Islamic Jihad member named Shadi Sukiya. They found him hiding in the ISM offices there.
The ISM in Jenin claims its offices were "invaded" by the Israeli army after its members took in an Arab man who showed up at their door at around 5:30 a.m. after a gun battle. "He looked terrified, was soaking wet, and appeared to be in pain," the ISM said in a statement. "Concerned about his welfare—under Israeli military curfew, Palestinians spotted in the streets are shot on sight—he was brought in." Eventually, Israeli soldiers knocked on the ISM office door and arrested Sukiya.
Captain Dallal's point is clear: The ISM, while claiming to be about nonviolence, actually harbors terrorists. Like the damaging photos of Rachel Corrie screaming as she burned an American flag at a demonstration in the Gaza Strip, the news that the ISM harbors terrorists could do much to undermine sympathy for the group in the United States. (Rachel's friends in Rafah hasten to explain that Palestinian children at the demonstration were burning both American and Israeli flags, and that they had asked Rachel to participate. Rachel felt she could not burn an Israeli flag. She did, however, feel she could burn the flag of her own country.) As Captain Dallal tells me about the recent arrest in Jenin, I remember something Joe said to me in Rafah. I had asked Joe how the nonviolent ISMers could support a Palestinian movement that uses violence, and he replied:
"I believe that all campaigns, all successful movements, are made successful by a variety of tactics. I do not believe that the civil rights movement was made possible solely by King's nonviolent movement. I believe that it was the variety of tactics, including the Black Panthers and Malcolm X's violent movements, in culmination with massive popular nonviolent direct action, that led to that kind of success." Joe, like other ISM activists, said he does not condone suicide bombings, but added, "I support the Palestinians' right to armed resistance and armed struggle. I believe they are acting in self-defense."
The ISM, it seems, likes to hang out in a gray area: The group's members don't condone suicide bombings, but they do condone armed Palestinian resistance. (And while the group says it doesn't support suicide bombings, the ISM hasn't placed any "human shields" in Tel Aviv pizza parlors or on Israeli buses—popular targets for Palestinian suicide bombers.)
Tom Wallace, 43, who has traveled from Boston to work as the ISM's spokesperson in Jenin, says the ISMers in Jenin had no idea who Sukiya was when they took him in that morning, and that they were only trying to help a man in distress.
And if, in the future, someone who the ISM knows to be a terrorist shows up at the office door requesting assistance?
"He's still someone who's hurt and needs help," Tom says, adding that ISM members in Jenin are now debating this very question. "Honestly, I don't know the answer."
THE OTHER VIEW FROM JERUSALEM
While in Jerusalem, I also speak with a leftist Israeli activist named Fred Schlomka, operations manager for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Members of his group do work similar to that of the ISM, though they do it mainly in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and no one among them has ever been killed.
To the average Israeli, he says, "Rachel Corrie was a stupid foreigner who had no business being where she was. In talking to Israelis about the ISM and what they're doing in the West Bank and Gaza, I would say the average Israeli response is to be indignant and to question what right foreigners have to come here, interfere in our country.
"It would be very similar if, say, in the United States during the civil rights era, when there were demonstrations for the rights of minorities, if hundreds of Germans and French and English people arrived in the United States, participated in demonstrations, conducted civil disobedience. I think your average American, perhaps even people who supported the civil rights movement, would wonder at the legitimacy of foreigners entering the country to participate in the internal politics of the country."
But to Schlomka, and to other members of the left, Rachel is a "hero."
"Instead of a few hundred, I wish some tens of thousands of people would come here to help," Schlomka says. "The world helped create this problem, the United Nations helped create this problem through helping establish the state of Israel." The world, he says, should help fix it. "And if that means that foreigners will come here and intervene on behalf of Palestinians who are undergoing repressive measures and human rights violations by the Israeli military, then as far as I'm concerned they are more than welcome to be here."
On my first night in Rafah I stay in a Palestinian home on the opposite side of the city from Dr. Samir's house. This home, too, faces the Israeli guard towers. It, too, is riddled with bullet holes inside and out. I walk there with Tom Dale, the 18-year-old from Lichfield, England, as darkness is falling. I have just told my driver and my fixer that it is fine to leave me in the hands of Tom, and as I walk I wonder whether that was a smart decision. Kids swarm around us asking for change. Earlier, I'd been told by the fixer to watch my wallet when they do this. A man standing in the shadows along the side of the road calls out to us in Hebrew: "Shalom!" I wonder if he can tell I'm Jewish. I wonder if he is baiting me, trying to find out if I am an Israeli spy. I say nothing and keep walking.
People stop following us as we turn onto the dirt road that holds the home we are to guard. The road ends at a berm of rubble that marks the beginning of the buffer zone. It is in the direct line of fire from an Israeli guard tower, and the only people stupid enough to walk straight down the middle of this road at night are "white privileged" foreigners. Tom tells me to stay in the middle of the street where the Israelis can see us—can see our white skin. I have brought my bulletproof vest with me, just in case.
