Hussain Abu-Hussain, the Corries’ lawyer, thought his was a depressing profession. I sought to cheer him up by pointing out the dismal case of the oncology specialty in medicine. It didn’t seem to work; he had spent the whole day trying in vain to trick witnesses of the murder of the late ISM volunteer into telling the truth. But the relevant portions of those witnesses’ memory were hermitically sealed behind an impermeable wall of forgetfulness. Limited in my scope of knowledge and understanding to the field of medicine, I am intrigued by the mystery of what effective mind-altering drugs the Israeli Defense Forces have at their disposal to wipe out selective segments of their soldiers’ recall and to effect such precise lacuna of brain damage.
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?
Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh is a Palestinian doctor who has worked for over 35 years to bring medical care to Palestinians in Galilee, against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel. This post originally appeared on his blog A Doctor in Galilee and a previous report from the Corrie trial for Mondoweiss can be found here.