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Film Review: Rachel (2009)

May 4, 2011

Guest post by: S. P.

I arrived outside the Barbican Centre on Sunday with two of my friends. The Barbican was hosting the Palestine Film Festival and because we had become acquainted in Palestine last summer this seemed like an excellent opportunity for a meet-up. In fact, the choice of film was particularly resonant. The film was Rachel, a documentary about the Palestinians’ ‘American shaheeda’ Rachel Corrie who we all knew had been killed in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer. The documentary was filmed by French-Israeli documentary filmmaker Simone Bitton, who gave a Q&A session after the screening.  The film’s playing at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival caused an outcry amongst those sadly brainwashed into thinking this murdered activist who was struggling for justice was defending “terrorists” instead.

Rachel had been active with the International Solidarity Movement, the same group we had volunteered with last summer. As I expected, there were many more familiar faces in the queue outside the cinema, the film had naturally become a point of congregation for ISM old hands. Even beyond those I personally recognised, there were friends-of-friends who had come with their own clear first-hand memories of solidarity in Palestine. One friend gave us all a tissue, expecting we might find ourselves sobbing in the film.

The film begins with activists and Palestinians talking about the situation in Rafah at the time. Israel had built a 13 metre high wall surrounding the Gaza strip, enabling it to exert total control over the lives of the 1.5 million Palestinians living inside. Rafah is a town of 70,000 alighting the border with Egypt; four-fifths of the population are UN-registered refugees from the Nakba. At the time the wall was built, it was abutted by dense Palestinian housing. This contradicted the Israeli army’s desire to create a several-hundred metre wide corridor along the Palestinian side of the border, the “Philadelphi route”. To achieve their aim, the Israeli army used Caterpillar D-9 armoured bulldozers, protected by tanks, to crush Palestinian homes. By the time they withdrew in 2005, there was only mud where there had been homes and grass before.

The International Solidarity Movement had been started in 2001 by Palestinian and non-Palestinian activists. It is based around the principles of solidarity and nonviolent direct action, and of being Palestinian-led. When invited by Palestinians, internationals could be a useful asset. Under Israeli apartheid law, internationals have far higher legal status than the Palestinian non-people, a horrible fact that can be exploited. For example, at demonstrations the Israeli army is ordered not to fire live ammunition if there are internationals present, so in theory an international presence should improve the safety of all the participants (although the army often ignores its own directives). All actions are Palestinian-led since those who have lived under occupation all their lives have a far better understanding of whether, for example, removing a road block would improve the situation or would pointlessly cause Israeli reprisals.

In Rafah, 2003, some ISM activists were staying with Palestinian families in the houses most exposed to the Israeli army, those separated from the wall by nothing but an expanse of mud, next in line to be demolished. In the film, an Israeli soldier talked about how these demolitions were achieved. There was no “notice to quit” served; instead, an Israeli tank accompanying a bulldozer would fire a shell at the house to see if anyone was in. When they deemed there had been sufficient time for anyone to come out of the house and run away, obviously without any of their belongings, the armoured bulldozer would destroy the house, only a couple of minutes after its occupants learned that day would be different from any other day under brutal occupation. In theory the activists might provide a deterrant to the army who knew that, sadly, a death of an international would be an international PR disaster compared to the commonplace death of a Palestinian. Moreover, and perhaps more realistically, the activists were there as an act of solidarity, to stand alongside Palestinians and show that the entire world hadn’t forgotten about them; that it wasn’t time to despair.

I had read the accounts of Rachel’s death many times online so I was somewhat desensitized to the emotional power of its retelling, but I was still angered, furious to learn about the campaign of every-day terrorism the Israeli army waged against the Palestinians of Rafah. Two ISM activists interviewed in the film were British men active in Rafah at the same time as Rachel Corrie and they talked about the difficulty of sleeping while different types of automatic fire seemed to be going off all around the homes of their Palestinian hosts. In case there are any doubts about their integrity, the filmmakers interviewed an Israeli tank gunner who talked about the policies along the Philadelphi Route. I found that segment of the film the most difficult to watch.

