On November 26, the University of the Fraser Valley was host to a six-hour conference for the UN Day of Solidarity, where Craig and Cindy Corrie from the Rachel Corrie Foundation spoke on the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as Palestinians who live in Canada. The event aimed to bring light to the issue of the conflict and the fact that it remains unresolved, as Palestinians are yet to attain rights such as the right to self-determination without external interference, the right to national independence and sovereignty, and the right to return to their homes and property from which they had been displaced.
The story of the Corries and their foundation began with the unfortunate passing of their daughter, Rachel, on March 16, 2003. She was attempting to protect a Palestinian family’s home against unlawful demolition as she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza. She was an activist drawn into the movement, whose interest in the conflict was sparked by a sympathetic connection to the suffering of Palestinian children. After the passing of their daughter, Craig and Cindy Corrie began to immerse themselves further on the issue, eventually leading to the creation of the Rachel Corrie Foundation.
At the conference, the Corries detailed the facts of the conflict, as well as expressing their personal thoughts. During their presentation, Craig showed an image of the loss of land by Palestinians from 1946-2000. The drastic change from owning a majority of the land to less than 10 per cent was eye-opening. In addition, Craig said that West Bank (an area under control by the Palestinians) was essentially “Swiss cheese,” as there are Israeli-settlements riddled throughout. Craig left the attendees with a powerful thought by comparing the Palestinian loss of land to that of the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States.
Cindy added that the most important change since the death of their daughter has been that the younger generation of Israelis and Palestinians have found their voices and are doing work on getting the word out.
After the lunch break, a panel of Palestinians, joined by the founding member of Independent Jewish Voice Canada Sid Shnaid and UFV political science student Colter Louwerse, sat down and gave their own personal thoughts. Rounding out the panel was: Sireen El-Nashar, a settlement program officer for a non-profit organization helping the Arabic-speaking refugee community in Surrey; Amer Alshayab, a Palestinian who has lived in three prior places to Canada as a refugee; Omar Mansour, a Palestinian with a global mindset, having completed a master of global business at the University of Victoria; and Jeeda Musleh, a music curriculum developer and early childhood music educator in Palestine and now in Canada.
El-Nashar touched upon her personal experiences in Palestine and how unjust it was for her and fellow Palestinians to be treated in such a manner as to disregard them as humans. Alshayab told the attendees of his emotional journey of arriving in Canada after being a refugee in Syria, Cyprus, and Indonesia and how he could not be gladder than he is living in British Columbia. Mansour provided a look into living in the Gaza Strip, a constant war zone and one of the world’s most dangerous areas. Musleh voiced her thoughts on the power of music for traumatized children, and the tragedy of Palestinians — including her brother — being imprisoned for the most trivial offenses, such as throwing rocks. El-Nashar added that Israel tortures young children to break them for the future.
While not as personal as the Palestinians, Shnaid and Louwerse added their analysis of the conflict. Louwerse compared the current state of Palestine to Gandhi’s four stages of struggle. First, the world ignored the pleas of Palestinians, followed by laughter until they felt forced to fight, as in the United States arming Israel with weapons, and lastly, overcoming the struggle. Louwerse offered a possible solution to the conflict: the South African model of fighting apartheid with a mass, non-violent movement as the base for the Palestinians to fight back and overcome their struggles.
For the attendees, the conference was both a venue from which to learn more about the Israeli-Palestine conflict as well as a look into the lives of Palestinians who have lived through the conflict first-hand and survived. Summarizing what people should view Palestinians as, Rachel Corrie said it best when she once wrote: “We should be inspired by [a] people … who show that human beings can be kind, brave, generous, beautiful, strong — even in the most difficult circumstances.”
During the lunch break, The Cascade sat down with Craig and Cindy Corrie to get more insight into their thoughts on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and advice for a person interested in the conflict and wanting to learn more.
Before your daughter passed away, what were you thoughts of the Israel-Palestine conflict?
Craig: Rachel brought us into the conflict, [but] it was around all our lives. We’re from the state of Iowa, out in the Midwest, and I was born right after World War II and the Holocaust. I remember as a kid that I was for the formation of Israel. It was a new topic. But in the back of my mind, I also remember having the thought that if I were the promised land, I might feel a different way. We just didn’t really know any of the narrative of the Palestinians until Rachel went and then we started reading. From my viewpoint, I was drafted into the U.S. military and went to Vietnam for a year. When I started reading what Rachel was writing, I thought, “There’s a military that is out of control.” It only takes a couple weeks for a sharp person to figure out that this is what happens. I was much more frightened for her when I started to hear about what she was seeing because I just realized there weren’t the overall controls. I know that the U.S. did horrible things in Vietnam but my squad, my company didn’t, and I know it takes a lot of work to make sure they don’t.
