The following article appears in The Times today.
THE annual Bafta awards do not include a category for Most Inapt Venture in Hagiography. If they did, the winner for 2004 would be Channel 4’s documentary Death of an Idealist, broadcast on Monday.
Its subject, Rachel Corrie, was a young American member of a pro-Palestinian group called the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). While protesting against the demolition of a house in Gaza last year she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer, and later died from her injuries. The horror of her death can scarcely be imagined. Less obvious is the sense in suggesting that its circumstances are suspicious. The programme’s narrator intoned darkly that Israel “denies her death was deliberate”. Yet Miss Corrie sat down in the path of a vehicle whose cab was several feet off the ground and whose driver had limited visibility. The chances of a tragic outcome were high.
Rachel Corrie has since become an icon for her cause. The most effective way to maintain her in that state of grace is to refrain from examining what she stood for. The programme’s euphemism that the ISM “performs direct actions in Gaza against Israeli occupation” accomplished this evasion nicely.
The ISM is not a peace organisation. It declares: “We recognise the Palestinian right to resist Israeli violence and occupation via legitimate armed struggle.” Though it protests that “the ISM does not support or condone any acts of terrorism, because terrorism is not legitimate armed struggle”, the amplification is disingenuous. The organisation does not define suicide bombers as terrorists: it refers to them instead as “martyrs”, and unmistakably regards them as heroic, if misguided, figures. As one ISM activist asks rhetorically on the group’s website: “Is there a proud people anywhere that might not be driven to such measures to defend themselves?” (Yes, of course there is — among innumerable examples, the opposition to apartheid, or Kurdish resistance to Saddam.)
ONLY twice in the programme was suicide terrorism mentioned. Once was by the Corrie family recalling their concern for Rachel’s safety. Yet no discussion of the Palestinians’ plight makes sense without understanding Israel’s urgent task of protecting its citizens from terrorism. The programme declared: “The Israeli Army strictly controls who comes in and who comes out of Gaza.” The notion that there might be some reasonable explanation for that policy — stopping the bombers from getting through — was left unstated.
The second half of the film followed a trip by Rachel’s parents to the place where their daughter had died. I hope it gave them solace; it certainly did not provide political insight. Craig Corrie admitted that part of him wished his daughter “had kept the blinders on” rather than followed her conscience to Gaza, but judging by Rachel’s own words it was her ideological “awakening” that had imposed the blinders in the first place. “I am in the midst of a genocide,” she wrote, indifferent to language and history.
Ms Corrie was in fact in the midst of conflicting national claims that must one day be reconciled in a territorial settlement resembling the pre-1967 armistice lines. The cause to which she gave her life inflames that conflict. The ISM does not operate against the terrorist enemies of a two-state outcome. Its “human shields” do not travel on Jerusalem buses in order to protect Israeli civilians from suicide bombers. Its principal activity is knowingly to endanger its young volunteers. As an ISM founder chillingly told The Washington Post: “We’re like a peace army. Generals send young men and women off to operations and some die.”
Perhaps Channel 4 will take a searching look at this disturbing phenomenon and make a film about it. A thoughtful documentary from that quarter is overdue.