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Two Families’ Dreams Were Not Demolished
The Corrie family
Craig and Cynthia Corrie in front of a photo of their daughter, Rachel, who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer. Photo Stephen Jaffe/AFP

By Howard Blume, Senior Editor
The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

It’ll be a heart-wrenching summer in the Gaza Strip, when Israeli forces order Jewish settlers to leave as part of the government’s historic disengagement plan. Even the promise of new houses and stipends as high as $400,000 won’t erase the indelible sadness of leaving behind a region that had become home.

But it could be worse.

These families could be Palestinians, like the family of Khaled and Samah Nasrallah.

When the Israeli government forced out the Nasrallahs from their home in Rafah, at Gaza’s southern edge, the Nasrallahs didn’t get a shekel. Their house was among more than 3,000 that stood in the way of a security cordon that Israel established along the border between Gaza and Egypt. The border district stood above tunnels that were, according to the Israeli government, used to transport weapons and bomb-making materials.

The Nasrallahs occupied the last house standing in their neighborhood; it was the homestead that American activist Rachel Corrie died trying to protect. She was fatally injured in March 2003, after a bulldozer allegedly crushed her as it advanced in the direction of the Nasrallahs’ house. Corrie, who had put herself between the bulldozer and the house, was in Gaza as a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a pro-Palestinian activist group that uses nonviolent means to oppose Israeli policies in the territories.

After an internal investigation, the Israeli army called Corrie’s death an accident; her friends and fellow activists called it murder.

Last March, the Corries filed separate lawsuits against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Caterpillar Inc., the U.S.-based company that manufactured the bulldozer. Several Palestinian families later joined the Caterpillar litigation. They seek compensation for alleged injury and death, and also a court order barring Caterpillar from providing services and equipment to the IDF.

Caterpillar has denied any wrongdoing, saying that it’s impossible to monitor the use of its equipment worldwide.

From the Israeli government, the Corries are seeking a “thorough, credible and transparent investigation,” as they put it in an interview.

Last week, the Corries and the Nasrallahs — with the youngest of their three young children — appeared in Los Angeles for the second stop in a seven-state tour. They spoke of wanting to promote peace and raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians. They’re also raising money to build the Nasrallahs a new home and to call attention to broader efforts to construct homes for Palestinians by The Rebuilding Alliance and others.

The two families spoke at the Venice United Methodist Church on June 13, and the next day before a gathering at the Brentwood home of Stanley K. Sheinbaum.

The Nasrallahs’ story stands in juxtaposition to the emerging narrative of Jewish residents in Gaza, who are under government orders to leave by August. The settlers’ claims were always legally open to question, because they settled in territory that Israel captured by military force in 1967. The Gaza strip was originally set aside as “Palestinian” in the same 1948 U.N. resolution that carved out the nation of Israel.

Post-1967, a succession of Israeli governments tacitly or explicitly encouraged Israelis to move into the disputed “occupied” territories. Chief among the settlers’ cheerleaders was hard-line Gen. Ariel Sharon, who had no trouble treating these regions as permanent conquests.

In a turnabout, Sharon, now the prime minister, is the Israeli leader ordering the exit of about 9,000 settlers through unilateral “disengagement.” Sharon’s turnaround is more pragmatic than ideological: Protecting the small Jewish outposts from Palestinian militants loomed as a dear and deadly cost without end.

For their part, the Nasrallahs are not yet in position to celebrate. They and other Palestinians still live in a sort of limbo, as not-nearly citizens of their not-quite-country, where they are treated as perpetual suspects by an occupying power that makes them feel powerless, even as it fears every one of them, given the supposition that any Palestinian could prove to be a suicide bomber.

Khaled Nasrallah said it’s easier to travel to the United States than to the West Bank, where he has a sister he hasn’t seen for eight years. The 30-mile commute from Rafah to his accounting job in Gaza City could be delayed by weeks, if checkpoints were closed because of terrorism concerns.

“Even with disengagement, the Israeli government controls the land. It controls the air, and it controls the sea,” said the 34-year-old Nasrallah. “And it controls the border.”

Nasrallah’s neighborhood was doomed, because it lay along the border of Gaza and Egypt. The IDF targeted his community, because of numerous tunnels that crossed from the Egyptian side into Rafah — more than four dozen have been found since 2001. Palestinians concede the tunnels were used for smuggling, but insist smugglers brought in no weapons. The IDF claims otherwise.

Relatively few terror attacks within Israel proper originated from Gaza, although Gaza’s Jewish settlers have faced regular shelling. And leaving the settlements can sometimes prove a death sentence, as it was for Tali Hatual of Moshav Katif.