The home at the end of the block belongs to Mohammed Jamil Qeshta, known to all as Abu Jamil. He is 47 years old and has a wife, Nora, and three children: Basant, who is two months old; Nancy, who is a year and a half old; and Jamil, who is three. They all sleep together in a room in the back of the house, as far away from the guard tower as possible.
Abu Jamil wears soft yellow Adidas warm-ups and treats his guests with disarming graciousness. He has lived in Rafah all his life. His parents lived here all of their lives. The street in front of his home is named after his grandfather. But now the houses on either side of Abu Jamil's home have been abandoned. He stays, he says, because he has nowhere else to go.
Watching Abu Jamil play with his kids, eating his food, I again remember something that Joe told me: "When we come and we stay with a family, and we eat dinner with a family, and watch them take care of their children, it's very clear that these people are normal individuals. Anybody can distinguish between clearly militant fighter terrorist types and normal, everyday people. Anybody."
He's right, I think. Abu Jamil is clearly not a terrorist. This home and these kids are no threat to anyone. And then I think: How would I know? I've never met a terrorist. It's possible that terrorists and militants can be gracious hosts, too, can be gentle with their children, just like everyone else.
As soon as I think this I feel guilty for doubting Abu Jamil, who is, after all, feeding me, a Jewish reporter blowing in and out of town for a story. And as soon as I begin to feel guilty for doubting Abu Jamil, I realize that there is the potential for a sort of Stockholm syndrome to be warping the Rafah activists' perception of reality—how can you allow yourself to think bad thoughts about someone who has fed you, has sheltered you in a dangerous city? How can you think critically when, like Rachel Corrie, you start to become a member of the family?
Over a dinner of vegetable salad and spiced eggs fried in oil, we listen to Abu Jamil's story. For 25 years, he says, he worked at a hotel in Israel. He earned good money—about $3,000 a month during busy seasons—enough to buy this house. But now, with the ability of Gazans to pass into Israel being severely restricted, he works in Rafah, at a cherry tomato plant. He earns less than $1 an hour there. In Holland, the cherry tomatoes Abu Jamil helps to grow sell for $4 a kilo. While at work, Abu Jamil is constantly worried about what is happening to his family and his home. Are the bulldozers coming? Are the soldiers shooting?
Tom and I guard Abu Jamil's house by sleeping on thin cushions on the floor of a room in which plastic orchids are hanging like a chandelier from the ceiling and several bullet holes scar the walls. Signs on the outside of the building tell the soldiers, in large letters, that internationals are here.
During the night we will be woken regularly by machine-gun fire and the grumbling of tanks moving up and down the buffer zone. In the morning, after a restless sleep, I will go up onto Abu Jamil's roof with Tom—the same roof on which Rachel gave her interview to the Arab news channel MBC, the interview in which she described her "horror" at the situation in Rafah. Before we step onto the roof, I will hide behind a wall in the stairwell and Tom will shout through his megaphone: "Journalists and international human rights observers are coming out."
We will step out. A warm wind will be blowing around us. We will see the towers, the giant metal wall, and Egypt on the other side of it. We will see Palestinian houses with their backs ripped off by bulldozer blades.
After a time, an Israeli tank will come out from behind the border wall and stop in front of us to take a look. I will look back at it, hoping to catch a glimpse of a soldier inside the armored turret, but there will be no hope in seeing a person behind the tank's armor. Neither will there be hope of seeing a person inside the towers, which are wrapped in black netting and camouflage. As with the Abu Holi checkpoint, the actual Israelis in Rafah are invisible. What people here see—what permeates their lives—are faceless, frightening machines and mammoth towers from which bullets sometimes fly.
But before we head up to the roof, before we sleep restlessly and wake early, Tom and I have The Talk.
"First thing is," he says, "what if bullets come through the walls? You're in your sleeping bag. What are you going to do?"
Until now, I have only considered this as a remote, theoretical possibility. But looking at the bullet holes in the wall in front of me, it suddenly seems possible, even probable. I have no idea. Maybe hide behind another wall, I tell Tom, one further inside the house. Maybe put my bulletproof vest on. Maybe put my bulletproof vest on Tom and hide behind him.
"I don't know, what's your plan?" I ask.
"No, that's the point, man," he replies. "You've got to decide."
This is the conversation ISMers have with themselves, or with each other, every time they sleep in a threatened house, every time they stand in front of a bulldozer. Decide: Just how far are you willing to go? There is a rush to it, and also a creeping sense of terror and uncertainty. Am I being foolish? Is this really worth it?
I decide I'm not willing to go very far. I retreat into journalist mode and tell Tom I'm here to observe, not to be anyone's human shield.
