The toll continues to rise. A couple of weeks ago, gunfire from an Israeli tank cut short the life of award-winning British journalist James Miller. He and reporter Saira Shah – the two of them had collaborated on Beneath the Veil, a ground-breaking documentary on the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban – were filming the demolition by Israeli forces of a house in Rafah, on the Gaza Strip, when he was shot in the back of the neck. “Local kids who loved him have built a shrine on the spot where he fell,” writes Shah, “and the Palestinian Children’s Parliament held a march in his memory.”
Last month Tom Hurndall, a 21-year-old English peace activist, was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper while he tried to protect a five-year-old girl at the same refugee camp. He went into a coma from which doctors don’t expect him to emerge. Last week Hurndall’s parents were on their way to visit him at Rafah when the British embassy convoy they were travelling in was briefly detained at gunpoint at a Gaza crossing.
About six months ago, Iain Hook, a former British military officer in charge of an UNRWA project to rebuild the Jenin refugee camp, died when an Israeli sniper shot him in the back. Jack Straw promised a thorough investigation into the shooting, but the British Foreign Office has since resiled from that position. An inquiry by the UN was assigned to a former US naval intelligence officer whose blatantly pro-Israeli report proved unacceptable to Hook’s colleagues and other UN staff. A second report is being treated as classified. Israel assured Straw it would provide a full account of the killing, but has now changed its mind.
And then there is the extraordinarily harrowing case of Rachel Corrie, a young American activist crushed to death by an American-supplied bulldozer operated by an Israeli soldier. On March 15, she was trying to prevent the demolition of a house at Rafah. Richard Purssell, a fellow activist who was standing just a few feet away from her, recalls: “She was standing on top of a pile of earth. The driver cannot have failed to see her. As the blade pushed the pile, the earth rose up. Rachel slid down the pile. It looks as if she got her foot caught. The driver didn’t slow down; he just ran over her. Then he reversed the bulldozer back over her again.”
These murders – eyewitness accounts suggest that in each case the Israelis were well aware of what they were doing – may be a drop in the ocean in the broader Palestinian conflict, but they are exceptionally significant as an illustration of the Sharon regime’s impunity. Israel’s security forces appear no longer to have too many qualms about killing foreigners even when they happen to be the citizens of Israel’s closest allies. And on the basis of the available evidence, this does not appear to be a miscalculation. It is not hard to imagine the furore in both official circles and the mainstream press in Britain and the United States had it been possible to hold the Palestinian side accountable for any of these deaths. But because the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli regime, it is considered advisable to collaborate in a cover-up.
An Israeli army investigation into Corrie’s death last month absolved Israeli forces of any misconconduct. In a classic application of the blame-the-victim strategy, Corrie and other members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) were accused of “illegal, irresponsible and dangerous” behaviour. Last week, shortly before Colin Powell arrived in Jerusalem for talks with Ariel Sharon and his putative Palestinian counterpart, Abu Mazen, Israeli forces raided the ISM offices near Bethlehem and took two American activists into custody. A day earlier, two British ISM activists were arrested by Shin Bet for trying to enter the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s rulers abhor the likes of Rachel Corrie because they are driven purely by humanitarian concerns. Rachel couldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be portrayed as a terrorist sympathizer, nor could her faith be held accountable for her solidarity with Palestinians. As her emails to her parents – made available to the press after her murder – testify, she was simply an average American responding to a profound injustice. Sharon and his gang have no time for such Americans; they’d rather see them dead. George W. Bush and many of his closest aides appear to empathize with that point of view.
Rachel, aged 23, was the youngest daughter of an insurance executive and a school volunteer. She attended Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington; she played soccer, enjoyed gardening and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. Reports suggest her political consciousness was a post-September 11 phenomenon (“There are eight-year-olds here,” says one of her emails, “much more aware of the workings of the global power structure than I was just a few years ago”). In Gaza, her tasks, like those of other ISM activists, included accompanying Palestinian children to school in order to protect them from Israeli bullets.
