Of broken bodies and unbreakable laws

An ISM protest in Gaza against Israel’s shooting of Palestinian children. On the right, Rachel Corrie. (ISM Handout)

Civilian deaths in the Occupied Palestinian Territories hardly rate as news anymore. Such deaths are by now daily occurrences — a dime a dozen. Whether by gunfire, Apache helicopter attacks, prevention of access to medical care, or by bulldozer, hundreds of innocent Palestinian men, women, and children have died at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) or Israeli settlers since the start of the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada in September 2000. Given the lack of any concerted, effective, and timely international efforts to halt these daily killings, which constitute clear violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the civilian death toll is only likely to rise.

Last weekend, though, the murder of a civilian by the IDF in the Occupied Gaza Strip dominated international news headlines, evoking sorrow and outrage throughout the world. The victim in this case was a bright, eloquent, and courageous 23-year-old American activist, Rachel Corrie, a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington who had been serving as an International Solidarity Movement (ISM) observer in Gaza since January. Rachel, like thousands of other concerned and committed human rights activists from the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan, had left the comfort and security of home behind in order to assume the considerable risks of monitoring and lessening an increasingly lethal and lawless conflict.

Rachel went to Occupied Palestine to witness and prevent daily Israeli infractions of international law. From her reports on the International Solidarity Movement’s website, it is evident that she possessed true grit and a maturity beyond her years. Day after day, she and her comrades faced dangers, stood their ground, and never wavered in their commitment to protect the rights and even the lives of vulnerable Palestinian civilians.

Rachel’s murder last Sunday was not the first time she experienced IDF hostility. Despite constant dangers and recurring nightmares of menacing tanks and bulldozers, which she chillingly conveyed in e-mail letters to her mother, Rachel never got cold feet or ran away.

As an academic who is frequently asked by colleagues, “Aren’t you afraid to write and speak so openly about Palestinian rights? Is it really wise to take on Ariel Sharon?” I am humbled by Rachel’s courage, and feel embarrassed for my American colleagues who cannot muster the spinal fortitude to stand up in the relative safety of a classroom to speak truth to power. Clearly, Ph.D.s are not awarded for bravery or integrity.

Rachel’s bravery stemmed not from her intellect alone, but from something deeper: an unshakeable conviction that all human beings deserve freedom, safety and dignity. Rachel believed that International Humanitarian Law should be upheld and respected in the Occupied Territories, the site of a well-documented pattern of massive human rights abuses spanning nearly 40 years. Time and again Rachel, like other ISM activists, put her body in the path of the instruments of a brutal military occupation in order to defend and protect those rights and their holders: Palestinian men, women, and children, all of whom lack even the most basic legal protection of citizenship, since they also lack a state.

Where did Rachel, who grew up in a peaceful and idyllic town in Washington State, find the courage to face tanks, shelling, angry soldiers, and, on the last day of her life, a US-supplied armoured D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer that approached her threateningly more than once before actually running her down, crushing her body and leaving her mortally wounded on the sandy ground of Gaza? How did this young woman, who in her photos appears to be delicate and shy, muster the courage to defy a massive and well-funded military machine, megaphone in hand, commanding a gargantuan bulldozer to cease and desist its task of illegally demolishing yet another Palestinian home? Who gave Rachel this authority, this sense that she had not only the right, but also the duty, to say “no” to Israeli violations of Palestinians’ human rights?

The spirit and texts of International Humanitarian Law surely motivated and inspired Rachel to a great degree. Her own personal political and spiritual beliefs and convictions can be gleaned from the moving letters she wrote to her family and friends, but the rights she was attempting to defend, and the bases of their defense, are clearly encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions.

The Fourth Geneva Convention clearly establishes rules that safeguard the dignity and physical integrity of persons living under military occupation, including detainees and prisoners. It prohibits all forms of physical and mental torture and coercion, collective punishment, and reprisals against protected persons or property. It also prohibits the transfer of parts of the Occupying Power’s civilian population into the occupied territory (as seen in Israel’s now entrenched settlements policy); forcible transfer or deportation of protected persons from the occupied territory, and destruction of public infrastructure or personal property, except when such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.

Although International Humanitarian Law is broken daily throughout the world, like the bodies of civilians crushed beneath tanks and bulldozers, its spirit and vision endure, remaining strangely unbreakable and compelling. Maybe because it remains so necessary, or perhaps because its directives and implications are so unequivocal: All who have ratified the Geneva Convention are put on notice that they have not only the right, but indeed the duty, to bring violators of International Humanitarian Law to justice, to ensure accountability, prevent impunity, and thus defend the rights of civilians everywhere.

Clearly, those entrusted to uphold International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are the signatories to the conventions and the treaties comprising this body of laws. In legal parlance, they are known as “High Contracting Parties.” They are nation states, not young women holding megaphones. It is their duty, not that of college students from Olympia, social workers from London, retired accountants from Ann Arbor, or photographers from Madison and Tokyo to ensure Israel’s compliance with IHL and thus safeguard the rights and physical integrity of Palestinian civilians living under an increasingly harsh and vicious military occupation.