Hatual was eight months pregnant when gunmen killed her and her four children on the Kissufim Road in May, 2004. And the “war over the tunnels,” as the newspaper Ha’aretz put it earlier this year, has claimed the lives of at least 15 Israeli soldiers in the past four years. Many more Palestinians have died as either combatants or bystanders. The IDF has called the Rafah-area border district “the main channel for smuggling terrorists and weaponry into Gaza Strip and West Bank.”

To frustrate Rafah tunnel builders, the IDF decided to create a wide-open no-man’s land next to the border, similar in appearance to the cleared zone that communist East Germany established to thwart defectors trying to reach West Berlin. The Israeli plan required flattening several tightly packed Palestinian neighborhoods.

These Palestinian enclaves offer another contrast with the Jewish settlers’ portion of Gaza, known as Gush Katif. In the Israeli communities, there are broad streets and modern, spacious houses, with red-tiled roofs and ocean views. The construction in Rafah is dense, cruder, almost haphazard-looking and seemingly unfinished, with rebar rising everywhere from the sea of dwellings. Craig Corrie, Rachel’s father, explained that the exposed rebar makes it easier to add on, so that later generations can share a family home with their elders.

In an interview, Nasrallah told of how in 1948, his family had been prosperous ranchers and farmers in the village of Sarafand al-’Amar. Israeli soldiers, he said, forcibly evicted his clan during the fighting of 1948. His family lived in Gaza until the 1967 War prompted their flight to Egypt.

In 1998, he and his brother sold their possessions in Egypt to buy land in Rafah. They moved into their newly built house in 1999, where, on that first day, Nasrallah married. His brother, a pharmacist, lived on the first floor with his wife and three children. Khaled Nasrallah and his wife, Samah, lived on the second floor. They now have three young children of their own.

By 2003, the onslaught of the bulldozers was inexorable, though unpredictable. More than 3,000 homes would eventually be destroyed and more than 20,000 people displaced, said Donna Baranski-Walker, executive director of the Palo Alto-based Rebuilding Alliance, a main sponsor of the Corrie-Nasrallah tour.

“If soldiers punched a hole in your wall, that was your notice to evacuate within two days, because the house would be demolished,” Baranski-Walker said.

The IDF did not respond to the allegation about the notification method.

Rachel Corrie spent seven and a half weeks in Gaza as a veritable human shield against bulldozers and bullets as part of the International Solidarity Movement.

On March 16, 2003, a bulldozer, with a two-member crew, was engaged in “routine terrain leveling and debris clearing,” not building demolition, in the IDF’s version of what happened. An IDF report asserts that Corrie died “as a result of injuries sustained when earth and debris accidentally fell on her ... Ms. Corrie was not run over by the bulldozer.” The report also claims that Corrie was possibly in a blindspot for the bulldozer operators and “behind an earth mound,” so they did not see that she was in harm’s way.

Activists with Corrie described the incident differently. They’ve said that Corrie and the others had made their presence known to the operators, who appeared to be bearing down on the Nasrallah home. Documents filed as part of the lawsuit allege that the bulldozer cleared rubble at Corrie’s feet, causing her to stumble, then drove forward over her. The activists insisted that the act looked intentional.

Corrie’s death at age 23 created an international incident that continues to resonate. In Rafah, a stalemate ensued: The army did not knock down the house that held the two families — four adults and five children; the Nasrallahs refused to leave, even after they lost water, electricity and plumbing. When soldiers and tanks approached one side of the house, the families would sleep on the other side, putting extra walls between them and any stray bullets.

The IDF asserts that much of the ordnance came from Palestinian terrorists. The army said that since September 2000 in the border area, it’s logged 1,570 grenade attacks, 1,360 live-fire machine gun and sniper attacks, 184 anti-tank missile attacks, 147 roadside explosive devices and 41 mortar attacks.

“For a long time, nobody visited us, and we could not visit them,” Nasrallah recalled. “When we go to lose our mind, we think of the solution: rabbits. We raised rabbits, built them houses. We used the rabbits to keep our humanity. In three months, three rabbits became 30.”

Meanwhile, he said, the army started digging trenches around his house, ostensibly to find tunnels or discourage tunnel building. With its foundation undermined, the house began to tilt perilously and was on the verge of collapse.

On Oct. 17, 2003, about seven months after Rachel Corrie’s death, the Nasrallahs gave up. It was just too dangerous — either inside or outside the house. Months later, family members briefly returned but had trouble finding their property, because the entire district had been leveled and was nothing but flat earth — even the streets were gone. They finally located a spot with scattered tiles that they thought came from their kitchen.

