By Jeremy Salt
Watching for the second time a documentary on the life and death of Rachel Corrie (‘Rachel Corrie: Death of an Idealist,’ Channel 4, 2004) remains a distressing experience.
The brutality of her death is in the forefront, but behind it lay the life of a young woman who did not come to Palestine to die but to defend the human rights of a people being subjected to a slow-motion genocide. The Palestinian people took her to their hearts. Over seven decades they have lost their children, too, but Rachel’s death meant much to them, because she did not have to come to Palestine. She could have stayed at her college in the US, disturbed by what she was reading, but getting on with her life. Instead, she travelled to Gaza and stood defiantly in front of the massive bulldozer that crushed her to death.
Rachel’s parents followed her to Gaza six months later. They are obviously good people, thrust from the comfort of their home into a new life of darkness by the phone call notifying them of their daughter’s death. They could move into Gaza only with the permission of the people who have turned it into a hellhole and who then frightened them by opening fire close to the places they were visiting.
The Corries came out of their world in Washington state asking questions on the basis of a morality based on empathy, fairness, justice, respect for the rights of others and regret for wrongs done, and they cannot be faulted for failing to understand that there is no point talking to representatives of the Israeli state on this basis.
From the beginning the Zionist project was based on the conquest of Palestine and the displacement of its people. There could no room for compassion. There was to be nothing incidental about it. The settlers had to be prepared to do what was necessary, which in 1948 included massacres, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people, the destruction of their villages and the seizure of their land. Sentiments common to humanity had to be expunged. That was the way it was in the beginning and that is the way it has remained ever since.
There was no sympathy for the Palestinians in the bulldozer driver who killed Rachel Corrie and there is no sympathy for them in the words and deeds of Benyamin Netanyahu. What has been coming out of his mouth and out of the mouths of politicians, generals and rabbis for decade after decade is hatred, contempt, jeering and threats, poisoning the whole of Israeli Jewish society down to the children in their classrooms. If Rachel Corrie died, it was because she deserved to die: if she deserved to die it was because she was supporting Palestinians threatening the state of Israel.
In Jerusalem the Corries spoke to the father of a young woman who was killed in the suicide bombing of a bus stop. Being fair they wanted to see the situation from both sides and being fair and decent they would not have pointed out to the father that his daughter was as much the victim of occupation as their daughter, the victim of the Zionist occupation of Gaza on one hand and of the Zionist occupation of Jerusalem on the other.
The Corries sued the state for a nominal $1 in damages. What they wanted, clearly, was not money but recognition of the unlawful killing of their daughter. From a lower court to the Supreme Court their case was rejected, on various ground, according to the evidence of the bulldozer who claimed he could not see her, a lie, because he had seen her. She was standing on top of the mound of earth his blade had turned up, high enough for her to see him in his cabin and for him to see her and to stop what he was doing because of the danger to her life, yet he kept going and broke her back under the bulldozer.
An army officer suggested Rachel had been ‘cynically sent to the front to the terrorists.’ The Jerusalem Post, which once openly called for the murder of Yasser Arafat, illustrated one of its articles on the killing with a photo of Rachel with her head wrapped in a black scarf, clearly intended to tell the reader that she was not just a decent American as they were being told but a terrorist. Before Rachel was killed, the driver of another bulldozer had opened the door of his cabin to shout at activists that they had no right to be there. That was also the opinion of the Israeli courts so essentially what happened was her fault. Is there any need to comment on the irony of such attitudes?
Subsequently the International Solidarity Movement was banned from Gaza and the home of the doctor close to where Rachel was killed, a home in which she had been received with the gracious, warm hospitality typical of Palestinians everywhere, destroyed by bulldozer. Since then Gaza has come under two major armed onslaughts (2008 and 2014) and thousands more Palestinian homes have been destroyed and lives lost.
Perhaps the Corries realise now, more than they could have in 2003, that when it comes to the Palestinians and those who support them, Israel is completely devoid of the moral principles which people like the Corries live by. It is not just that such standards do not apply when it comes to the Palestinians. They do not even exist. In a state committed to taking everything the Palestinians ever owned or ever were they cannot be allowed to exist. Justice for the Palestinians or respect for their rights as written into international law cannot be allowed because the Zionist state would disappear if they were allowed. To enable Israel to exist as a Zionist state Palestinian existence has to be brought as close to possible to non-existence. The Zionist presence depends on a Palestinian non-presence. All the tools at hand are employed to continue this process.
