Saturday, June 5, 2010

Rachel Corrie in Israeli Custody--Again: When Does the Occupation End?

The Rachel Corrie--an Irish aid ship funded by a Malaysian non-governmental organisation (Perdana Global Peace Organisation headed by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad), named after an American peace activist in Palestine, and part of the Humanitarian Flotilla attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, under blockade by Israel--was boarded by Israeli Defense Forces and escorted to Ashdod Harbour on June 5. Army spokeswoman Lt Col. Avital Leibovich essentially responded to the question of what would happen to the 11 activists and 8 crew aboard, with words to the effect of "See what happens when you come quietly, no one gets shot or harmed". Let us hope so, especially as Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American university student and peace activist in Palestine after whom the ship was christened, was herself bulldozed to death in Gaza in 2003, while attempting peaceful resistance to Israeli demolishment of Palestinian homes.

In the photo immediately above is Rachel (April 10, 1979 – March 16, 2003) in her red jacket, as co-workers attend to her. She was able to say "My back is broken"; and indeed it was, according to an Israeli autopsy report, with 5 spinal fractures, 6 broken ribs, and crushed shoulder blades, as well as facial injuries. A more graphic view of Rachel from a different angle of the same event, and one of her face after "repair" and in a shroud, are here, in an excellent article by Christopher Bollynn, BBC documentary proves Israeli army murdered Rachel Corrie, with links to others, including "Silenced witnesses", an article by John Sweeney on the IDF killing of the reporters who witnessed Rachel Corrie's bulldozing and were leaving with film evidence. The BBC documentary of the latter event, When Killing is Easy, which aired November 6, 2003 on BBC2, is not available for viewing. Rachel Corrie's own story has been the subject of more than 30 songs, and a cantata, The Skies are Weeping, and more than one artistic production, the most famous of which is the play My Name is Rachel CorrieThe Rachel Corrie Foundation website is here.

Anyone interested in what it is like to be born and raised in a refugee camp in Gaza, and then marry and raise a family in Gaza should read the book by Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey. Dr Abuelaish is the specialist whose home was bombed by Israeli forces on January 16, 2009 as part of the Gaza Offensive of Dec 2008-Jan 2009 that took advantage of the final days of the Bush administration's complicity (or at the very least of its complacency). After losing his wife in the fall of 2008 to acute leukemia, Dr Abuleish lost 3 daughters (Besson 21, Mayar 15, and Aya 13) and a niece (Noor 14) in the bombing of his extended family home. Another daughter (Shatha 16), and a niece (Ghaida 13), along with his brother, were gravely injured but survived, after treatment  in Israel. Since he had been reporting daily for Israeli media on conditions in Gaza, Dr Abuelaish had contacted journalist Shlomi Eldar for help as events unfolded, and his anguish was caught live on television:

The journalist Shlomi Eldar was able to arrange to have ambulances take the injured daughter, niece, and brother to an Israeli hospital, accompanied by Dr Abuelaish

At a press conference later, not all Israelis were so understanding

January 15, at the beach, writing their names in the sand, Mayar (15), Aya (13), Besson (21)

Shatha (16), after release from hospital; now older, she and her sister Dalal are both at university studying engineering

Dr Abuelaish is creating a foundation to honour his deceased daughters' memory by promoting the education and advancement of Palestinian girls and women: Daughters For Life.  He writes in his book that men can be counted on to fight, whereas women are more likely to look for peaceful solutions, and so it is extremely important to have an educated female population. He has always been, and continues to be a strong promoter of coexistence, and continues to lecture on that theme.

The book I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey describes well, through his own story and that of his extended family, the impact on Palestinians of their displacement to refugee camps, the conditions in the camps, the poverty and grinding work at whatever jobs were available, and the importance of education--even in a UN school with 3 to a desk, and 60 to a class--in surmounting the odds.

Dr Abuelaish was born in Jabaliya Refugee Camp, where his parents and grandparents were displaced from the family farm in Houg, near Sderot. There has been a never ending desire to return, particularly for older members of the family, who went from farming to relative inactivity, poverty, overcrowding, and humiliation in the refugee camp. He himself bought an olive grove for his children after his wife's death in the Autumn of 2008.

