Sunday, November 28, 2010
I beg forgiveness for stating my first reaction to Raja Shehadeh's second book of hiking memoirs, this one with the emphasis provided by the desire to retrace the steps of a respected forbearer: We have been through this before. I had attended the author's reading in East Jerusalem and had my autographed copy for keepsake. Especially as a fellow involved Palestinian who reads on daily basis many a pained statement of our loss at the hands of the Zionist colonialist project, I was tempted to put the book aside. Except that the tale of Raja's legendary Ottoman uncle was compelling enough for me to keep on reading. Its setting in Galilee and the adjacent environs of the upper Rift Valley kept me going. After all, my own facination with Galilee and committment to its native residents had launched me as an author with my "A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel" thus, not unlike Raja, switching careers from a physician to a writer.
As I followed Raja and his wife Penny on their meanderings in and out of Galilee, his frequent asides about our loss as Palestinians and about the Zionists' well-planned and mercilessly executed dislodging of our people by diliberate force and geographic fragmentation, the elimination of their cultural and archeological heritage, and the spacial confinement and physical control of those who remained gained in freshness and legitimacy with repetition. It started with the bit of information about Najib Nassar, Raja's Ottoman uncle, being the first Palestinian writer to address the potential threat of the Zionist colonialist project to our people's future and continued clear through to the end of the narrative that I managed to get through by the end of the night of the same day I had started it: 'The best heir of the best forbearer' as we say in Arabic, I had to admit with tears in my eyes as Raja stands at his great great uncle's grave in Nazareth.
I was particularly taken by the artfully intermixed narrative of Raja's own present day nature walks with that of the forced flight of his predecessor into the wilderness: The two accounts are nearly seamlessly interwoven, so much so that I found the repeated assertions of the similarities between the two protagonists in thought and predilictions perhaps unnecessary, even though I found myself equally often thinking how much resemblance I also had to the two. The only part that I was surprized to read when I reached it was about Najib's second wife being the granddaughter of the Grand Bahai, founder of the Bahai faith. I would have baited the reader with a hint about it very early in the book.
And a second artful tactic that Raja Shahadeh uses as if it were the most normal of practices is the mixing of the intimate with the public and the general: Personal and family affairs are brought casually into focus to be transcended at will to historical events and world affairs. Had I not been open to similar villification I would have accused the auther of slight of hand magic. But then again, the focus of the whole account is family centered while it is the entire world, particularly the West, that is Raja's target readership and potentially his accused perpetrators of neglect if not agression against the Palestinian people. Hence it is only natural that Raja zooms in and out of focusing at homes and family life in Ramallah, Haifa, Nazareth and Eyn-Anoub rendering their evident humanity accessible to his world audience.
Also for the non-Palestinian there is much more to savor: the reflective pauses about the human condition at large, about nature, about the geology, the fauna and flora of Galilee, Palestine and the Rift Valley, and particularly about understanding the basic nature of Israel's agressive pursuit of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state west of the Jordan River. And, yes, indeed the repetitive message in the enlightening discourse woven around the record of Raja's and his Ottoman uncle's nature walks, one compelled by his Ottoman and the other by his Israeli persuers, is worthy of repeating to the wider world again and again. We will not be silenced by the world's inattentiveness.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
This year the crop is good. A friend from Jerusalem had asked us for two jerry cans of fresh olive oil direct from the press. Raja Shehadeh was scheduled to have a book launch in Jerusalem and we decided to kill two birds. That morning, the next session of the Rachel Corrie case was being held in Haifa. We loaded the olive oil and headed to Haifa to start the day with this third bird. Knowing our friends in Jerusalem to be olive oil connoisseurs we loaded the new fifty-liter Italian-made stainless steel special container that we had purchased for our own use in the trunk of the car and headed out for a day of adventure and Palestinian camaraderie.
But there was a hitch: how much hassle will the security guards at the entrance to the parking area under the Haifa court building give us? Will they insist on opening our overnight bags? How alarming will the empty container seem to them? Will they insist on verifying the nature of the liquid contents of the two jerry cans? Will they alert the special explosive experts in the Haifa police department? Will they hold me till the end of the proceedings? Will I miss the Corrie case session altogether? Might chemical analysis of the oil reveal traces of fertilizer, perhaps the explosive type? And what if the sneaky farmer who sold me the olive oil at the press had tampered with the olive oil? Recently there has been some friction between the youth of our two clans in the village. What if he decided to take revenge on me? And I had let him load the two oil containers in the trunk of my car in my absence. Who knows what he could have thrown in the trunk while I was busy sipping coffee with the press owner and talking nonsense about the year’s olive crop? I worried myself sick. That sneaky son of a bitch!
It was already too late; I had already arrived at the entrance to the underground parking area. In my anxious trembling I almost drove over the toes of the gate attendant sitting on his chair. He extended his arm out to stop me, made an attempt to stand up, but then put his hand on his back with a pained look on his face and motioned me to proceed. Wow! There is little that an Arabic saying didn’t cover: “God kills a big camel to feed a lame jackal.” He, in His wisdom had afflicted a good Jew with a painful back condition to save an Arab the trouble of inspection. It was a good omen for the day.