Unlike all the other interviewees, the kippah-wearing Israeli veteran was filmed from behind, in shadow and silhouetted by a window. Obviously, he was too ashamed to show his face. He talked about the orders he had been given to shoot at the houses every hour to keep the Palestinians “scared”. This brought to mind the incessant Israeli shrieking about rockets from Gaza, oversized fireworks which are overwhelmingly likely to land in the desert. How can this be called “terrorism” with a straight face by a country which orders its soldiers to shoot at houses with the explicit aim of keeping people “scared”? Unlike an unguided rocket, if a tank fires at a house from a hundred metres it will not miss. The activists talk about seeing bullet holes indicating a bullet’s trajectory directly over a kitchen sink, at head height – all in the name of “security” for Israelis.

The tank gunner talked about how they would sometimes have less strict commanders, who would let them shoot more than to strategically keep Palestinians scared, but simply for “fun”. He would sometimes shoot through the water tanks on top of Palestinian homes because they got hot and it looked “cool” through the night vision goggles. When asked if he thought about the fact this was the drinking water supply for a whole family, he said he did not. (Palestinian homes are typically supplied water from tanks on their roofs. In such an arid climate, this resource is scarce and precious. A 2009 World Bank report called water-related humanitarian crises “chronic” in Gaza.

He was asked whether he had ever killed anyone. Yes. Any civilians? He’s sure so; he had shot a woman and a child. He said he was religious, and he didn’t feel like his role had conflicted with that. The interviewer asked whether he had fired tank shells at civilians, and he said no: it was not allowed to fire tank shells for ‘fun’, only at militants. I almost find myself thinking “thank goodness” that he wasn’t allowed to fire tank shells for ‘fun’ since I’m sure he would have, but then I think about how utterly disgusting it is to even think of such a rule. Whoever came up with this rule obviously must have said: “Well, we can’t shoot tank shells at civilians, because they need some sort of protection. But the amount of protection they should get does not include not being fired at by live ammunition.”

Live gun ammunition is designed to kill just as absolutely, just as finally and irrevocably as a tank shell, but some military commander thought it was OK to shoot it at civilians to keep them scared. If the commander had said to shoot with whatever, then that would be evil, morally repugnant, but stemming from a mere absolute disregard for Palestinians. But the rule which says “live rounds but not tank shells” seems even more shocking in some sense, because it says yes: Palestinians are moral persons, we should take their interests into account, but no: they are not important enough that we should not shoot live rounds at civilians. The fact that they have obviously thought about the morality of shooting civilians, but still allowed live ammunition, I find more deeply disturbing than if they mindlessly shot anything at anyone. In the eyes of the Israeli army, the Palestinians have some sort of rights, but not human rights, just rights like we give animals to have their welfare considered fleetingly before we butcher them all the same.

The veteran said he didn’t feel he was doing wrong at the time, but after he left the army he realised he had been. But he admits, if he returned to the army he’d do it the same again.

The footage about the details of Rachel Corrie’s death did not add anything to what I had learned before about what actually happened. Corrie had been standing in the path of a 64 ton bulldozer as it drove towards the home of the physisician Sameer Nasrallah. It didn’t stop and she was crushed under its scoop. It reversed, crushing her again. It was interesting to hear the Israeli bulldozer operator on the radio saying he realised someone had been hurt, but saying that he thought a stone fell on them.

In 2010, so too late to be mentioned in this film, Corrie’s parents brought a civil suit against Israel. Israel refused access to the Gaza strip physician who had attended to Rachel after she was crushed, and the court also refused to let him testify via video. An Israeli military Colonel claimed in the trial, absurdly, “there are no civilians in war zones” – an attitude which is consistent with the Israeli army’s butchery of innocent Palestinians in Rafah. The trial is ongoing.

In 2005 Israel “withdrew” from the Gaza strip (whilst leaving it under a crushing and illegal blockade). The Egyptians were handed control of the Philadelphi route. In February Mubarak’s regime fell and last week the Egyptians promised to open the Rafah border crossing permanently, although the change has not been made. The Israeli vice-Prime Minister said he was “worried” about this, but notably there are no jingoistic threats of retaking the Philadelphi route, threats they were happy to make when Mubarak was in control. Hopefully this is a sign of a positive effect of the Egyptian revolution on the Israeli occupation.

The day after Rachel Corrie was murdered, 12 Palestinians were killed in the occupied territories including 4 year old Ilham Al-Assar. There will not be any inquiries into their deaths.



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