As the oldest son of the second wife, he began contributing to the family income at age 7, by collecting and re-selling unused milk ration coupons. He soon began labouring almost full time, filling and stacking orange crates, or transporting goods. Once, age 10, his uncle used him to smuggle goods into Egypt for resale. Also about this age, he was suffering greatly from arthritic legs, aggravated by the type of work he was doing, and after collapse, was admitted to Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. During his hospitalization, he was struck that there were Palestinians who were faring much better than those in the camps: all the doctors, the nurses, some patients. He was also struck by the gender equality, mixing, and mutual respect in the work setting, as well as flirtations, whereas at home gender segregation was strict, and romance very conservative. This stay set his sights on both medicine and a more egalitarian society.

At age 15 he went to spend the summer working on a farm in Israel for a Sephardic Jewish family. They were very kind to him despite certain of his oddities; for example, he was so used to collecting second hand clothes that he thought the piles of clothes the family left about were being discarded, and carefully collected up what was in fact the laundry. He accredits his positive experience with this family as one of the factors which made him favour coexistence with Israel, for which he advocates formally and informally. Also, his earnings enabled him to buy a house for his family to replace the one that Ariel Sharon ordered bulldozed without compensation when his family refused to leave Gaza.

Persuaded by a teacher not to quit school part way through Grade 7, when he was already a labourer full time, Izzeldin went on to win a scholarship for medical studies at the University of Cairo. Though he was offered a residency position in Obstetrics and Gynecology, his family needed him at home so he returned. With no opportunities in Jabaliya, he worked in Gaza as a GP, first at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, and then in Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Disgusted that both functioned on a "connections" (wasta) system, he left to work for the Saudi Ministry of Health. Ironically, through his own connections from medical school, he was able to obtain a position in Jeddah, KSA, treating Palestinian women in the maternity ward of Al Aziziyah Hospital.

New stability made him eligible at 32 for an arranged marriage to a then 24-year-old dental technician student, Nadia. He describes their marriage as a traditional one, both as an arranged one, and in that she became a stay at home mother, and they had 8 children, 6 girls and 2 boys. She would stay in whatever country was home and take care of the household, while he went off for studies to various places. This began shortly after their marriage, while they were based in Jeddah.

In keeping with the practice of the time, to advance foreign doctors working in KSA, the Government of Saudi provided him with a scholarship to do a diploma in Obstetrics and Gynecology through the University of London, in order to improve his knowledge and skills. Most of the classes were conducted in Riyadh, but the scholarship did cover research time in London at the University of London, where he specialized in infertility. As he points out, countries and cultures with high fertility rates often also have high infertility rates which are not discussed as openly. I would add that natalism contributes to the degree of attention to both of these (in)fertility rates.

In Saudi, Dr Abuleish was able to build a nest egg before tensions between Iraq and Saudi, and in the ME, made it prudent for Palestinians to leave. His wife, in particular, was eager to return to family. In 1991, he set up a private obstetrics and gynecology clinic in Gaza, and volunteered at an Israeli hospital to learn more about obstetrics and gynecology. He was offered a specially tailored residency position at Soroka University Medical Center Hospital in Israel (where he had volunteered, and referred patients), and trained in ObGyn while commuting to his home in Gaza, though at times he was delayed or even blocked on one side or the other of the border. Later, American scholarships allowed him to do subspecialty training in fetal medicine in Italy and Belgium; and, still later, a Masters of Public Health at Harvard.

Even with his successes, the lack of stable work in Gaza for him, the general poverty, the humiliation of border crossings, and the stress of imminent violence were debilitating. He was constantly in search of stable and better employment, leading him to work at a number of hospitals in Israel while maintaining a free clinic one day a week in Gaza. The constant back and forth, and incidents at the border were internally draining. He also took positions abroad, as a WHO officer, in Afghanistan for example, because of the high pay. This, along with his absences for research and study, resulted in long absences which were difficult for his family and for him--when leaving, away, and returning.