I found a parking space in the center area of level minus-two but I decided to skip it acting on a hunch. I circled the entire building three times thus descending to the bottom floor. I chose the furthest corner where I backed into a stall till my fender touched the wall. That way no one can pass behind my Subaru Outback and notice the suspicious load visible through the glass of the backdoor. The location also allayed my vague sense of insecurity: should any thing happen while I attended the court on the sixth floor, the damage would be most unlikely to reach me all the way from the depth of the far corner of minus-five. I walked across to the elevator feeling rather pleased with my level of smarts. As we emerged at ground level the day looked particularly bright. I gave my wife a tight hug. Even the security guards at the gate to the court complex seemed exceptionally kind. The first one motioned me through without a question. The second man did not sound as if he were mocking me with the standard question of “Do you carry a weapon on you? Any knife, scissors, fingernail clippers?” As I emptied my pockets of their contents of coins, car keys, mobile phone and wallet and walked through the metal detector, it occurred to me that there must be an easier way to confirm my innocence. So many others bypass the checkup by showing a certain certificate or a tag around their neck verifying their identity as lawyers, judges, or security people. Perhaps I should show them my card and explain how careful I had been in parking my car with its suspicious cargo. Perhaps that will help. But then I recalled an American senior citizen friend of mine who had happened to show her visiting card to inspectors upon arrival at the Tel-Aviv airport. She had already given them my address. That and the logo on her card from her previous position with the March of Dimes for the disabled which read “We shall overcome,” cost her a few hours of explaining as to what she was planning to overcome while visiting a Palestinian village in Galilee. I didn’t toy with the idea of showing them my card for too long. The voluntary gesture together with the address would have sufficed to make somebody suspicious. I kept the entertaining possibilities to my self, collected my belongings as they emerged from the x-ray machine and made it to the bathroom of the café on the ground floor; I always get an urge to evacuate when scared. It is physiologic.
We arrived late as is my usual deliberate timing. (This is one more of my secret code messages to the world announcing my independence and uniqueness: I will not be beholden to European standards of punctuality! Rebellion knows no limits.) In court it was the same circus act as before: Husain Abu-Husain trying to force another mystery witness testifying behind a screen to jump through ignited hoops of logic and memory to no avail. Except that the atmosphere in court was more relaxed, almost jovial. For one thing the room was larger than before with more than double the space for audience. The Judge seemed to be in a tranquil mood. It could have been because of the seeming more elevated position of his seat in this room. In the two weeks since he had performed for us last he had grown a white beard that came to a point at its lower end giving him a sort of grandfatherly agreeable look with a faint hint of Mephisto-like mischief. He had a kindly twinkle in his darting blue eyes. Three times he descended from his elevated perch to help the witness orient himself and find his D-9’s position relative to other items on a photograph he was shown. This gesture, I should admit, uplifted my spirit, not unlike tales of the great royalty of old mixing with their subjects or of Greek deities consorting with earthly devotees. The judge’s kind condescension knew no limits: At one point, when the lawyer questioned the witness’s inability to distinguish Rachel Corrie from local Palestinians, the judge entered the fray arguing that some Palestinians can be as light-skinned (read: pretty) as Americans. A subdued titter went through the court in appreciation of the cross-cultural compliment.
The court session closed early; another witness had not shown up. A new date was set and we were on our way to Jerusalem: before leaving Haifa we stopped at Moshe’s Falafel and Shawarma joint, manned by Arabs and frequented by Asian foreign workers. In Jerusalem, to reach our destination we drove along the outskirts of Mea Sha’arim, the neighborhood of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The street was crowded with pedestrians of all ages, all with the outwardly display of their religious identity. We delivered the consignment of olive oil to its destination and headed to The Swedish Christian Study Center at Jaffa Gate to listen to Raja Shehadeh read from his new book, A Rift in Time, retracing the wanderings of his great-great uncle in this corner of the Ottoman empire. In this part of the old city soldiers and policemen on duty were outnumbered only by Christian nuns and monks. Later we ate fish and slept well. The next morning we took our leave from our friends, visited the Educational Book Store on Saladin Street then walked around Arab East Jerusalem. It was Friday high noon and people of all ages were streaming to Al-Aqsa Mosque for the weekly group prayer. I could hardly believe my eyes: These were the very same folks I had seen the day before at Jaffa Gate and in Mea Sha’arim with the very same hurried and purposeful stride of conviction and commitment. Except that their whiskers were trimmed differently and their women were enveloped in alternative wrappings. My Christian wife and I, a Moslem, both secular, felt we didn’t belong; we were triply excluded and insecure. What if one group or the other took umbrage at my wife’s bare arms?
“Let us get the hell back to Galilee,” I said in my manliest gruff voice.
My wife sought to deflate my contentious ego. She reminded me of our daily reality: “Why? The Galilee lacks bearded men and draped beauties? Or did you forget the Chief Rabbi of Safad and his fatwa against renting rooms to Arab students?”
“You are right. Galilee is next only to Jerusalem in holiness.”
