A few weeks before she died, Rachel Corrie wrote to her mother from Rafah, Gaza. ‘I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar,’ she said, ‘and have boyfriends and make comics for my coworkers.’
As we know, she never had the chance to do any of those things again. Following this week’s verdict in the lawsuit filed by Rachel’s parents – accusing the Israeli military of unlawfully killing Rachel, either intentionally or through gross negligence – there has been much crucial discussion of the circumstances surrounding Rachel’s death. It is also imperative that we remember the human rights work of Rachel’s life.
Between 2000 and 2004, the Israeli military demolished 1,700 homes in Rafah, leaving 17,000 people homeless.
The year after Rachel died, in 2004, the Israeli military demolished an average of 120 residential buildings in Gaza each month, in violation of both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. The majority of these demolitions were in Rafah, where more than ten percent of the population lost their homes. Most were already refugees, facing dispossession for the second or third time. (Learn more about home demolitions in these Amnesty International reports).
Shortly before Rachel was in Gaza, I was there as part of a human rights lawyers’ delegation (meeting with Israeli and Palestinian academics, activists, and families). We witnessed the piles of rubble left where homes had once stood and where families had recently lived. We had the chance to talk to families whose homes were still there – amongst the wreckage – and learned about the issues facing them in their day to day lives, all while playing soccer with the children and learning recipes from the mums making dinner. Housing, water, access to healthcare, access to decent (or any) work, and the economic wellbeing of their communities were issues that came up consistently, and are issues which, perhaps understandably, often get lost amid conversations about governance, statehood, and atrocities in the context of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Last summer, in 2011, another young woman, film student Daphni Leef, became the face of Israeli protests around similar issues (albeit in a different form). She encouraged others to join her on the plush Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, as she pitched her tent to shine a light on the city’s lack of affordable housing.
Others from across the political spectrum responded to her call, and soon afterwards twenty thousand Israelis took to the streets for a ‘Rally for Affordable Living’ – protesting primarily the rising cost of housing in Tel Aviv. ‘The People Demand Social Justice!’ demonstrations were held across Israel – marking one of the largest mass mobilizations in the country’s history.
The right to adequate housing, which includes the components of security of tenure and affordability, is explicitly guaranteed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Israel is a state party to, and bound by. The ICESCR recognizes (in Article 11.1), ‘the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions’, all of which is exercising our minds here in the US too.
As I read more about Rachel and her family, I wondered if I would be able to consistently demonstrate such humanity and generosity in the face of grave loss. The New York Times reports that, over the last week, Rachel’s father has been carrying a picture of the Palestinian girl, then aged six, whose family’s house Rachel was trying to protect. When asked about his choice of picture he said:
“I think this one … is more hopeful. She deserves a future that we all want for our children.”
In her last email home to her parents, Rachel thanked her father for stepping up his anti-war activism, asked about his ideas for the rest of her life, told him not to worry about her, and suggested that, to make things easier, they could correspond pretending that she was in a movie or a sitcom starring Michael J. Fox. She also writes about incursions, effective activism, and house demolitions.
Rachel Corrie’s emails and writings have touched many beyond those who knew and loved her. For those inspired by Rachel’s life, perhaps one way of honoring her is to continue working for the better future for all our children that she, and other human rights defenders, have fought for.
You can read Rachel’s emails and other writings, including a poem about ending hunger, here. For more information about the human right to housing, please go here and you can take our latest action on forced evictions throughout Africa here.