In the courts and by the government there is always understanding for the soldiers and civilians who kill Palestinians, amounting virtually to encouragement to keep killing them. Except in the most exceptional circumstances justification can always be found, perhaps the failure to stop when told, or the knife on the ground or the movement of a hand put forward as the reaching for a weapon. With impunity virtually guaranteed, soldiers have the freedom to do whatever they want. They terrorize families in the middle of the night, they beat, they bully and they kill, and the armed settlers do the same. Such is the corruption of natural human morality generated by Zionist ideology. In The Decadence of Judaism in Our Time, Moshe Menuhin, the father of the celebrated violinist Yehudi, was writing about this half a century ago and by an increasing number of Jews around the world, this is exactly how Zionism now is being seen.
Two recent examples underline the point. One is Ahed Tamimi, jailed since last December for slapping an Israeli soldier after he had slapped her and now being tried in court hearings closed to the public. Her mother and her cousin have also been locked up. The slap followed the serious wounding of a cousin with a rubber-coated steel bullet, the Israeli military putting out the lie that the damage was caused when he fell off a bicycle. Considering the trivial nature of Ahed’s ‘offence’, no gun, no knife, just one slap with a girl’s hand, the Israeli reaction was quite hysterical, but Ahed had been challenging the state since she was 11 (she recently turned 17) and such defiance could not be allowed any longer. The journalist Ben Caspit thought she should be taken to a dark place and punished where there were no witnesses. Naftali Bennett called for her to be imprisoned for life, others thought the whole Tamimi family should be locked away for good.
The other case is Elor Azaria, who committed the heinous crime of killing an already wounded man in Hebron. In March, 2016, he walked up to Abd al Fatah Aziz as he lay wounded on the ground, cocked his assault rifle and shot him in the head. The victim may have died anyway as the soldiers around him had not bothered to summon medical aid but Azaria’s action was still murder, pure and simple, not the offence of manslaughter with which he was charged in a military court. It was a crime of hatred and cowardice wrapped into one, a crime which should have horrified even his family, but there they were in court, hugging and kissing this disgusting individual. The politicians, led by Netanyahu, joined in with expressions of sympathy, not for the family of Abd al Fatah al Aziz but for his killer, calling for his pardon as he was only doing his job, which of course, by killing yet another Palestinian, whatever the pretext, he was.
Azaria was not even imprisoned but ‘detained’ on a military base, where, it can be assumed, he was treated as a hero by many of his comrades and had access to all the conveniences of base life. In September last year Gadi Eizenkot, the chief of staff of what is called the Israel ‘defense’ forces, decided to reduce Azaria’s sentence by four months to 14 months even though he noted that Azaria had shown no remorse (why would he when even the politicians were treating him a hero). His actions had been in contradiction with the values of the army (untrue – they were perfectly consistent with the actions of the army as demonstrated over decades by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, in Gaza and Lebanon). His behavior – the shooting of a wounded and unarmed man in the head – had been ‘improper’. That was it: killing a wounded man by shooting him in the head was ‘improper’ but then Al Aziz was not just a man, he was a Palestinian.
In March, 2018, Azaria applied for his minimal sentence to be cut in half so that he could be released before the end of the month to enjoy Passover with his family, so watch for the court’s decision.
Each of these stories sheds a familiar light on the Israeli state. Rachel Corrie was not the first American citizen to be killed by Israeli. Excluding Palestinian or Arab American citizens who may have been killed in Israel’s wars, 34 Americans were killed when Israel tried to destroy the USS Liberty in 1967. In 2010 a Turkish American citizen, Furkan Dogan, was murdered, with other supporters of Palestinian rights, when heavily armed Israeli commandos attacked the Mavi Marmara aid ship. The US government has never intervened to protect the rights of its citizens under physical attack by Israel: in the case of the USS Liberty it has smothered the truth to the present day.
Ahed Tamimi may be a child but Israel has a record stretching back to 1948 of showing no respect for the lives of Palestinian or Arab children: they have been massacred, they have been killed by snipers, they have been beaten and locked up in cages. Elor Azaria is a contemptible little wretch, a cowardly killer, who took the life of a wounded man incapable of defending himself, yet has been treated as a hero. The agents of the state, police and undercover agents, have done this countless times in the past, murdering unarmed civilians and ‘terrorists’ they have captured. As Naftali Bennett has said of himself, it’s no big deal to kill ‘Arabs.’
The moral rot here is very deep. The white South African supremacists had the commonsense to voluntarily dismantle apartheid before the wave crashed and build a state with equal rights for all. The Zionists have no intention of following suit: why should they as long as they have the power and the money to keep going? They have crushed all hope of an equitable solution and are already preparing for their next war: like many in history before them, they cannot see the possibility of a time coming when what they could have had for nothing the day they will not be able to get any price. How to maintain hope in this apparently hopeless situation is the problem at hand.
– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.