“And it will get holier as time goes on. Judaizing Galilee will bring us more of what you are running away from in Jerusalem. It is not Moslems versus Jews only. The Christians are into it to their necks with moral and financial support from all the fundamentalists in Texas and DC.”
“Don’t let the religious veneer fool you. You know it is a fight over land and who tells whom how and where to live and when to breathe.”
Still, we headed home to Galilee. As we neared Arrabeh we remembered that our nephew’s family had begun gathering our olive crop of the year. We stopped in the field, a mere show of solidarity. My two dozen trees came down to me from my late father, one fifth of his field that had been in the family for centuries. As we were hanging around shooting the breeze with our relatives and milking away the ample fruit supply from the laden branches, a strange figure flitted across the field. It was an Orthodox Jewish young man. He obviously was heading to one of the hilltop settlements established by Sharon to guard against me and my people “stealing state lands.” He made as if he did not notice us. His fellow settlers in the Occupied Territories are reported to be active on daily basis driving Palestinians from their olive fields and confiscating their produce, right under the watchful eye of the IDF. How long it would be, I wondered, before he and his fellow settlers will start taking action against me, the usurper of their god-given Galilee holy land? Would his settlement decide one day to clear my field for their development needs? Would they call in the Army D-9s? Will I dare to put on a bright orange jacket, carry a bullhorn and challenge the Caterpillars like Rachel did?
Help, somebody! I want to keep my olives!
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Take for example the issue of human life itself: Where else, except perhaps in such dismal dead-end dumps as Iraq and Afghanistan, is life so cheap that mothers send their own children to die with the a priori plans to replace them in another nine months? No wonder we Israelis are trying to raise our boys’ ‘exchange rate’ in the battle field beyond the one-to-a-hundred level that we achieved when our hand was forced to hit Gaza the winter before last. Besides, theirs were run-of-the-mill Palestinians of all ages and classes while our boys were high-quality trained soldiers at the prime of their lives. The simplest of cost-benefit analysis will show that we should aim at a higher exchange rate still.
And consider what the Corries have now done out of their own free well as cool-headed, well-informed adult Americans: They decided to sue our government and the IDF for damages. True, their demand for compensations is not that exorbitant: one dollar. But why, in the devil’s name should they choose a pair of Palestinian lawyers to represent them? Does Israel lack smart Jewish lawyers? Now they are getting what they asked for: their lawyers fail to comprehend what the witnesses from the scene of their daughter’s death ‘incident’ are telling them. Worse yet, their lawyers are behaving in the same incomprehensible, rejectionist and greedy manner in which Palestinians have behaved throughout recent history: Again and again our leaders have made them attractive peace offers to resolve the conflict they had initiated with us, all to no avail. From the UN 1947 division plan, to the Camp David agreement, to Sharm-El-Sheikh, to you name it, and they continue to refuse one offer after another. And here, this very day, the Corries’ lawyers, following the same well-established rejectionist pattern, are continuing not to accept whatever explanations our ex-soldiers offer them under oath: One D-9 Caterpillar soldier driver had already told the court that he saw Rachel’s body on the other side of a pile of dirt. The lawyers didn’t seem to be happy with that. Today the driver of the D-9 that killed her tried to please them and said he saw her on this side of the pile of dirt. They still were not pleased. He had said in a previous investigation that, sitting inside the driver’s cabin, he had a three-meter blind spot in front of his machine. The lawyers didn’t seem to be satisfied with that. Now the man tried to humor them by increasing that blind spot to thirty meters. But to no avail. They still sounded like they didn’t believe him. You think a hundred meters would have satisfied them? Not on your life; not Palestinians. You give them a finger and they will take a hand.
The driver had suffered the badgering of the two Palestinians all morning before I caught the tail end of his testimony. The court was so full of government observers, of Corrie sympathizers, and of newspaper reporters that I had no chance of getting a seat till a couple of them had left. The poor man was shielded behind a screen from the vindictive stares of all those goyim and self-hating Jews in the audience. He too was quizzed about that last bit in the video recording of the events of that fateful day, March 16, 2003. Like the commander of his unit and the driver of the second Caterpillar, he also had forgotten most of what transpired that day but knows for a fact that the recorded incriminating broken Arabic single question and answer on the intercom was not of him and his commander or of him and the second driver. This poor driver, like other soldiers at the scene or involved in its investigation later on, had either not seen, not heard, or forgotten most details connected to the event. Besides, Rachel’s birthday happens to fall on the same date as the driver’s. Why should he allow details of a tragic event to intrude on his conscience and rob him of the pleasure of celebrating his own birthday? Imagine Palestinians and other goyim demanding that we remember the time and details of how each of them dies. Golda Meir said it best: We, Israelis, will never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. The Corries don’t seem to comprehend the deeper meaning of such wisdom. Or take the pronouncements of the wise Rabbi from Safad made this very week: Goyim were created to serve us. Go explain that to someone who has deluded himself into thinking he is your equal!
