"Allah Yerhamu" – the link between Rachel Corrie's death and the Kufr Qassim massacre

Allah Yerhamu – May God have mercy on him.

Thia is an Arabic phrase spoken after the news of someone’s death.

A communication over military radio between D-9 bulldozers operating in Gaza when American activist Rachel Corrie was trying to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian home in the spring of 2003. Corrie had just been crushed to death.

Rachel Corrie was, of course, female, a point the good doctor makes below in discussing a significant part of the military radio communications which were somehow missing from the transcript, and which only emerged when the audio was recently played in court. Rachel, an American student, was 23 years old on the day she was killed.

A trial in Haifa district court last week heard testimony from the D-9 bulldozer driver and his military commanders this week about what happened from their point of view.

Several fascinating and bitterly witty blog posts have been written about the trial, which opened last March in Haifa, by Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh, a retired physician from Arrabeh village in the Galilee, who has been attending the trial as a public witness. Dr. Kanaaneh wrote his report of the long-awaited Israeli military testimony in the court in Haifa last week, and posted on his own blog on Monday 18 October, here and then picked up on the Mondoweiss blog.

Rachel Corrie’s parents and her sister have been attending every session of the trial — as, apparently, have U.S. Consulate officials.

In his post, Dr. Kanaaneh makes a chilling link between Rachel Corrie’s death in Gaza seven years ago, and the Kufr Qassim massacre 54 years ago — and explains that the expression “Allah Yerhamu” is the connection:

Hussain Abu-Hussain, the Corries’ lawyer … 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 hermetically 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 D-9R 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 D-9 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.

Dr. Kanaaneh’s blog report of Monday’s testimony in the Rachel Corrie trial continued:
“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 D-9s 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.

The mystery witness was the commander of the unit operating the D-9s on the day and in the arena of Rachel’s death … 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 D-9s. There were civilians, a dozen or so of them, in the battlefield, the battle that raged between D-9s 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 D-9 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 D-9 to the driver of the other D-9 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 Kufr 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…

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 D-9s 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…”

Meanwhile, today, hundreds of people gathered in the village of Kufr Qassim (in the Galilee) to mark the 1954 massacre. Israel’s YNet website noted that “The massacre was carried out by Israeli Border Police officers and resulted in the death of 49 Arab civilians … Friday’s rally, held just two days after a rightist march in Umm al-Fahm triggered Arab riots in the northern town, was attended by Arab lawmakers, leaders of the Israeli-Arab community and a number of Jews, who called out against ‘fascism’ and the government’s ‘violent and racist discourse’.” This account is published here.

From the Nazareth-based British journalist Jonathan Cook, via Israel Occupation Archives here , we learn that two days earlier, in the village of Um al-Fahm (also in the Galilee), “Israeli police injured two Arab legislators on Wedensay in violent clashes provoked by Jewish rightwing extremists staging a march through the northern Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. Haneen Zoubi, a parliament [Knesset] member who has become a national hate figure in Israel and received hundreds of death threats since her participation in an aid flotilla to Gaza in the summer, was among those hurt. Ms Zoubi reported being hit in the back and neck by rubber bullets as she fled the area when police opened fire. In an interview, she said she believed she had been specifically targeted by police snipers after they identified her. Police denied her claims, saying they had used only tear gas and stun grenades … The march was organised by far-right settlers allied to Kach, a movement that demands the expulsion of Palestinians from both Israel and the occupied territories. The movement was formally outlawed in 1994, but has continued to flourish openly among some settler groups. The organisers said they were demanding the banning of the Islamic Movement, which has its headquarters in Umm al-Fahm … Baruch Marzel, one of the march organisers, told Israel Radio: ‘If the Kach Party was outlawed, then the Islamic Movement deserves to be outlawed 1,000 times over’. On hearing of Ms Zoubi’s injuries, he added: ‘It was worth going to Umm el-Fahm. She is our enemy’. Afu Aghbaria, an Arab MP with the joint Jewish-Arab Communist party, was also hurt. He said he had been hit in the leg. Arab leaders said the clash had been triggered by undercover police who began throwing stones from among the demonstrators — a tactic that the unit has been caught on film using at protests in the West Bank”.

Jonathan Cook added that “Ms Zoubi, a first-term MP, shot to notoriety this summer after she was among the first passengers to be released following Israel’s violent takeover of the Mavi Marmara. Ms Zoubi contradicted the Israeli account that the nine passengers had been killed by commandos defending themselves, accusing the navy of opening fire on the ship before any commandos had boarded. She also claimed several passengers had been allowed to bleed to death. She was provided with a body guard for several weeks after receiving a spate of deaths threats and general vilification in the parliament [Knesset]. The Israeli police have been criticised in the past for lying about the strong-arm methods used to quell protests by the country’s Arab citizens … The far-right march in Umm al-Fahm was timed to coincide with the twentieth anniversary this week of the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded Kach. At a commemoration service in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel told hundreds who attended that the government was allowing the Palestinians to ‘establish an Ishmael state in Israel’.”

See our sister blog, Palestine-Mandate.com, here, for an explanation of the phrase “Ishmael State”…

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