Dr Abuelaish describes well the domestic strains on all family members for all Palestinians that result from life in Gaza, including his own mother's beatings of him when overstrained by the constant worry to put food on the table; and, his own angry outbursts at his wife and children. Only after the tragedy of his daughters' deaths was he able to finalize leaving Gaza, although plans were in the works after the 2005 shelling of his extended family home--still under investigation. He now is at the University of Toronto as a professor of Public Health on a 5 year contract (2009-2013).

The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme is a non-profit Palestinian non-governmental organization established in 1990 in the midst of the first intifada, and that researches, treats, and disseminates information on the psychological toll of living in Gaza for all Palestinians. Founded by Gazan psychiatrist Dr Eyad El Sarraj, who continues to serve as director, the GCMHP also documents societal life and conditions in Gaza. It has a small hospital clinic facility which was bombed in the Gaza Offensive, as was the home of Dr El Sarraj whose daughter was injured, and now suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as do so many in Gaza, including the tortured, and the ex-prisoners of the Israelis.

Other major clinical problems in Gaza are depression, anxiety, anger, domestic violence, and developmental delay. All family members are affected: fathers, mothers, children; and the strains and loss of work undermine the family structure and social order of the Palestinians in Gaza. Dr El Sarraj holds that this is a deliberate strategy, and one that all of the tactics of the Gaza Occupation--sonic booms, blockades, imprisonment, joblessness--seek to achieve. It is a primary goal of the GCMHP to counteract those negative effects. From the website:

In recognition of the vital link between healthy individuals and a healthy society, GCMHP has adopted a community-based approach to healing. As part of this comprehensive approach, the Programme not only offers clinical services, but also works on public awareness efforts to combat the stigma of mental illness, as well as preventative measures to break the cycle of violence in Palestinian society.
As a pioneer community mental health service-provider in Palestine, GCMHP has a rich record of achievement.
Approximately 12,000 patients have benefited from our therapeutic services. In the field of research, GCMHP has been the first organization to conduct extensive studies into the psychosocial problems in Palestinian society. The Programme has trained hundred of health care providers in the detection of mental illness and is working to create a qualified and dedicated corps of mental health professionals in Gaza.
In addition, GCMHP is at the forefront of human rights advocacy, lobbying for such things as the prevention of torture, the empowerment of women, and the promotion of democracy.
The many facets of GCMHP's important work combine to help heal the scars of violence and oppression and forge a healthy and vibrant civil society in Palestine.

GCMHP's Objectives are to:

* Provide humane and high quality community-based mental health services.
* Develop local human resources, through mental health training programs.
* Empowering vulnerable groups in society, especially women, children and ex-detainees.
* Combat the stigma of mental illness in Palestinian society.
* Promote principles of democracy and respect for human rights in Palestine.

Pictures from the Women's Empowerment Project

From the Children's Art Programme (therapy and research)

Cover of the book Life is Worth Living, published by GCMHP

So, back to Rachel Corrie, and The Rachel Corrie, one might ask with these Palestinians, "Why?", "What have we [they] done?", "When does the blockade end?", "When does the Occupation end?".

*Update: This post was elaborated further after its first publication. Also, the activists and crew of The Rachel Corrie are to be deported from Israel.

Other relevant posts:

The Pro-Israel Lobby: Defending Israel or Stifling Debate Including of the Saudi Peace Initiative?
Calling On Obama: Get Tough On Israel
Nuclear Warheads: If Israel, why not Iran, Saudi, the GCC, or MENA?
Israel Apartheid Week 2010: 1-4 Weeks Focused on Palestine
Israel...Boarding...Humanitarian Flotilla...At A Loss For Words--Almost

What are your impressions of the developments in the attempts to breach the blockade of Gaza and the Israeli response?
Do you agree with Dr Abuelaish that the only solution is coexistence?
Are you surprised by the difficulties of his life in Gaza?
Do you agree with Dr El Serraj that there is a deliberate policy to destroy the social fabric of Palestinian society in Gaza?
Any other comments, thoughts, reactions, experiences?


Susanne said...

Thanks for the recommendation of that book and for telling some about Dr. Abuelaish. Sounds like a great person and interesting book! I always find it interesting to read from people with first-hand experiences. It's good to see what they suggest in order to "fix" the problem.

