Inside Rafah‘s town hall, green plastic chairs are carefully arranged in rows to seat the college students, Palestinian Authority functionaries and swarthy activists who have come to pay their respects. They are all men, even though (or perhaps because) the tradition of seating mourning women and men in separate areas has been abandoned for this funeral.
A loudspeaker blasts the otherwise pleasant song of a children’s choir dressed carefully in pressed olive uniforms and lined up on one side of the room. On the other sit a group of Americans and Europeans, some gazing sadly at the children. One young man taps out a press release on his laptop.
The death of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American activist from Olympia, Washington, has gripped the town of Rafah in a way few others have. “They have come to see Rachel as a symbol,” explains Ziad Sarafendi, head of Rafah refugee affairs in the largely refugee town. “In every house, there is a picture. We printed 5,000 copies and they still want more. They see her as an American – and she is not even a Muslim! – who sacrificed for them.”
Corrie was killed in the early evening of March 16, as she and seven other international activists were trying to disrupt the razing of a Rafah neighborhood that edges an Israeli wall under construction. The college senior found herself facing the bulldozer alone, as other activists watched. Joseph Smith relates that Corrie was first sitting, then standing, when an Israeli bulldozer plowed the earth under her and then crushed her beneath its plow. Corrie was wearing a bright orange jacket and carrying a megaphone.
The activists had been trying to block the bulldozers for three hours when the incident occurred. At one point, a bulldozer had so nearly injured a man in the group that the tank overseeing the demolitions rumbled over to check for any damage, its commander poking his head out of the vehicle.
“He looked really appalled and surprised,” says Smith, “But clearly one of the bulldozers didn’t heed the warning.”
Seconds after the incident, as Corrie screamed that her back was broken, Joseph called Muhammed Asfour, 20. “He was with her and they were trying to get the ambulance to come, but it was too dangerous for them,” remembers Asfour. The internationals were in an area where no Palestinian dares to go. “When we were coming to them in the car,” says Asfour, “we saw the ambulance leaving and followed it to the hospital.” Corrie was declared dead upon arrival.
An Israeli military investigation is pending. No investigators from either the Israeli military or the United States government have contacted Smith.
From deep conviction
Asfour first met Corrie when she visited the home of his uncle, who lives in a house along Rafah’s endangered edge. The young English-speaking Palestinian soon became an invaluable aide to the members of the International Solidarity Movement, a loosely organized group of foreigners that assists Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Asfour remembers a young woman of conviction, with an artistic hand. “She would draw us caricatures,” he says, smiling. Because Asfour is studying to be a nurse, Corrie sketched him with that dream emblazoned over his head, and a balloon by his mouth filled with what must have been a familiar scold, “You are playing with your blood.”
“She believed deeply,” says Asfour, “that her government was doing a bad thing, bringing weapons here. She wanted to fix that, and she paid with her life.”
He shakes his head, “I can’t imagine what the guy who did this was thinking.”
Above him on a wall, a handmade poster puts order to this chaotic world: “Rachel,” it reads, “We love you between us as an angle [sic]. To your friends and parents glory and pride, to Zionists shame, and to our people, freedom and victory.” It is signed “the Rafah boy’s school.”
Rafah, an island at the southern tip of Gaza surrounded by Israeli military installations and well-armed settlements, has borne the brunt of nearly three years of devastation.
“Rafah and its camps had an economic problem before the Intifada,” says Sarafendi. “Now the Intifada and the Sharon government have increased the tragedy, especially in Block O, where they are really in critical condition.” Visitors before the Palestinian uprising could walk right up to the border with Egypt, accompanied by a gaggle of visibly impoverished children.
But Rafah’s boundaries on three sides are now slowly being eaten away by Israeli military bulldozers backed by tanks. Israel says the houses camouflage tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt. At the start of the Intifada, a visit to Salah Al Din Gate was a dangerous walk down a row of open stores. Today, there is no way to approach the razed area without drawing Israeli gunfire.
Nearly at the same time Corrie was killed, Ahmad Al Najjar, 43, was shot in the head while walking near his home in one of these Israeli-declared no man’s lands.
Corrie’s letters home reflect this atmosphere of mounting catastrophe. “Love you,” she writes to her mother in her fifth week here. “Really miss you. I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house and you and me inside. Sometimes the adrenaline acts as an anesthetic for weeks and then in the evening or at night it just hits me again – a little bit of the reality of the situation. I am really scared for the people here.”
Turned to dust
Palestinians sometimes say that the corpse of a martyr takes on a sweet smell because it is blessed in the act of sacrifice for country and God. Corrie, too, has become a true Palestinian martyr. “She was courageous,” eulogizes 23-year-old Sami Dahleez. “I have never seen anyone like her. She paid her bride price to Palestine.”
More deeply, her death is another blow to these residents’ tattered sense of security. “I never imagined this,” says Sarafendi quietly. “I thought her passport would protect her.”
Standing in front of the razed plain where Corrie was killed, my mouth fills with blowing sand. Bulldozers and tanks rumble past the maw of an abruptly ending lane. The grass and shanties that had sprung up here have all been ground to dust by the heavy Israeli machinery. Next in the bulldozer’s path is a gated cement villa, a pink rhododendron bloom arching over its gate.
At three in the afternoon, despite the dust storm, a group of some thirty Palestinians and foreigners walk to the site. One tank quickly appears, then another. The foreigners run a cat-and-mouse game with the military vehicles, throwing flowers on their treads and shouting through megaphones. There is the rapid fire of a mounted automatic weapon. Children scatter.
The gunfire continues throughout the night.
Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.