When her mother suggested that a cessation of violence on the Arab side would be beneficial to the Palestinian cause, Rachel responded: “If any of us had our lives and welfare completely strangled, lived with children in a shrinking place where we knew, because of previous experience, that soldiers and tanks and bulldozers could come for us at any moment and destroy all the greenhouses that we had been cultivating for however long, and did this while some of us were beaten and held captive with 149 other people for several hours – do you think we might try to use somewhat violent means to protect whatever fragments remained?”
She also reported feeling “sick to my stomach a lot from being doted on all the time, very sweetly, by people who are facing doom”.
“When I come back from Palestine,” she wrote, “I probably will have nightmares and constantly feel guilty for not being here …. Coming here is one of the better things I’ve ever done. So when I sound crazy, or if the Israeli military should break with their racist tendency not to injure white people, please pin the reason squarely on the fact that I am in the midst of a genocide which I am also indirectly supporting, and for which my government is largely responsible.”
If a lot more Americans were able to conceptualize the situation in the Occupied Territories in such clear-cut terms, it would become considerably more difficult for successive US governments to go on supporting and subsidizing Israeli repression. But that is not going to happen – at least not in a hurry. If, as opinion polls suggest, large numbers of Americans can be convinced that Saddam Hussein masterminded the September 11 operation, then mass enlightenment is clearly not a short-term prospect.
It isn’t exceptionally difficult in these circumstances to portray, at least for purposes of domestic consumption, the so-called roadmap unveiled late last month – after much ado about the composition of the Palestinian cabinet – as a bold new initiative that will deliver a lasting settlement, provided the new-look Palestinian Authority can put an end to “terrorism”.
The roadmap can, in other words, be interpreted as an endorsement of the Israeli prejudice that Palestinian resistance to occupation is the main problem, rather than the occupation itself. As far as violence is concerned, the spotlight is on the suicide bombings rather than the assassinations, the murder of civilians, the demolition of dwellings and the targeting of international activists and journalists. On the day that Rachel Corrie was killed, nine Palestinians suffered the same fate on the Gaza Strip; they included a four-year-old girl and a man aged 90 – dangerous terrorists, presumably.
So, Abu Mazen is now being asked to deliver what the sidelined Yasser Arafat was unable to provide: a guarantee against attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad – organizations that Israel initially encouraged, incidentally, as a counterweight to Arafat. The new Palestinian prime minister, more or less handpicked by the US-Israeli axis, is expected to prove himself more ruthlessly efficient than Shin Bet and Mossad – despite his uncertain credibility among Palestinians as a consequence of being perceived as a puppet.
There are, of course, some reciprocal demands made upon the Israelis. But not too many. Sharon is only required to exercise rhetorical restraint – hence his recent “concessions” on Jewish settlements and talks with Syria. It has been reported that he’ll be in for a shock when he visits the US later this month, because the Bush administration is determined to push through a settlement. That sits uneasily, however, with Condoleezza Rice’s recent assurances to Sharon’s representatives, who were told to have no fears: although the roadmap is officially the product of a quartet that includes the UN, the European Union and Russia, it is the US that is in the driving seat.
With an election year looming in the US, pressure on Israel – at least pressure of the sort that would produce tangible results – is almost inconceivable. With an electrified fence cordoning off all “autonomous” areas, the “independent” Palestine that the roadmap is supposed to lead to by 2005 couldn’t possibly be anything other than a glorified concentration camp. Perhaps not even glorified. And most likely a series of concentration camps.
No matter how “moderate” Mahmoud Abbas turns out to be, it is extremely unlikely that he could live with such a scenario any more than Arafat could.
And when the final solution dreamt up by Sharon’s hawks in collusion with the neo-cons in Washington turns out to be unimposable, one can only hope that increasing numbers of Americans will feel compelled to ask themselves: Did Rachel Corrie – and so many of the poeople she learned to love – die in vain?