Very informative post. I love the little guy here at the end. My heart breaks for all that some people in this world go through. :(

Wendy said...

Chiara, you can do what you like with this link from the AlJazeera reporter who was on the Mavi marmara. You can leave it here, expand it or put it in your
Mavi Marmara post.

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for your comment! Dr Abuelaish is rather remarkable in a number of ways, and his experience and recommendations are worth considering. I especially like his emphasis on education for all, and taking the example of international collaboration in medicine and science as 2 positives in moving forward. He also makes clear in a very human way how unsustainable the status quo is.

I love the little guy at the end too. He is one of the children from the GCMHP pictures. Not exactly the type of Palestinian little boy actions they show on Western newscasts!

Thanks again for your compassion and your comment!

Wendy--An excellent link! It is a very compelling read, as is the interview in the Globe and Mail with one of the released Canadians, as in there was no resistance with sticks and clubs because they had none, and as is the Turkish autopsy reports on the killed, who were shot in the head at close range execution style, or riddled with bullets firing squad style. Not in self-defense mode.

I will start by making your link clickable here in the hopes that it will facilitate reading for all and then see were to include it in a post, present or future.

"Kidnapped by Israel, forsaken by Britain" By Jamal Elshayyal

Thanks again! I hope others will read this, and comment, as well as commenting further on the post!

Usman said...

Very interesting and moving.
I have heard about Rachel Corrie but didn't know it in details.

Thanks for sharing it. Not much I have to say in words.

Chiara said...

Usman--thank you for your comment and your sentiments.

I too find some of this leaves one at a loss for words. I don't tear easily, but I do every time I watch and listen to the anguish of Dr Abuelaish in that video of his phone call. The sense of loss, impotence (a surgeon who cannot save his own daughters), and complicity ("What have we done, Shlomi?" ie we, including himself advocating for and trying to live in peaceful coexistence), and desperation is overwhelming.

The Israeli journalists and Shlomi Eldar in particular handled this extremely well. Sadly, since all other communications were cut off in Gaza, this was the best way to call for an ambulance ie an announcer on Israeli television asks if any IDF are watching to dispatch one, to this doctor's house, who is a respected Palestinian doctor working in Israeli hospitals. Since the IDF were shooting at UN ambulances and hospitals the IDF ambulances would be the only ones that could get through.

It reminds me of reading at the time reports from Gazans in a BBC World article. One doctor was pleading that if anyone knew what the white chemical from the sky was, the one that burns the patient alive when you open them for surgery to tell them and how to treat it, since they had no internet connection and no one had ever seen it before. One Norwegian doctor thought it might be naphthalene but they weren't sure.

I tried to write in to the BBC comments but they were not accepting new ones. Yes indeed, naphthalene, in a new form. And no one had seen it because it is against the Geneva Convention to use it, even in war, except in a wide open setting as a deterrent to advancement. The Israelis had set it off in Gazan cities in residential areas claiming there were insurgents hiding in the homes. That was after they were confronted with the photographic evidence of the white plumes in the sky.

Hmmm either no words, or unprintable words, or never ending words. Very distressing, let's call it. :(

oby said...

I am wondering if this man,Dr. Abuelaish, is the same man profiled on one of the journalism shows (20/20 et al) a while back. The circumstances are eerily similar. the man then was struggling to put his life back together after the loss of so many family members and he was determined not to allow his life to be defined by hate and anger although he certainly was feeling deep anguish. They showed him walking with the journalist among the rubble and he explained how and where his daughters were killed while they were at home quietly doing normal things...deeply deeply moving...God it makes me so angry!

Chiara said...

Oby--thanks for your comment! Yes I think it is, because I have seen him interviewed on a number of programs. He has been asking the Israeli government to properly investigate why his house was bombed this time as well as in 2005. He also has been a long time speaker for Palestinians to the media.

Dr El Serraj has also been interviewed and showed the damage to the clinic as well as to his home, and his daughter's bedroom which was a typical teen room and was totally disrupted.

Both have struggled though the losses are different as are the solutions. Both continue in their own ways to strive for improvement for the Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza.

Thanks again for your comment!


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