Listening to the man behind the screen I conjured an image of him: judging by the quality of his voice and hesitant speech pattern, I judged him to be small of build; he has a smallish head with congenital absence of the pinnae, the external ears; he wears thick glasses; and he is dark skinned. I reached these conclusions not only on the basis of the quality of his speech, but more on the basis of its content. First the absence of the ears: You, the laity, do not appreciate the significance of the outer ear and the importance of the extent of its flare in gathering the sound vibrations in the ambient air and funneling them into the ear canal and onward to the middle ear. The ear is a complex and sophisticated piece of detective instrumentation. It is the ultimate listening device. One is tempted to think it must have been invented by Israeli scientists for the use of the Mossad. But it all is dependent on the pinna and if that is missing the hearing is minimal, as is the case here. As to the thick glasses, they are needed for the rapidly receding visual acuity. If in seven years the man’s blind spot expanded from three to thirty meters, he is as blind as a bat in the bright sun; ergo the thick glasses. And as to the small head, your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps I am giving a literal meaning to the figurative Hebrew slang term of ‘rosh katan’ – meaning small head – used to describe one who doesn’t bother himself with the deeper meanings of things or one who follows orders without questions asked. That is exactly how the driver responded to the lawyer’s questions about the standard instructions in the military manual on operating a D-9 Caterpillar. It is stated in the manual that the driver should not operate the machine when civilians are present within ten meters from it. Our man said that he had received orders from his commander to ignore that warning and to continue working and he did. In Hebrew we call that kind of unquestioning obedience of one’s superiors ‘rosh katan.’ I guess you could also call my own simplistic interpretation of the figure of speech to mean an actual small-size head a second level of small-headedness. As to the man’s skin color, he seemed to be a bit cowed by the Arab lawyers. No true blood Ashkenazi would be. Sephardim usually have dark skin. The riddle is solved.
The spiteful streak that Cindy Corrie displayed in addressing the press when her turn came up went beyond all limits of fairness. First of all, she repeated in so many words the same claim that her husband had made of their daughter having felt empathy with the Palestinians as human beings. That, of course, puts Rachel in her own parents’ mind at the same level of scum as her subjects of empathy, the Palestinians. I am not sure how can parents say such an insulting thing about their own dead child. If that proves any thing, it proves that the Corries are a self-hating breed. Except that our media in Israel, in line with our top historians, our top opinion leaders and our top Rabbis alike, have appropriated this term for our exclusive use. It is akin to the usage of holocaust or shoah: When the Armenians wanted to stake a claim to the term to describe what the Turks had committed against them in the early decades of the twentieth century, we objected and put an end to their cheap attempt. And here too: whoever heard of a self-hating Palestinian or of a self-hating Moslem. It is redundant. You just use the identifying genre of Palestinian and the ‘hate’ element is automatically implied. The term self-hating’ dangles precipitously when cut off from its natural ending of ‘Jew.’ What gives it its zing is the contradiction of the adjective with the subject. We invented self-hating, as a concept to describe our own renegade anti-Zionists. To use it out of context to characterize the behavior of anybody else is to rob it of significance and us of our exclusive right to a discovery. Too bad such concepts are not covered under international intellectual property laws and conventions.
Then there is Cindy’s claim that putting the driver behind a screen and his never expressing a word of remorse or apology robbed her of the chance to empathize with him as a human being. I beg to differ, at the risk of being accused of narrow partiality towards my co-citizen: Who should be apologizing to whom, I wonder? The man said more than once during the court session that he was surrounded by terrorists. In Israel, and especially in the IDF, we are realists. We call a spade a bloody spade and don’t beat around the bush with such terms as ISM and the like. You don’t empathize with a terrorist unless you are one yourself. All the terror sympathizers who come from the end of the world to terrorize a diligent member of the most moral army in the world carrying out the orders of his commanders to clear another swath of our holy land, the land of our ancestors promised to us by our God, of the haphazard anthills the Palestinians call their homes, should stop their rabble-rousing or accept the consequences.
The late Prime Minister Sharon (I use the term ‘late’ here in the rosh-katan sense of him being delayed or ‘late’ in the process of crossing over from this life to the next) had officially promised the late President George W. Bush (ditto, but just an expression of a wish; it applies to Tony Blair as well) to conduct a “thorough, credible, and transparent” investigation of the Rachel Corrie ‘incident.’ We did exactly that. Twice! And no one in the world believes us. But that has been our story with the international community since day one: No one believes Israel. That is not all that terrible. Not as long as the world needs us in the basic spheres that make it go round: Arms, money and influence with America.
