Thursday, August 30, 2012

Empty-handed in the battlefield

It was a long and detailed ruling which Judge Oded Gershon of the Haifa District Court had composed, no less than 162 pages. Of course, no media outlet published the entire text. But a few selected sentences starred in all the new items, a representative sample:

"The Philadelphi Route was the arena of constant war, of ongoing sniper fire, rocket fire and explosive charges. None other than combat soldiers ventured there... The bulldozer crew was conducting a clearing operation under fire. The late Rachel Corrie chose to take a risk, which ultimately led to her death... The deceased had gotten herself into a dangerous situation... She did not stay away, as any sensible person would have done. The deceased's death was caused by an accident which the deceased brought on herself, despite the attempts of the IDF troops to remove her and her friends from there... Under the circumstances, the IDF unit's conduct was impeccable."

Indeed, the area known as the "The Philadelphi Route" – originally, a  code name randomly determined by an IDF computer - was a war zone. An arena of the most difficult and frustrating kind of war in which a military force find itself, being charged with maintaining control over a very narrow and very long piece of land, locked between the Gaza Strip on one side and Egypt on the other. Moreover, the force's main task there was to maintain a suffocating siege on millions of people in the Strip and deny their access to essential commodities. Which made Gazans desperate and embittered, with every incentive to confront the Israeli forces in every way available to them.

It was indeed the arena of an ongoing war, a war difficult and frustrating even for the soldiers to whose lot it fell to be sent there. Still remembered is the bitter day when we could see on TV soldiers get on their knees on the land of The Philadelphi Route, trying to find pieces of the bodies of their comrades who had been inside a blown up armored personnel carrier.

Still, Judge Gershon was certainly not accurate when he wrote that combat soldiers were the only people there, in the hell of the battlefield called The Philadelphi Route. Very many, civilians were there, too - men and women,  elderly and children – in their thousands and tens of thousands. The civilians  were there because it was their home, the only home they had - even if it was quite miserable. They had lived there before it became the scene of battle and before it came to be called Philadelphi. Many of them had come to live there because their original homes had become a battle zone in a previous war, the one which convulsed this country in 1948. And they stayed there, even when it had become the Philadelphi battle zone and the Philadelphi corridor became an arena of battle, even when some them got killed by the bullets of snipers and the explosion of explosive devices, because they literally had nowhere else to go.

And then somebody conceived a brilliant idea. The man's name was Yom Tov Samia, and he was an outstanding officer in the Israel Defense Forces who climbed fast through the ranks until he became Commanding General South. And General Samia had an idea how to win the lost war along the Route. To take up "clearing" - a word invented by the Israel Defense Forces, the kind of word which armies make up to hide horrors behind neutral words - on a truly grand scale. To create a "sterile" space, completely sterile and without life, a kilometer or two wide. A completely flattened area with no houses and no people and no animals and no plants, nothing but soldiers and weapons of war moving in safety, as they could notice from far any possible threat and take action to neutralize that  threat. In purely military terms, it must be said, there was some logic to this idea. Only, it implied the destruction of thousands of houses in which tens of thousands of people lived, half or three quarters of a  city called Rafah.

Probably General Yom Tov Samia would have liked to do it all at once, in one blow, to erase "shave off" all these thousands of houses in a single day and by the next  complete the sterilization of the area. But this might have caused a bit too much of an international stir, become an instant item of "Breaking News" on CNN and other networks, and the political echelon did not give its approval. So the Caterpillar D-9 bulldozers were set to working by the good old method of creating "facts on the ground" bit by bit, acre by acre. Each time they erased and "shaved off" another row of houses, sometimes twenty, sometimes thirty. Usually the residents of these houses managed to jump out and run at the last minute, but some were not quick enough and were buried under the ruins of what had been their homes. In the city of Rafah, photos of those victims were printed and pasted on the walls, but media outlets in the wider world were not really interested.

That was the time when volunteers started arriving on the scene, the people of the International Solidarity Movement, ISM. Yes, that organization to which Judge Gershon paid much attention in his verdict, stating that it was "abusing the discourse of Human Rights and morality" and that its acts are "violent in essence". Activists from Europe and America and all over the world came to the Gaza Strip and asked where Palestinians were most suffering from the occupation's harshness and were in greatest need of assistance and international solidarity. And they were told that Rafah was such a place. And they came to Rafah and were hosted by families on the very front line, where their hosts already knew that they were next in line for the D-9's.

And there were activists who after months in besieged Rafah went to rest and freshen up in their own quiet and safe homes at Copenhagen or Barcelona or Sydney - or Olympia in the  State of Washington in the United States - and when they returned to Rafah they found that the house where they had stayed the last time no longer existed, not a trace of it left, and the plot on which it had stood had become part of the sterile space.  Another house, which had been further back, was now the new front line.

And then they decided to do what a person who cares, who cares very very much, could to do in such a situation. To go unarmed into the battlefield and arena of war called the Philadelphi Route. To stand with empty hands against tanks and bulldozers, and to scream and cry out towards those who did not really want to hear. To face empty-handed and unarmed the might of the Israel Defense Forces. To interpose with their bodies and interfere with implementation of the brilliant strategic plan of General Yom Tov Samia.

Maybe there is something in what Judge Oded Gershon wrote. A sensible person – the kind of sensible person which Judge Gershon himself is, and his friends and acquaintances - would not have done it. Judge Oded Gershon would certainly not have seriously considered facing with his bare hands a giant bulldozer, nearly as big as a house. "The deceased had knowingly gotten herself into a dangerous situation." There is no doubt that she did. A very dangerous situation. Jewish and world history marks a young boy named David, who knowingly placed himself in a very dangerous situation, facing a fearsome giant called Goliath. It might be that he was not a very sensible person, either.

"The bulldozer driver and his commander had a very limited field of view. They could not notice the deceased" wrote Judge Gershon. One might add that also the commander of the commander had a very limited field of view, and even the commander of the commander of the commander. A very limited field of view, in which only the immediate military considerations and objectives could be seen. A very limited field of view in which human beings could not be seen, a living city could not been as it was being destroyed and razed and erazed and made into a sterile zone. A very limited field of view where it was not possible to see a young woman who followed the dicates of her conscience and came all the way from the West Coast of the United States to Rafah in the Gaza Strip, to risk her life in a desperate act of protest.

At the exit from the Haifa District Court, Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother, spoke to the journalists. Hurt and shaken by the verdict she said "In that home which  Rachel was trying to protect there were children. All of us should have been there, to stand with her."

Two years after the day when the bulldozer crushed Rachel Corrie to death, Israel's political and military leadership decided to terminate the hopeless fighting on the Philadelphi Route and withdraw the soldiers who have endured  Hell there and made a Hell for others. Media attention had impeded  implementation of  General Samia's grand design, and only a portion of the city of Rafah has actually become an "exposed"  sterile area.  Samia himself left the army in frustration and embarked on a successful career in the business world.

The situation of the Palestinians is far from bright. The occupation continues, with many different forms of oppression manifesting themselves every day. Also for continuing the tight siege of the Gaza Strip, new and creative ways were found even without having Israeli troops holding The Philadelphi Route. But that particular battle scene is now quiet, there are no more soldiers or bulldozers there. The home which Rachel Corrie was trying to protect had been rebuilt shortly after the soldiers left, and also the rows of houses in front and behind it. The children are playing there, more or less quietly.

She did not die in vain.