A part of Khaled Nasrallah remains with that demolished house; he can sketch out its floor plan on the page of a notebook in seconds. But he’s also got a new, more forward-looking floor plan in his possession.

The Rebuilding Alliance hopes that the current tour will raise enough money to build a duplex to house the families of Nasrallah and his brother. Since their compelled evacuation, his brother has moved six times; Nasrallah has moved twice. He currently rents an apartment in Gaza City.

As part of the building drive, on June 14 in Sheinbaum’s Brentwood living room, a “closer” solicited sponsors for windows ($150 each), a steel front door ($500), tilework for the entryway and exterior ($1,800) and cinderblocks (14 cents each).

Nasrallah, a soft-spoken man with improving English, is learning to promote his cause.

Cynthia Corrie, 57, a musician and teacher, and Craig Corrie, 58, an insurance adjuster, are practiced, polished, persuasive speakers. They’ve left behind their previous professional work to become their daughter’s legacy as full-time ambassadors for her causes through the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice.

The parents consider themselves spiritual without being tied closely to organized religion. They have always been civically active, but nothing like their current mission. The Corries lived in Charlotte, N.C., at the time of their daughter’s death, but have since moved to Olympia, Wash., where the family has deeper roots.

Cynthia Corrie said she has long been familiar and sympathetic to the Jewish narrative that includes the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, but that her daughter made her sensitive to the Palestinian cause as well. She described her daughter as a born activist, someone who called a press conference in middle school to express student support for teachers during a labor dispute.

The mother said her daughter loved to draw, paint and write. Her e-mails from Gaza, in fact, became the source of a generally acclaimed, but controversial, play that opened this year in London.

Corrie said Rachel was especially shaken by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and sought to understand the root causes. She was someone, the mother continued, “who was always uncomfortable with the privileges of American middle-class life.”

When contacted by The Journal, media representatives for an array of Israeli government offices had nothing to say about the Corrie case, including the offices of the prime minister, the Foreign Ministry and the Justice Ministry. They all deferred to the IDF, whose media representatives provided a February press release and a previously prepared summary of the army’s investigation. The IDF did not respond to specific questions.

“The IDF has in the past exercised its legal authority to demolish terrorists’ houses,” the release said. “This has been done within the framework of the State of Israel’s overall effort to defeat Palestinian terror, and as part of the State of Israel’s obligation and right to defend itself and to provide security for its citizens. As a means of deterring potential terrorists from carrying out attacks, the houses of terrorists who have actively participated in terrorist activity have been demolished.”

The release referred specifically to the IDF practice of selectively targeting homes belonging to the families of alleged terrorists involved in attacks on Israeli soldiers or civilians. The IDF did not respond to a question about whether the Nasrallahs had ever been suspected or accused of any illegal activities. However, family members were not judged a threat by U.S. customs officials, who allowed the Nasrallahs to enter this country. Nor did the IDF address the issue of compensation for Palestinians who lost their homes or lives during the demolitions.

Nasrallah said three neighbors, two women and a boy, were killed by army snipers or stray Israeli bullets during the Rafah demolitions. According to news reports, a separate Israeli army incursion killed more than 40 Palestinians and wounded scores of others in May 2004 alone. It isn’t clear how many casualties were civilians.

The IDF release does note, however, a change in policy: “The minister of defense decided to ... stop exercising the legal right to demolish terrorists’ houses as a means of deterrence.”

The demolition policy could be resumed at a later date.

The Corries didn’t plan for the tour to coincide with the eve of disengagement, but they cannot fail to make a linkage.

“It’s terribly important, particularly as we approach disengagement, for us in America to be there in solidarity with the people in Gaza who are trying to rebuild their lives,” Cynthia Corrie said. “The U.S. government has funded the occupation. Craig and I feel that we purchased the Caterpillar bulldozer that killed Rachel.”

“President Bush is saying the right thing about the need for a viable Palestinian state,” she added. “But we need to start defining what that is.”

For the Corries, an economically feasible state of Palestine would include an open border with Egypt to the south. They’re encouraged by suggestions in a recent Rand Corp. report that tackled the viability question. But they’re also wary about Sharon using Gaza disengagement as a fig leaf to justify further Israeli expansion into the territories to the north.

Come August, the IDF will try its hand at forcing Jewish Israelis to leave their Gaza homes. It’s a possible step toward peace that also could erupt in a new source of violence.

The Nasrallahs, of course, can attest to the army’s experience with evictions, especially when bulldozers are brought to bear.

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