A bright young journalist asked the Corries’ lawyer, Hussain Abu-Hussain, about the significance of the toy blue whale that he used to represent Rachel’s body as he tried to have the Caterpillar’s driver recreate her ‘death incident’ scene from memory. Hussain blew it: He said that he just stopped by at a kindergarten and picked up the first toy he found. Think of the symbolic possibilities though: The free spirit of the blue whale darting, like Rachel, across the oceans. And the threat of extinction of the species.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Hussain and his fellow international human rights legal expert, Jamil Dakwar, spent the morning interrogating the young and aggressive head of the Military Police unit that had investigated and dismissed as incidental and irrelevant the fact of Rachel’s death in close proximity to two IDF D9R Caterpillars operating in the Gaza Strep. Despite his striking alertness and wide-eyed combative demeanor on the witness stand, he still lapsed into a state of amnesia when a question crept to within touching distance of the prohibited black hole of truth. On more than one occasion he would throw up his hands in a dismissive private gesture of exasperation to the judge as if in intimate private conversation with him. He seemed to do that every time he felt that he had succeeded in debunking a clever ploy by Abu-Hussain or in adequately deflecting another of the latter’s attempts at reminding him of details he had consciously forgotten. He confirmed, albeit indirectly, the statement previously made in court by one of his colleagues to the effect that “in war there are no civilians.” But he did so in such a circumspect and disconnected manner that the judge seemed to miss the point, for He (and the capital here is intentional, for that is how He seems to consider His position in the domain of His court of judgment) did not display any sign of distress or aggravation in line with what I have come to expect neurologically. Abu-Hussain grilled this witness on the specific point of what rules and regulations there existed on the subject of operating a D9 in the presence of civilians in the area. The witness, whose name, Shalom, said it all, wavered between the written prohibition of operating the Caterpillar as a battle implement in close vicinity of civilians and the definition of what constituted a war arena and who were civilians and who were not and under what circumstances, etc. etc. ad infinitum. All that Abu-Hussain could prove was that it is very difficult to trick a man who is intent on forgetting to remember.
Two thoughts crossed my mind as I pondered the implicit oxymoron when one speaks of willful forgetfulness, thoughts that separated me momentarily from the court’s surroundings and carried me to my own private dream world causing my wife to poke me in the side every time my snoring disturbed her: inexplicably I found myself as a child in pre-1948 Palestine in the midst of my father’s apricot orchard. It was Ramadan and I was fasting. I had learned that morning in our religion class that if a fasting person forgets and mistakenly eats or drinks something, it does not annul his or her fast and he or she gets full credit for the day despite eating or imbibing his or her fill. I had figured that if I spent enough time in the orchard I would be likely to forget and consume few delectable apricots from my father’s trees. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t forget the fact that I was trying to forget; the harder I tried to forget my fasting state the more I was aware of it. I spent the whole afternoon focusing on selecting the fruits that I wanted to eat accidentally. My wife poked me in the ribs and admonished me to stop snoring. I came to and glared at the state’s defense lawyer who had a habit of moving her delicate hands in animated circles in front of her face as she raised an objection. Her motherly fine features and the hypnotic motion of her tiny hands put me back to sleep. I was back in my physiology class at medical school: My favorite lecturer was asking us to try to tickle ourselves. It was impossible, he explained, because the tickling experience depended on the surprise element in it. Since our mind is incapable of surprising its own self, one cannot tickle one self. But apparently I succeeded in breaking this rule of basic physiology. My wife poked me in the ribs again: “You shouldn’t giggle in court either!” Now, fully alert in the wee hours of the morning, I still fail to make full sense of these dreams though they seem not to be totally irrelevant to the subject of tricks our minds play on us. Can a clever lawyer make a witness forget his premeditated forgetfulness?
As I came to, the same witness was still on the stand. (I wonder if I shouldn’t capitalize Him as well. He did display certain godly pretensions in his upright combative posture and physical display of readiness to appropriate the space fronting him.) How comical it must have seemed to him: A civilian barrister putting words in his mouth in a futile attempt to force him, a military colonel, to remember facts long expunged from his memory, active and inactive, long and short, and filed away under ‘forgotten.’ And the barrister looks distinctly Arab and must have, it is safe for loyal Zionist citizens of Israel to presume, dislodged from his own memory any residue of the implicit oath of loyalty to them he must have taken. We all know Abu-Hussain received his law degree from the Hebrew University and should never be allowed to forget the civilizing influence of associating with ‘real citizens of the Jewish state.’ He should have been made to swear such an oath before getting his license to practice. I recall swearing loyalty to Israel and its laws when I became a state employee. Nothing was new in that. But then I swore loyalty to Israel as my country and not the country of someone else. I assumed at the time that my Jewish colleagues may hold different interpretation of what Israel was. And I never knowingly broke Israeli laws, objectionable as many of them were. But, at the time, I could convince myself that I could work to change such laws and to adapt the nature of the state to accommodate me. The question for my Zionist fellow citizens remains whether when I swore allegiance to Israel I meant it and whether it was specific enough as to whose state Israel was. No wonder so many legislators are now working hard to clarify the point: making citizenship contingent on declaring loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. That will be followed in due course by mechanisms for the verification of real intent. Now that I have retired I am out of the loop, no longer professionally active in the public arena. That is why I can only speculate on how others will react to the new laws of verifiable intent: Imagine a legal mind like Abu-Hussain’s grappling with the Kafkaesque quandary of swearing loyalty to an entity that excludes him out of its definition. To fall back on my field of expertise, how can a doctor who presumably had dedicated his life to preventing pain and saving lives swear allegiance to promoting illness? By swearing such an oath he would cease to be a physician though the law requires him to do so in order to be one. Let me give another simile for my differently-inclined fellow citizens: How can a member of the Yakuza swear an oath of allegiance to the Japanese police. There is a deeper psychological point here to which I will return later. It is enough to drive one to distraction.
