Israel violently disrupts Rachel Corrie memorial service in Gaza

Demonstrators Confronting Israeli APC, Rafah

On the 18th of March three of Rachel Corrie’s friends from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) were delivering her body to Tel Aviv as three friends and I entered the Gaza Strip. Her brutal murder by the Israeli solider, fortified in a bulldozer, was the first topic of discussion with community members from the Palestinian police officers who checked our passports to the children in south Rafah who live beside the place where Rachel was killed.

It took just over an hour, driving through shambles of Gaza’s streets which are all too familiar with death and violence, to reach the Rafah community center where a memorial service was taking place for Rachel. The walls in Rafah are now covered with her martyr posters and every passerby I spoke with mentioned how ‘terribly sorry we are for her death…we are honored she came to us.’ Flowered wreathes and commemorative banners were sent to the community center from elementary school classes, ministries of the Palestinian National Authority, and organizations such as the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. A group of fifteen schoolgirls beautifully sang while community members gave condolences to Rachel’s fellow ISM activists.

Rachel’s martyr poster and PNA banner

While the center was a space for discussion and remembrance, emotional release for many came from the afternoon demonstration at the place where Rachel’s life was crushed; over forty people came to lay carnations and revile the Israeli military. There is almost no coherent way to explain what took place during the protest in south Rafah. One should first know that Israel is in the process of clearing this entire neighborhood which rests along the Egyptian boarder; families are literally on the margin of their livelihoods. The entire situation easily evokes feelings of despair, fraught with frustration and anger.

The crowd approached the land in front of Dr. Samir’s house- the home which Rachel died defending. It was not long before an Israeli Armored Personal Carrier (APC) arrived to disrupt the demonstration. A tug-or-war battle erupted between the demonstrators and the APC; each alternated between pushing the other back over an area of cleared homes. The APC would remain still long enough for people to toss a bright carnation onto its cold steel or unroll and hold up Rachel’s martyr poster, then it would the thrust forward or backward in order to provoke the crowd to follow.

My mind repeatedly wondered how Rachel’s friends were dealing with the trauma of witnessing her malicious murder. The range of emotional responses manifested itself throughout the demonstration; some people could not stand on the earth where her body had fallen without crying, others preferred to keep distant from all action, and a few directly confronted the APC which emotionally terrorized the crowd. The APC driver knew how to inflame the situation, how to reach through the metal cockpit and pierce the inside of people’s emotions. This is something, the tactics of psychological torture, that the Israeli military knows well.

Through the loudspeaker an ISM activist call out, “We are her to protest the killing of our friend by one of your friends.”

The unknown person inside the APC responded by zipping closer to the homes, on top of the area where Rachel was pulled under the bulldozer’s blade. After digging up the dirt the machine withdrew to smugly await the crowd’s next action. At this point Dr. Samir joined the crowd late, having returned from work at the hospital, and his legs forcefully took him to the front of the mass. He held a poster of Rachel across his chest with one hand and the other, a tightly closed in a fist, shook angrily in the air.

Several sound grenades where fired, always when the crowd was close to the protected APC. Most people’s attention shifted briefly from the APC in front of them to the distance where another APC and bulldozer were approaching. This was my first time seeing a Caterpillar bulldozer specially designed for demolishing homes; its sickening demeanor brought nausea into my heart. The convoy passed through the crowd without stopping, was it going to or returning from a home demolition?

A tear gas canister hot in the hand

While filming the event I distantly remained behind the crowd with residents who came to watch the fervent event. Children in the neighborhood were excited and interested in my camcorder, as kids usually are, and enjoyed speaking to me about how everyday there were tanks and bulldozers firing and tearing up homes. Though Palestinian children face military machines daily, I was incredibly concerned for those who watched internationals running up to push their hands against or throw a carnation onto the front of the APC; they attempted to follow these actions. Does such an event screw their sense of safety, influence a belief that they too, like internationals, might be able to charge a tank? I found myself bribing the children to stay back and film with my camera since the ‘view is better further away.’ Where will their small feet take them tomorrow, or the day when internationals have left, yet audacious desires still linger to challenge the Israeli military?

There was no way to prevent a few daring boys from advancing forward after tear gas was fired multiple times. They eagerly ran back with heavy canisters in their hands; one was placed in my palm and the heat of its recent firing was uncomfortable. The boys laughed and insisted on pictures. The reality of the situation struck me, that in the background of my camera there were activists congregating in front of an Israeli APC while children jumped up and down for a photo. They all smiled despite their irritated eyes from the APC’s tear gas and sand from the Gazan winds.

Neighborhood boys and Israeli APC in background

The mass of human bodies and emotions sat down in front of the APC close to the action’s end. More tear gas and sound grenades were fired before the driver retreated. If the demonstration’s aim was to protest the killing of Rachel Corrie and lay flowers in honor of her life, then words like ‘victory’ or ‘success’ might describe the event’s conclusion. However, such terminations miss the fact that this event was deeply rooted in anger, passion, and resistance.

A reality of the demonstration is that only internationals could undertake such confrontation with the Israeli military. How would the army respond if residents from Gaza City or Jabalyia held a comparable event for each of the 39 Gazans killed this month? There would not be an hour of crowds and APCs chasing one another, no tolerance for individuals literally pushing on the machine’s front, not even the ability to directly block the path of an APC. There would be mass fatalities.

I watched people congregating after the demonstration through the back window of an ambulance window, the only transportation from Rafah’s edge to the center. As the vehicle drove slowly over potholes I examined the homes which now remain on the neighborhood’s edge and are likely to be gone next time I visit Rafah.

Robyn Long is a graduate student completing a one year Compton Fellowship in Palestine where she has been visiting rural communities througout the West Bank and volunteering for Palestinian organizations.