Far from home and close to danger in the Gaza Strip

Arts & Entertainment/Film and TV by

Rachel, a new documentary from French-Israeli director Simone Bitton, tells the story of Rachel Corrie, an American activist who was killed while attempting to prevent the bulldozing of a Palestinian home in 2003. To this day Israel denies responsibility for her death, claiming the bulldozer operator’s line of sight was obstructed by the mound of dirt that crushed her. Eyewitnesses offer a contradictory account, claiming instead that she was indeed within clear view.

Rachel was one of several American and British volunteers with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organization committed to non-violent deterrence of Israeli military operations in Palestine. One of their objectives was preventing the Israeli army’s demolition of Gaza homes near the Israeli-Egyptian border. Donning reflective jackets, the volunteers would create a human barrier between Palestinian residences and 65-ton DW-9 bulldozers intent on demolishing the homes in an effort to clear the area of suspected hidden explosives. Internationals such as Rachel were in a unique position to protect the homes; any Palestinians attempting to do likewise had a better chance of being shot. The amateur video footage of the volunteers blockading the bulldozers is breathtaking. We witness an exasperated Israeli soldier, having advanced his DW-9 perilously close to the volunteers and finding them unmoved, attempting to explain, “This is not your land, go away.”

Bitton patiently interviews eyewitnesses, Israeli soldiers, and military officials, in addition to examining key documents and surveillance footage in an attempt to determine how such a standoff went tragically wrong. However, the film unnecessarily indulges in an interlude set in America, featuring interviews with Rachel’s college professors and hometown friends who inform the audience that she really was a good person, as though we somehow suspected her of being a thrill-seeker unworthy of our sympathy.

So many contradictions go unresolved and so many questions remain unanswered that Rachel becomes the story of a failed endeavour to ascertain the truth. In the process, it also reveals the futility of resistance; the home that Rachel died trying to protect, and hundreds more, have since been demolished. However, the film’s message is not altogether cynical. Jonathon Polack, the Israeli peace activist who housed ISM volunteers in Tel-Aviv, maintains that it is possible for one to resist without hope. “In revolt,” he contends, “there is great truth, whether it succeeds or not.”

On December 27, 2008, Israel launched a major military offensive upon the Gaza Strip. The invasion lasted 22 days, resulted in the deaths of 773 Palestinian civilians according to B’tselem, and displaced over 50,000 Gaza residents. Humanrights watchdogs lambasted the assault, claiming that it constituted collective punishment of the Gaza citizenry for the rocket attacks carried out by Hamas militants. The Israeli air strikes, which were claimed to target Hamas facilities, destroyed Palestinian mosques and schools.

One year later, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) is presenting a photo exposition entitled “Human Drama in Gaza.” This exhibition is being showcased by Cinema du Parc as a companion to their screenings of Rachel. The exposition depicts the plight of Palestinians living in Gaza before, during, and after the invasion. The ruins of Gaza serve as the backdrop for human tragedy in the touching photos, reminding us that even today, the Gaza Strip remains under Israeli blockade, stymieing humanitarian efforts. CJPME intends the exposition, which is at once provocative and macabre, to reveal the misery and suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as to expose the violation of human rights. However, images of Hamas – which has failed to revise its blood-curdling anti-Semitic charter – are notably absent from the exhibit’s portrayal of Palestine, which chooses instead to highlight the destruction wreaked by Israeli force.

Rachel opens January 29 at Cinema du Parc (French subtitles) and AMC Forum 22 (English subtitles). A sneak preview is screening at Cinema du Parc on January 21.

“Human Drama in Gaza” will be at Cinema du Parc January 15 to February 28.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly spelled Rachel Corrie. The article incorrectly noted the number of civilian casualties in Operation Cast Lead. Originally, the article claimed that the Cast Lead resulted in 1200 civilian casualties; but in fact, according to B’tselem, there were 773 civilian casualties. The article also incorrectly noted that Israeli air strikes destroyed Palestinian hospitals. The Tribune regrets the errors.