The afternoon session was dedicated to a witness that the defense lawyers had asked that he be allowed to testify incognito for reasons of personal safety. He was the commander of the army unit operating the D9s in the vicinity of Rachel’s death incident. The court was adapted specifically for this occasion: a screen was set up between the audience and the witness stand. The plaintiff team moved their seats closer to the judge’s stand to be able to see the witness. Abu- Hussain requested that the judge allow members of the Corrie family to move to that side of the court as well so they can see the witness but the request was denied. I could understand that: If all the Corries and their entourage of translators and reporters were to be exempted, my wife and I would be the only ones left. My wife is not a threat. She is not the violent type. And I would probably be asleep half of the time anyhow. Or else they could have blindfolded the two of us and did away with the screen altogether. No such luck: the judge asked to have an armed guard at the door of the courtroom and warned us all not to take pictures at pain of arrest on the spot. This castigation induced in me a sudden urge to empty my bladder. I resisted till I could resist no more. As I tried to exit, the guard tried to prevent me and I insisted. He went in and asked permission from someone, perhaps the judge, for me. Fortunately, the request was granted. To hear people in the Arab world criticize Israel’s judicial system as unjust towards its Arab citizens, you would think such gesture was impossible. Here was my proof to the contrary. Believe me, given the circumstances and with the pressure mounting inside me, being allowed to relieve myself was the greatest act of justice I had ever experienced in this country.
The mystery witness was the commander of the unit operating the D9s on the day and in the arena of Rachel’s death. Judging by the witness’s voice I figured he was a male in his forties of medium build and a smallish balding head that allowed for the evaporation of much of the previously stored bits of information in it in Israel’s hot sun. All he could remember from that day’s incidents was seeing the late peace activist sitting in a “pool of dirt.” Nothing more and nothing less. He also had little to enlighten the court about the rules of engagement with civilians for operators of D9s. There were civilians, a dozen or so of them, in the battlefield, the battle that raged between D9s and Palestinian homes with the civilian foreign combatants in bright red and orange clothing running as decoys for the anti-Israeli structures which must have caused one D9 to mistake one of them for a menacing Palestinian home. That, at least is my best interpretation of the events of the day. But the commander had a different story to tell: All he saw is the dead body of the late Corrie woman in a “pool of dirt.” Taking his testimony as ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” one is left with the question of what was he talking about when he spoke on the wireless from inside his D9 to the driver of the other D9 under attack by, and closer to, the civilian foreign combatants in the battlefield. He is heard to ask in Arabic “Did you kill him?” The answer comes loud and clear: “Allah Yirhamu -- May Allah have mercy on his soul.” Did he think the dead person in the “pool of dirt” was a man? He, of course, couldn’t remember any of that. What is more amazing is that this brief vocal exchange, recorded on video, was left out from the written transcription of the video’s soundtrack. None of the investigators, whether in the internal operational run of the army or in that of the military police, ever took notice of that last conversation. It was the Plaintiff’s lawyers who picked out the small gem. What remains is to figure out who exactly said what and what did he mean?
‘Allah Yerhamu’ is part of the well entrenched military jargon in Israel. Since whoever says it usually lacks full understanding of the meaning of each of its constituent words, the phrase is a less painful way of indicating the act of killing. Additionally, the phrase is a distinct high point in the collective memory of our community, the Palestinian citizens of Israel. On October 29, 1956 it cost us 49 innocent lives: children and elderly, woman and men. Britain, France and Israel had declared war on Egypt earlier that day to retrieve the Suez Canal, which Jamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized, to its lawful colonial owners. Military instructions were issued from on-high to impose total curfew on Arab villages in the center of Israel including the village of Kufr Qassim. The unit commander asked the specific question of how to deal with farmers who might be out in their fields and would not have learned of the curfew. The answer came in clear and simple military jargon: “Allah Yerhamu!” With that farmers returning home from the field were stopped at the entrance to their village, lined up and mowed down; 49 of them including 23 children.
“Allah Yerhamu” is not the only connecting thread between Kufur Qassim and Rachel Corrie. The war came and went and Kufr Qassim didn’t even register on the Israeli military or government radar screen. Till communist agitators started doing what they knew how to do best: agitate. An investigation was launched and brigadier commander Issachar Shadmi was found guilty of a minor administrative offence and fined one Israeli cent. Emile Habibi, the master of tongue-in-cheek Palestinian writing, made ‘Shadmi’s cent’ a household term in our community.