Over the last four years, two attempts were made to convene meetings of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention with the express intention of preventing Israeli violations of the Conventions, one in July 1999 and the most recent in December 2001. In addition, the UN General Assembly and Security Council have, on numerous occassions, called upon Israel to abide by the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of the people and lands it occupies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Besides some informative press releases, eloquent speeches, and extensive bureaucratic documentation, however, nothing much has come of these efforts.

In an official statement delivered to the Conference of High Contracting Parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention on 5 December 2001 in Geneva, then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson stressed that:

“The protection of the victim should be the overriding concern of the UN and its agencies and programmes. However, the failure to resolve the fundamental problem of occupation — an occupation which has continued for over 34 years — combined with the failure by successive Israeli governments to comply with the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention and international human rights standards, has left the population of the occupied Palestinian territories in a vulnerable situation, lacking protection and exposed to a wide range of violations.

“Protection needs to be accorded to the people of the occupied territories in strict compliance with the Fourth Geneva Convention. …Article 1 of the Convention places a duty on the High Contracting Parties ‘to respect and ensure respect of’ the provisions of the Convention ‘in all circumstances.’ To meet this challenge, legal and diplomatic mechanisms are available under the United Nations Charter, in addition to those created by the Convention itself.

“I would like to reiterate my call for the establishment of an international monitoring presence in the occupied Palestinian territories. I urge both Israelis and Palestinians to work towards ending the mutually destructive cycle of violence and to seek a return to negotiations, the aim of which should be to achieve peace through a just and durable solution, in conformity with fundamental standards of international human rights and humanitarian law.”

In the absence of US backing for, and Israeli acceptance of, Robinson’s proposals, it has fallen on the frail shoulders of young women like Rachel Corrie to uphold the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank. Without the backing, support, and affiliation of the High Contracting Parties to that Convention, Rachel and other ISM observers lack the necessary powers and protection accorded foreign ministers, UN peace-keepers, and diplomatic representatives to undertake this urgent task. Yet it is brave people like Rachel who keep alive the spirit of International Humanitarian Law, guarding its wavering flame during dark times such as ours.

Rachel Corrie lies crushed after the Israeli bulldozer driver drove over her, Rafah, Gaza, 16 March 2003. (Joe Smith/ISM Handout)

Rachel Corrie died for the sins of all High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions who have neglected to discharge their legally binding obligations to protect human rights and prevent impunity for confirmed rights violators. It should not fall on the shoulders of college seniors from Olympia, Washington to rectify the disasters and tragedies that nation states helped to create and are obligated to prevent.

The indomitable courage and will that Rachel demonstrated in confronting not only the bulldozer that killed her, but also the policies rooted in impunity that it represented, are commendable — nay, breathtaking. But without similar displays of resolve and courage from the United States and other High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, more Palestinian civilians, and undoubtedly more ISM observers, will be murdered by the IDF in the coming days and weeks, as Ariel Sharon is expected to maximize the advantages provided by a US war on Iraq to undertake additional ethnic cleansing in Occupied Palestine.

Confronting the face of impunity

The last face Rachel saw, as she peered at the driver in the cabin of the bulldozer that snuffed out her too-short life, was not the face of Israel or the Jewish people. Rather, it was the banal and ugly face of impunity, the face of total disregard for international law, justice, and morality; an image of the triumph of might over right. An inhuman face.

Ironically, Rachel’s killer was granted an honor and privilege few of us will ever know: He looked directly into the eyes of a humanitarian young woman of utter bravery, deep conviction, and selfless courage, a person who, when confronted with violence and hatred, refused to strike back to save herself or those she had pledged to protect, but relied instead on the sheer force of her spirit and her firm belief in the sacred principles of International Humanitarian Law. He saw humanity at its very best. She was a victim of humanity at its very worst.

In Gaza, Rachel is not being mourned as a victim, but rather, celebrated and honored as a martyr, a shaheeda, which is also the word for “witness” in Arabic. Though Rachel went to Gaza to be a witness in the conventional, legal sense of the term, and did not plan or hope to die, she, like all ISM participants, knew that death or injury was a distinct possibility. In giving her life, though, she became a witness to higher truths, principles, and imperatives in the same way that those killed during the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s witnessed their faith in the struggle for the eventual triumph of justice and democracy.

Rachel’s body was fragile, no match for a US-supplied armoured Caterpillar bulldozer; it is broken now, her life extinguished. The goals and visions for which she sacrificed her life, however, are as tough and resilient as was her spirit, and not so easily expunged. May the tragedy of her death, and the nobility and courage of her life, inspire all High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions to do their sacred duty and halt Israeli impunity.

Dr. Laurie King-Irani, one of the four co-founders of Electronic Intifada, is North American Coordinator of the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila (www.indictsharon.net). She teaches social anthropology in Victoria, British Columbia.