Fine, he says. He goes through some more possible scenarios—light shooting, heavy shooting. In both cases, Tom's plan is essentially to make himself visible and hope that this halts the firing. He has a bright orange jacket and a battery-powered fluorescent light and a megaphone and a white banner that says "Stop Shooting Us." He has his shoes laced up and pointing toward the door so that he can jump into them at a moment's notice. The only thing that would stop him from getting visible, he says, would be the Palestinians shooting back at the Israeli soldiers. That would mean a "legitimate military operation" would be going on, and he would stay out of the way.
Eventually, we reach the home demolition scenario. An announcement comes over a loudspeaker that the family should leave and that the house is going to be demolished in five minutes, he says. What am I going to do?
"What's the family going to do?" I ask.
"For sure, the wife and the children will leave," Tom says. "The bloke will probably leave as well, though he might stand."
His plan is to go up to the roof and sit on the edge of the building. Make himself visible and hope the Israelis halt their bulldozers, hope that the soldiers don't shoot.
"I'm hoping they won't shoot if I'm there," Tom says. "That's definitely the plan. Though honestly, my assumptions in these conversations are still pre- Rachel being killed."
In Rafah, it seems that there was a "before Rachel's death," and now there is a strange and uncertain "after."
Before Rachel died, the white foreigners were the magic bullet that could neutralize Israel's overwhelming military strength. To them, their civil disobedience, even if dangerous, was heroic. And the risk of death was worth the benefit to the downtrodden Palestinians.
Now, after Rachel's death, with posters around town proclaiming her martyrdom, the white foreigners are reevaluating.
In a place the activists tell me is Rafah's only restaurant—an upstairs cafe where men eat warm pitas and spicy kabobs while chattering in Arabic—Chris talks about life after Rachel. Earlier in the day, noticing that Chris seemed sullen and withdrawn, I asked another ISMer why. I was told Chris feels guilty for urging Rachel to come here, feels like he somehow contributed to her death.
But as we eat lunch, Chris now seems to be groping toward some sense of Rachel's own responsibility for her death. He laments how hard Rachel pushed herself to stop the damage to Palestinian homes, how frustrated she was when she couldn't stop it all.
"I always feel like she'd still be alive today if she wasn't so hard on herself," he says. "Like, you have to just admit that we do what we can. What people here really want us to do is just live and come back and tell other people who they are."
The next day, sitting on flower-print cushions in the nearby ISM office, Will says, "It's definitely caused people to rethink. We're in the process of deciding if and how to act as human shields. But we're already every night acting as human shields, by sleeping in the houses of people along the front line, in houses that are likely to be demolished."
Joe adds, "It's definitely a wakeup call. It's definitely easy to get cocky in this war zone when a tank is shooting at people and you walk up to them and shout at them, 'Hey, I'm here!' and they pack up and leave. You get so used to this idea, 'Hey, they won't hurt us.' It has really made me realize how naive and cocky I was."
For the Rafah activists, the process of figuring out what to do next has been slow going, and it is not helped by the fact that their strategy meetings are full of anarchists who don't like the idea of having a leader.
"We haven't got as much going on as we normally do," Tom says, showing his frustration. "Consensus, while lovely, is a little slow."
These are the big questions those in ISM Rafah are now grappling with: Was it worth it for Rachel to give her life? And is it worth it for the remaining foreigners to risk theirs?
"In terms of tactics and how to work, we're still trying to figure that out," Will says. "I think it needs to be done more carefully in the future."
Will, is your life worth a Palestinian house?
"I don't know," he says. "I would have to be in the actual situation."
Was it worth it for Rachel to give her life?
"I refuse to place a value judgment on people's lives. All I can say is that she was doing civil disobedience, she knew why she was doing it, she knew that there was a risk involved, she did it, and the way that she died was incredibly inspiring. She died in a way that brings people together, and that's a good way to die. But I would rather have her alive."
Joe, are you willing to die here in Rafah?
"I am willing to put my life at risk to protect a house."
Was the loss of Rachel's life worth protecting Dr. Samir's home?
"The spirit that she died for is worth a life. This idea of resistance, this spirit of resisting this brutal occupying force, is worth anything. And many, many, many Palestinians give their lives for it all the time. So the life of one international, I feel, is more than worth the spirit of resisting oppression."
We are in the ISM office when Joe and Will say these things to me, and after our conversations about anarchy I guess I shouldn't be surprised that they would use evasive abstractions and simplistic platitudes to speak about a friend so recently, so palpably, dead.
Earlier during my time in Rafah, in his house, I asked Dr. Samir a similar question. Dr. Samir, it was your house Rachel was defending when she died. If you could turn back the clock, would you rather have lost Rachel or your home?
Dr. Samir looked at me as if I were crazy, as if I had asked him to choose between one of his own children dead or his home destroyed.
"Of course, my building destroyed," he said. "Of course."