This is where my blood starts to boil in anger against the inflated claims of the Corries: If the price of 49 Palestinian lives was set at one cent, how dare they ask for a whole dollar for the life of their daughter? Consider for a moment, please, the relative ratio of one Corrie life to one Palestinian life: One Israeli cent was one hundredth of a lira; the lira was scrapped and replaced with the shekel which was equal to ten liras; then that was scrapped and replaced in turn by the New Israel Shekel (NIS), a thousand shekels to one NIS. At the current rate of NIS 3.6 to the dollar
1 Corrie = $1 = 3.6 NIS = 3.6 x 1000 x 10 x 100 / 49 = 73468.8 Palestiniens.
And the world dared to question Israel when its fatality ratio during the recent Gaza ‘preventive military action’ stood at one to hundred.
Just to give the Israeli judicial system its due and just credit, I should add that some half dozen low-ranking soldiers were found guilty and received sentences of several years in jail each. In verifying the details of the Kufur Qassim account I called on my communist age-mate cousin, Toufiq, who served time with the same imprisoned Israeli soldiers. At the time he had been sentenced to a dozen years in jail for playing a leading role in a youth demonstration in Nazareth in which he was accused of shouting pro-Nasser slogans. To this day he claims that I was the one who shouted “Long live Jamal Abdul Nasser!” not him. But I was not caught. Besides I was not a communist. Very early in the game I decided to wipe that incident off of my hard disc and to this day I have no memory of the event whatsoever. Another thing that riles Toufiq to this day is that shortly after their imprisonment the soldiers were pardoned by Israel’s president while he served his full term. “If you do the right calculation, taking into account the nature of the crime and the number of days served in jail,” my cousin insists, “the value of an Israeli soldier is worth over a million Palestinian communists like me. I didn’t even shout the slogan about Nasser, for God’s sake!”
Be that as it may, in the current court proceedings, our mystery witness refused to be drawn into the memory lane that the plaintiff team labored so much to animate for him with the set of toy caterpillars that they had purchased for the purpose. And he refused to be drawn into creating a matching human form with the putty that the lawyers had brought for him. For the rest of the afternoon Abu-Hussain used the soft fistful of putty as a tool of physiotherapy for his arthritic left hand. I had already noticed that the man had a habit of pressing his extended fingers against his neck to crack the aching joints. (I told you already that once I was a good diagnostician.) Still, all that the witness could recall was that he saw a dead person in a ‘pool of dirt.’ I wondered if Abu-Hussain was going to pull out a sack of soft dirt from his bag. As to the proximity of those D9s from the pool of dirt and similar specifics of the death incident, the lawyers’ efforts were unrewarded. Personally, I reached the conclusion that Rachel, Allah Yerhamu, had committed suicide by drowning in a ‘pool of dirt.’ After all, those were members of the most ethical army in the world and would not lie under oath.
This interpretation is not as farfetched as all that: Imagine a young idealist woman who dreamt of a just world including a just Israel. She arrives in Gaza to act on her commitment to let justice reign in the world. She discovers that Israel is unjust beyond redemption. She realizes that back in her own country campaigning against Israel’s injustices committed against the Palestinians will gain her the label of anti-Semitic. To wipe your slate clean of such a foul label you have to work for Israel’s benefit as per its own definition of itself. That, of course, includes throwing the Palestinian usurpers out of ‘our’ sacred holy land. To try to change the accepted American consensus regarding the just claims of Israel is another mission impossible. So, to fight against the threat of the smear of anti-Semitism, the prime label of bigotry, Rachel must have realized that she would need to become a bigot. Now that is another Kafkaesque quandary enough to send one into despair. For an idealistic young woman trapped in such an insane vicious circle, suicide must have seemed to be about the only remaining logical choice. And what means are there in Gaza for committing suicide. Dirt is abundant. One looks for an appropriate ‘pool of dirt’ and, while everyone around is not looking, one jumps in and holds his or her breath under the soft cover of dirt. Or should it end with a soldier instructing Rachel to ‘take a deep breath’ as some other people were once instructed in the process of their execution?
Thursday, September 16, 2010
"Human kind cannot bear too much reality."
T. S. Eliot.
I arrived at the Haifa District Court with a deep sense of foreboding. On my way there, as I drove through Arrabeh’s sleepy streets (It is Ramadan and most fellow Moslem villagers go back to sleep after their dawn meal and prayer.) I saw clear signs of trouble: Two police cars with their lights flashing entered the village just I was on my way out. Stopped in my tracks by the daily traffic jam on the outskirts of Haifa, I turned the radio dial from my usual BBC morning news to the local Arabic FM station and heard the name of my village on the news: A seven-month pregnant young woman whose name I recognized had been slain by her mentally-ill husband in full view of her four children. She bled to death in the bathroom from her seven stab wounds before the husband escaped.
“The man is mentally ill,” I imagined the mayor explaining away our collective shame.
“We all are to blame; it is a symptom of an ailing society in the throes of disintegration,” I could hear Toufiq, my village friend since childhood, arguing back.
At the entrance to the new and imposing courthouse complex, built over the cleared area of an entire neighborhood of old Haifa, I greeted the few members I recognized among the group of mostly Jewish ‘peace junkies’ holding signs of solidarity with Rachel Corrie’s family and cause. Rachel’s rather spry-looking parents seemed duly impressed, thanking people for their good sentiments and expressing their hope to a couple of journalists that finally here was their chance to show the formal investigation of the IDF of their daughter’s death for the hasty slipshod cover-up that it actually was. The small crowd of demonstrators and media people were cordoned off against the wall to the side of the spacious entryway to the courts complex so as not to affect the security processing of arrivals. Except that the parking area elevators emptied out on the cordoned-off side of the yard. My wife recorded visually and communicated to me a ratio of ten to one who crawled under the red plastic tape rather than bothering to take the extra dozen steps required to get into the queue at the entrance. Two women dressed in lawyery black and white clothes belonging to the latter variety, the minority of upright and obedient citizens, shouted insults at the demonstrators.
My wife and I introduced ourselves to the Corries and exchanged visiting cards with them. Rachel’s mother wore an appropriate brooch on the lapel of her light summer coat, a mother-of-pearl peace dove. I used to give the same dove, handmade in
As we lined up to go through security, the young officer asked the usual “Do you carry any weapons?” and I shot back a comical “Nooo!” She explained in a rather plaintive tone of voice: “A knife is a weapon, you know!” She caught me off guard. Was she referring to the murder in my village, I wondered? How did she know I was from Arrabeh?
We cleared security, stopped at the cafeteria for a quick cup of coffee, chatted with a couple of other Palestinians of similar convictions and made it to the sun-drenched courtroom on the sixth floor.
In the court I sat next to the American consul who used the waiting time to study Hebrew from a phrasebook he must have downloaded to his I-phone. He looked so Semitic I had to resist the urge to give him a hug: We Semites have to stick together in the face of the alien hordes. The Corries sat in the front raw and a translator leaned forward from the second row to whisper the translated proceedings to them. They were so obviously Nordic-looking that a touch of hostility almost snuck into my heart. Awaiting the judge, another fellow Israelite, to commence the proceedings, I busied my head with assessing the relative inequality of the resultant triangular configuration of relationships: the consul, the judge and the Corries. I fantasized a world of peace and stability in which a level of international solidarity and cooperation is attained in which the diplomatic corps representing one state, say France, to another, say Saudi Arabia, would be drawn almost entirely from citizens of the host country. That is the level of trust and understanding that has been reached between the
Soon the start of the Corries vs, the State of Israel case was announced and I prepared for the full engagement of my senses and intellect in absorbing the details of all that was going on around me. I was aware of the tremendous potential the Corrie’s case had in blowing
I shifted back to observing the judge. I had been warned in advance that his record is most lean on rulings in favor of human rights defenders. Is that why he gave such clear signs of so much mental anguish? I returned to my observations of his neuromuscular oddity. Readers may think this a crude comment on a judge of justice. Yet we all do this all the time. All drivers rely on observing the lights in the back of the car in front of them to pick up the indications of its driver’s intentions. That is how a physician relates to the physical signs of those ‘cruising around’ in his vicinity. So, please, excuse this casual attitude to what you may consider to be a sensitive issue. Overall, the tic was quite frequent, perhaps once every one and a half minutes on average. But it was not regular. First I noticed that it did not occur during the rare occasions when the defense team of lawyers from the State Prosecutor Office spoke. It also occurred very rarely when the witnesses spoke. One witness made a clearly outrageous statement he should never have made: “In war there are no civilians,” he declared. The good judge strained his neck so vigorously and stuck his head out so far he nearly swept the computer screen in front of him off the table. At another juncture, the judge had a cascade of successive neck-stretching exercises as he admonished the Corrie’s lawyer, Hussein Abu-Hussein, to abandon the line of questioning he was pursuing with the witness. It was irrelevant, the judge decided. I felt the lawyer was treading very close to the red line sequestering the truth behind it. Obviously, the witness was being bamboozled.
Suddenly, the judge cut my intense inner hilarity short: He had to leave the court early for a physician’s appointment. Was he seeing a neurologist? I could certainly assist the physician with my professional observations, I thought. Or perhaps he had something more serious, a terribly bad heart or a nasty brain aneurism? Don’t rush to conclusions about possible wishful thinking on my part, please! At
In a ten-minute break in the court proceedings, I strode to the back of the spacious hallway to feast my eyes on what I could see of
I looked at Rachel’s parents and they seemed tired, worn out, no doubt, by the rigors of the intense delving into details of their late daughter’s death. I felt like offering them my sympathy and physical support as they ambulated out of the court. Till I went to the bathroom and took a good look at myself in the mirror: I should have asked the Corries to help me to my car, I decided.
Heading home I was elated by the prospect of my impending rise to fame in medical circles by virtue of my forthcoming first-ever report of two consecutive cases of the instantaneous onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. To rest my mind and gain some emotional respite from the excitement of it all, I turned my car radio on: The dial had been left on the local FM station. Arrabeh’s stabbing murder case was still dominating the free-for-all call-in program. Callers were speculating about what could have irked the presumably insane husband to act in the murderous way he did. For a moment I entertained the thought of calling in and alerting the program’s host, whom I knew personally, and his audience to the Corries versus the State of Israel case. I wanted to let everyone know that here was another case of murder by way of insanity. Except that here, a whole nation had gone insane.