Her death meant an incredible amount to me personally and to every Palestinian who knew her, as well as those who did not know her. It was a terrible shock to everyone in Rafah. Nobody could believe that an American woman would be targeted and crushed to death in front of international eyewitnesses in daylight by an American-made D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer used by the Israeli army to destroy Palestinian civilian homes.
We wished for Rachel — and every other international peace activist who came to Rafah — to go back safely and meet again with their families to enjoy the peace that we are not allowed. Whatever words we may express cannot repay the precious sacrifice Rachel offered.
I think the presence of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Rafah was a positive step towards finding peace and justice in Palestine. Before meeting the ISM team in Rafah last year, I thought the world had turned a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians. However, after meeting brave people like Rachel and Tom Hurndall, a British volunteer with the ISM who was also killed by the Israeli army, I realized there is still hope in this life, that there are ears listening to our cries.
The internationals who have volunteered in the occupied territories have done many positive things, not only in terms of tangible achievements, but also by increasing our faith in nonviolent resistance. We appreciate their sacrifices and feel amazed that they left their beautiful lives, friends and families and traveled to Palestine to defend our human rights and to work peacefully alongside us to bring justice and an end to the occupation.
Rachel’s presence in Rafah allowed her to witness how horrific the Israeli occupation is. She saw with her own eyes the reality that millions of people in her country are kept ignorant of. She saw how Palestinian children and innocent civilians are shot every day, how their homes are demolished by the occupation bulldozers along the border line, how they sleep their nights to wake up the following morning bidding farewell to their dreams and hopes of living out their lives as others do.
The first anniversary of Rachel’s death has come and the destruction of Palestinian families’ homes continues and the Israeli army continues regular incursions. 1,700 homes have been deleted from the face of the earth by the Israeli army military bulldozers, including those belonging to the Abu Jameel and Al-Shaer families, with whom Rachel stayed. The situation in the Gaza Strip, particularly Rafah, became very complicated ever since the Israeli authorities made it nearly impossible for all international human rights observers, NGO employees and journalists to gain entry to Gaza.
Those who are allowed access must sign a waiver declaring the signatory “accepts that the Government of the State of Israel and its organs cannot be held responsible for death, injury, and/or damage/loss of property which may be incurred as a result of military activity.” The reason for these measures are simple, to scare people away while allowing the Israeli troops to perform their crimes without witnesses. We, the Palestinian people, cannot get our voices heard in the international community, so it is vital for international witnesses to carry our message.
It is depressing to think of the way Rachel’s case was dealt with by the American authorities, compared to the way the British government handled Tom Hurndall’s case. I thought the US would take action, at least on a political level, by asking Israel to respect and value human life and cease the targeting of innocent civilians, but they have remained silent and refuse to criticize Israel.
There must be an independent investigation into Rachel’s death. We owe at least this to the memory of this courageous young woman for risking her life to give life to others and for exposing the terrible reality of the Israeli occupation.
Mohammed Qeshta is a resident of Rafah and is a coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah.