Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Rachel Corrie Case Revisited

A Bedouin Goldstone Moment:
April 03, 2011:

I arrived an hour late to court this morning; in my hurry to make it on time I was picked up by the traffic police for speeding. “Winds blow contrary to the whims of ships,” a famous Arab poet once said. As I entered the court a whole new set of actors was there with the exception of the judge who addressed the defense lawyer as ‘Mr. Salameh,’ Arabic for Mr. Safety. I quickly assumed that there had been a change of mind at the highest level and that ‘they’ had decided to give the Corries a sympathetic hearing, switching to an Arab as the defense lawyer and picking one with a symbolic conciliatory name. Alas, the whole thing was a misconception. The judge was handling a totally different case and doing away with a quick procedural issue before starting the Corrie case. I wasn’t all that late, after all.

It is pitiful to see bumbling fools stray far afield and miss their opportunity to prove their point when the answer is right at hand. That was my thought when I read the full text of the Goldstone retraction of his former condemnation of Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9 as ‘possible’ war crimes and crimes against humanity. I read the good judge’s retraction in the paper the night before this day, spent in contemplating the charade that passes for proper proceedings in a court of justice in Israel. Had he bothered to attend just one session in the ongoing saga that I have followed for nearly a year, Richard Goldstone would have learned the efficient way for a judge to reach his independent decision regardless of the facts and not to dillydally with assertions, retractions and the like. The man has formulated his foregone conclusion and no marching of evidence to the contrary will make a difference: The Corries will not get their shekel irregardless of facts. You will see.

We all have returned from a four-month hiatus in the proceedings of the civilian case brought by the parents of the late Rachel Corrie, the ISM activist killed by an armored military D_9 Caterpillar on March 16, 2003 while trying to prevent the IDF from demolishing Palestinian homes in Gaza. It happened in bright daylight and Rachill wore a florescent orange vest. But the soldiers in the D-9s simply didn’t see her. The IDF had conducted a “thorough, credible, and transparent investigation” as the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, told his friend, President George W. Bush of the USA. The investigation had revealed that the young woman had hid behind, under or over ‘a pool of dirt’ as the various participating soldiers have testified so far. Sharon’s credentials on the matter at hand are beyond doubt: President Bush had dubbed him “a man of peace,” and he was the father of the practice of clearing wide swaths of land of homes in Gaza from the days of the First Intifada. The specific activity that the ISM activists objected to was in the same ‘defensive’ military tradition, involving this time the continued clearance of some fifty-kilometer perimeter road in the Rafah border area known as the Philadelphi Axis, a random computer-generated IDF designation that has come since to signify civilian imprisonment, underground tunnels, F-16 air raids and underground steel barriers. But Rachel’s and her friends’ objection was totally alien to the wholesomeness of the original plan: The axis road had been already established and all the IDF was doing was to “level the ground” alongside the road, including a Gazan shack here and a home or two there to forestall the possibility of terrorists hiding in such incidental geographic adulterations of the purity of the original Sharonian military conception.

With such essentiality of the Philadelphi Axis and the qualifications of its founders, how could any sane person doubt the IDF’s conclusions regarding what had happened to the foreign intruders? Yet, here are these folks from Olympia, USA, claiming that the Israeli Defense Forces were negligent in protecting human life in a case that happened to be that of their 22 year-old daughter, Rachel. But their own lawyer, a Palestinian who is even more intent on discrediting the only democracy in the Middle East, has just heard representatives of IDF declare under oath that as early as 2006 they had used Caterpillars equipped with remote control electronics and bore the exorbitant expenses to avoid the loss of life of human beings that happened to be their soldiers carrying out the cleansing of areas cluttered with Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists. With such record, how can anyone accuse us of inattention to preserving human life?

No wonder both the judge and the head state defense lawyer seemed disinterested and even a little bored with the proceedings. The lady looked like she had aged a decade or more during my four-months away from her, explanation enough for her limited energy this time around. Every time she stood up to say something she would twirl her two diminutive hands high above her head in a dance-like motion of emphasis of what she said. But the motions were slow, and, in the absence of music accompaniment, seemed a bit silly. As to the judge, he was so relaxed he hardly twitched or strained at all; only a few loosening motions of his necktie and an occasional sipping of his tea. I know he has reached his decision a long time ago and all the proceedings were now a waste of his time. That is perhaps why he interfered to cut the claimants’ lawyer, Husain Abu-Husain, short and to ask him to close his line of questioning so many times. To expedite the process of establishing the facts in his court he had to step in more than once and explain to the badgered witness what he, the witness, had wanted to say. Why all the bother when we already know the facts? And that is what I wanted Richard Goldstone to come see and learn from: consistency; the system had already looked into the case and made its decision. Why confuse everyone and fowl up the case with useless reconsiderations. Get it right on the first try, dude!

The first witness of the day was another army technical expert in charge of D-9 driver training and he stuck to his narrow expertise and avoided treading on relevant case-specific grounds, falling back on failure of memory only when Abu-Husain would edge close to the fatal ‘incident’ itself.

The second witness was much more engaged and engaging, a bright-looking Bedouin man of obvious intelligence. His ready smile, his constant readjusting of his sitting arrangement, and his darting eyes betrayed a level of discomfort akin to that of a caged raccoon. He partially gave away his identity by responding brightly to Abu-Husain’s Arabic language greeting. The thought crossed my mind that the good judge must have thought that the man was dispensable because of tribal considerations: All previous witnesses directly involved in the murder case were shielded from the audience’s evil eyes by a screen. Except for this man who was present at the scene in his armored tank as the units commander protecting and overseeing the work of the two Caterpillars. Was he considered dispensable because of his DNA, ultimately a Bedouin Palestinian, even if an Israeli soldier, a sheep in wolf’s skin? After all, nearly the entire ‘Desert Division’ of the Israeli Army, the division in charge of the Philadelphi Axis, about the most dangerous assignment in Israel’s military adventurism, was mostly made of Bedouins. Arab volunteer soldiers in the Israeli security services, such as these hardy heroes have their reasons, mainly financial, my daughter, Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh, says in her recent well-researched book on the subject entitled “Surrounded.” And they do feel altogether unequal in the army, she also found. Might their feeling of unequal treatment stem in part from different levels of exposure to danger?

My irresponsible doubts were later explained away. The man’s identity had been already exposed in the press and it was no use trying to hide it beyond calling him by his initial as Mr. R. instead of using his full name. The man was not your camel-driving Bedouin type; he had used his privileged status with the Israeli armed forces to get a college education and a BA degree. And he used his accumulated acumen and native intelligence to deflect Abu-Husain’s obvious attempts to trip him on his possible involvement in Rachel’s demise. He kept to his former conclusion in his own investigation immediately after the incident, which he had not seen, that a concrete slab must have fallen accidentally on the woman and killed her. And he was alert and committed enough to his IDF identity to insist on correcting loaded terms whenever they were used: His D-9s were involved in ‘leveling the area’ not demolishing homes, he insisted, even if in the process homes were demolished. And all Gazans were terrorists to him not ‘civilians.’ The judge himself, at a later stage in the proceedings had a similar enlightening objection: When Abu-Husain asked another witness if he saw the event of killing the late ISM activist, the judge corrected him rather angrily for his choice of words. He thought ‘killing’ implied guilt and intentionality, as judge Goldstone would have put it.

Despite R’s presence of mind and caginess, qualities that served to make him creative to a fault and oftentimes self-contradictory in reconstructing his role in the fateful day’s events, Abu-Husain managed to show him as an ignoramus. The soldier thought that the court case was being brought by the state of Israel against the late Rachel Corrie. And at one point he seemed to be cowed by the lawyer’s aggressive questioning to where he tried to shift responsibility up to his commander. He admitted to having worried about the safety of the international activist scurrying around in the operational arena to where he considered stopping work. But his commander insisted on continuing the mission despite the disturbance by the pesty ISM group.

Eventually Abu-Husain found a way to bridge the attitudinal gulf that separated the two of them, both lawyer and witness being ultimately fellow Arabs despite the state’s categorizing them differently on its scale of good-to-bad Arabs. The lawyer kept praising the witness’s intelligence and his achievements and high rank and dropping hints about his tribal identity and inclusion in the Bedouin, and hence the Arab, collective till the officer seemed to relent. Quite visibly, he waxed more at ease, nearly closing his eyes in a blissful repose. And Abu-Husain, his former tormentor, flashed a winsome smile at him. From there on the good Bedouin started referring to Gazans as ‘citizens of the area’ and not using the standard term ‘terrorists’ for the entire lot. It dawned on me right then that the young man was having a ‘Goldstone moment,’ an imagined fleeting instant of reacceptance in the fold and of lulling in the warm lap of tribal comfort and solidarity.

Alas, that is when the contradictory identities of the two current antagonists in court, not counting the judge, had to remerge and the separation walls re-erected: As he picked up another line of questioning of this central witness, lawyer Abu-Husain tiptoed gently around the man’s doubtful record of previous arrests and possible falsification of evidence. The judge sprang to the witness’s aid and declared the topic off limits. Abu-Husain relented but only to pursue another suspicious line and question the man about the mysterious bargaining by another free-range Bedouin offering to have the same commander switch sides and testify in court for the claimants against the payment of a certain fee. That line was quickly terminated as well.

The Dry Lab Technique:
April 6, 2011

Today the court had a relaxed atmosphere, brimming with palpable leisure and ease. All except for the pimply young Sephardi geek who serves as the technical clerk in charge of all the electronic equipment and who spends a good part of his day dozing off. The defense lawyers were fully at ease: The head of the three-lawyer team seemed to have regained at least five of the ten years in youthfulness I had thought she lost only three days ago. She had a constant bright smile that ebbed and flowed the whole day but never completely faded away. Her facial muscles relaxed and tensed alternatively, like a pretty jellyfish floating in sunny waters, without ever loosing its inner-tickled demeanor. As I secretly enjoyed my inspired analogy, drawn from my years in Hawaii, it dawned on me that the heavy makeup shined brightly in the well-lit court not unlike the sheen of the residue of an oil spill over distant still waters. The lady strode across the room to the door and turned her head to ascertain that the curtain that had been erected to shield the morning’s mystery witness didn’t permit the audience to see him. Her proud stride and threatening deliberate glance over her shoulder reminded one of a lioness in her den. But I have also seen our kitten, Bumblebee, practice the same game with mice he catches in our garden.

The second in command in the defense team, a dark-skinned tense and angry young man, appeared also to be more at ease: He sat calmly with his back to the audience alternatively bending his thick neck forward and straightening it up. For the first time I noticed a well-healed two-inch straight-line scar in the scalp at the nape right where the roundness of his shaven head yields to the muscular com adipose couple of horizontal rolls across the top of his thick neck. It brought to mind an old lawyer at the edge of Little Italy in Lower Manhattan where I used to stop on occasion to buy stamps, to make an additional copy of a key, or to notarize a document. The man was reputed to have been connected to the Mafia in his younger days and his shop, stocking tobacco and various NY memorabilia and offering whatever services were in high demand, was still considered a front for them. He sported many old slashes across his head and face.

The Corries’ attorneys also seemed to be in a relatively relaxed mood: Jamil Dakwar, the second in command, usually constantly on the move like a hyperactive child, running to whisper a suggestion to Abu-Husain, to hand him a document, to fling a photo at the judge’s table, or to operate his laptop and broadcast the soldiers’ famous last words on the audiotape from the murder scene, the incidental exchange of “Did you kill him?” and “God bless his soul!” that no one in uniform seems to have ever heard before, was now rather sated. Likewise, the judge showed no sign of high anxiety the whole day except on a couple of occasions to cut Abu-Husain off. Also on one occasion he noticed someone in the audience drinking from a water bottle and shouted at him rather angrily to cease and desist; only lawyers were allowed to drink in his court, he declared. As if to confirm his privileged position and gain favor with the good judge, Abu-Husain took a long swig from his bottle making loud gurgling noises. It didn’t seem to faze the judge one bit.

The first witness of the day was another post-camel Bedouin, an ambitious one with a master’s level education who had risen to become Deputy Commander of the Desert Division and who happened to have been in charge of the entire arena on the day of Rachel’s demise. A fleeting thought crossed my mind as to how high in the IDF hierarchy was an Arab allowed to rise and whether allegiance to one’s profession can ever trump his allegiance to the tribe. The image of Libyan crowds celebrating the defection of pilots from Gaddafi’s forces to join their next of kin in revolt insinuated itself in my conscience along with the imagined image of Richard Goldstone being chased in the streets of Johannesburg by his tribe, the angry mob emerging from the synagogue where his grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah is being celebrated. I struggled to reign in my wild imaginings from running even more amuck by applying my mental breaks. Alas, they have been worn thin by the regular practice of free association of thoughts at overdrive speed. I never realized before how many blacks have infiltrated Goldstone’s bloodline.

As I rejoined the courtroom proceedings, the soldier was speaking from behind his curtain and seemed quite convinced of his own gravitas, or so the casual observer may surmise from the quality of his voice. To me he sounded like he could benefit from an adenoidectomy. He indicated that on that specific day he sat in his command post some five kilometers from the site of the ‘incident.’ He kept track of what happened all along the fifty-kilometer length of the Philadelphi Axis through the watchful eyes and ears of a series of women soldiers, each in charge of tracking electronically what happened along a certain length of the axis. He admitted to having observed from the safety of his lair the forced evacuation of the same pesky foreign crowd of ten to fifteen activists from the roof of what his soldiers came to refer to as “the yellow house” before they proceeded to ‘level the ground’ on which it stood. Quickly, in my mind, I capitalized the name and populated the house with a dozen screaming children of various ages, four or five women in traditional attire letting out shrill cries of distress, an old lady singing dirges about the precious Yellow House she and her husband had toiled all their life to build and about her dead and imprisoned children, and a stoic old patriarch leaning on his cane and uttering the repetitive brief prayer of “May God punish the oppressors!” And, indeed, a group of foreign young men and women were clambering up and down the stairs to the roof. I couldn’t make out their faces except for that of Rachel Corrie, with the most serene and angelic look of concern and empathy beaming out the pain and suffering of Palestinian civilians to the whole world. Dignity enveloped her head to toe.

A new revelation in my slow and painful familiarization process with the IDF through Husain Abu-Husain’s piecemeal unveiling of its mundane closet ware came to light at this juncture: Commanders keep a ‘mission file’ for each assignment, a sort of ledger in which missions are listed and their actual execution is reported upon completion with the required details. It brought to mind my teaching days’ standard weekly lesson plan ledger in the late 1950’s. I had just successfully finished twelfth grade and was assigned to teach kindergarten in a neighboring village. I was supplied with the two essential pedagogical tools: a pointer, which served the additional function of whacking misbehaving and less studious pupils, and the planning and reporting ledger. Given my level of skill and experience, a typical entry in the log would look something like the following: Time: 8:00-9:00 AM. Lesson: Arabic Language. Planned Activity: Free practice of calligraphy. Execution: Implemented fully. The next line would be music, for example, and the activity free singing, then physical activity with free play, art with free drawing till the day was finished. All planned activities were reported as ‘implemented fully” or, to avoid repetition, “carried out in accordance with plan.” I now could imagine the IDF’s typical mission file being crammed full of free target practice, free bombing, free leveling of houses, etc. etc. And all missions would be reported as “completed successfully,” I presume.

The deputy commander had not seen the ‘incident’ of Rachel’s death. When he was informed of it, he reported, he quickly conducted four different investigations among the troops and came to the conclusion that a concrete slab had fallen on the woman and killed her. What irked me most was the diminutive term, betonada, sounding like a romantic term of endearment, that the witness used for the imagined concrete block. I say ‘imagined’ for I understand that no one ever saw such a block being scooped by the D-9 or falling from its blade at that moment. Rather it was the only conclusion that made sense to the investigators. The said commander asked, imagined and came to his conclusion. He and all the other investigators that were to come later never visited the site of the presumed accident. The official military police investigators, as I understand it, didn’t even speak directly to the D-9 drivers. In my college days we had a name for this type of practice: We called it “dry lab.” For example, you were given the assignment in the chemistry lab of identifying a certain substance by analyzing it chemically. You looked at it and knew what it was by right away. You went home and performed the mental exercise, starting with the end result and working backward. You put down all the relevant steps of analysis and the various calculated weights of the intermediary products in the analysis to the level of micrograms. You submitted the details of the presumed process of analysis and got a perfect grade. I was good at dry-labing. That is why you can still find my name engraved on a stone (or perhaps concrete) slab at the entrance to Bilger Hall at the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii as the top chemistry student of the class of 1964. Unless, of course, if that slab has fallen accidentally and killed someone nice.

By the end of the session everyone was tired and irritable. Abu-Husain wanted to know from the commander how many drug-smoking soldiers were deployed to perform the house demolition in the process of which Rachel’s killing took place, or something to that effect. You would think that after all the judge’s interruptions and admonitions over the past year the man would have learned to watch what he says. It was enough to make one’s blood boil. We all know that the task was ‘leveling’ the area and that Rachel was not ‘killed.’ And now the man is accusing our good soldiers of smoking hash on the job, five or six of them in the same tank with the mission’s commander. The judge had to prohibit that line of inquiry and he did it with the appropriate level of anger and display of tic-fraught irritability.

The next soldier witness apparently was not college material. No use wasting time and precious resources on one whose retentive ability is that limited. In the eight years since he witnessed the event he had forgotten all its details. About the only relevant memory that Abu-Husain could extract from the poor man was that he judged the foreign activists to be American by the lightness of their skin color. He couldn’t even remember if they were men or women, where they stood or anything else about them other than their skin color. I identified him in my mind as Mr. Forgot, another sad case of early onset of Alzheimer Syndrome.

There is more to come in another couple of months. Still, as we left the court, my friend, Mohammad Zidan, Director General of the Arab Human Rights Association in Nazareth, who has followed the proceedings, declared to me: “This all is not in vain. At least now when I read in the papers that the IDF has conducted an investigation I know what that means.”

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