Cindy: I was sympathetic to the Israeli perspective, that’s what we knew the most about. I read to [our children] the diary of Anne Frank, about kids who had been hidden away during the Holocaust and survived, and those who didn’t. That’s where our sympathies were, that’s what we talked about. I think I heard about the conflict through the years, but just always assumed it was never going to get better. Sometimes the part I feel the guiltiest about it is that we didn’t pay attention to it earlier because I, like any people without a direct connection there, just thought “It’s always going to be a problem, we’ll never fix it.” That was an invitation to tune it out. I’m grateful though that more people are tuning in, or have in the last decade. I hope people continue until we figure out what to do.
What was the most alarming thing you discovered when you first began avidly learning about the Israel-Palestine conflict?
Craig: Particularly when you go there, it’s all overwhelming, the wholesale destruction of houses to make military space. It’s hard to understand that there’s the family with kids, living in a house [where] they haven’t done anything wrong, but then all of a sudden the house is going to be destroyed. I relate to the children; you see these pictures of little kids and they’re everywhere. If you walk, they’ll follow you and ask you, “What’s your name?” and want their picture taken. Kids everywhere are delightful and they’re a real treasure. The attacks are not only an attack on the lives of the children but the future of the children. That’s something I don’t understand, and that’s something I won’t understand.
Cindy: Figuring out the whole story is about the displacement of people from the very beginning. That really is the goal of the Israeli government. I don’t think there has ever been a serious intention to [figure out a solution], because if there had been serious intention, we’d have a solution by now. When you’re on the ground, as somebody who has a lot of privilege, who is outside of that system, you start to see how the system works at every turn to inhibit what the Palestinians can do. It’s shocking. The endurance of Palestinians through this is amazing to me. We talk to Palestinians all the time who have not been able to go to Jerusalem, even though they might have had family there. This complicated network of restrictions looks to subdue and displace an entire people — [it’s] shocking to me.
In witnessing the conflict first-hand, what do you think you have gained as a person?
Craig: Talking to Jewish and Israeli friends who have worked a whole lot on ending the occupation, one of the things their daughter said was that the thing she said didn’t like about going to school in Oregon is that when you go to a big football game, there are not enough guns there. She doesn’t feel safe because there are not enough guns. In that same town, there’s the sister of a Palestinian who was shot to death in October of 2000 by Israeli police. What I realized was [the first girl] doesn’t get it, even though her whole family is involved … she still doesn’t get what it’s like for that Palestinian neighbour. You can read about it, you can see it, you can be told about it, but unless you live it, you don’t quite get it. Part of it to me was the realization that I will never understand it from my position of white-male privilege.
Cindy: I don’t like when people say [the conflict] is such a complex issue because it’s not that complex, but I do think that there can be negative feelings towards a group of people. I think what we’ve been blessed with is the opportunity to see all the distinctions and all the individuals, and to learn from them and see what their questions are. We have Jewish-Israeli friends who work really hard on this but still, they still admit that they have trouble letting go of the idea of a Jewish state because of their family’s previous experience. Most people are really good people, in sometimes terrible circumstances.
Is there an aspect of the Israel-Palestine conflict you think hasn’t been touched upon enough?
Cindy: I don’t think people see that all of the restrictions and [how] the occupation affects the Palestinians that are there living it, and even the Palestinians living outside, wanting to come back and establish a connection there. Movement, land ownership, and jobs touch so many places and I don’t think most people have an appreciation for that
An aspect that hasn’t been touched upon enough in my opinion is the role of the United States. When I first learned about the Israel-Palestine conflict and how Canada supported Israel, I was disappointed because that’s not reminiscent of the reputation that Canada is perceived to have.
Cindy: There’s a lot of things driving that; sometimes people would say that it’s the Israeli lobby in the U.S. that’s driving that but in fact, it’s weaker than it was in the past. Christian Zionism is a very powerful piece of hope for the United States. We have Boeing in our backyard producing all these weapons. Jeff Halper has just written a book about Israel (War Against the People), he’s supplying so much of the intelligence and security mechanisms for countries throughout the world. Countries you’d think would be critical of Israel are not being critical of [them] because they have bought into that Israel is selling them things for security.
Craig: To me, I’m surprised about Canada. We do give a lot of attention to the United States’ role in it. Jeff Halper points out that military policing is learned specifically from the Israeli military. American police forces go over there and find out how to police. It’s policing for a hostile society but it’s largely hostile because of the policing. What you see back home is a self-fulfilling prophecy; you see a militarized police in the United States or you see a military doing traditionally what would be policing activities. The wall being built on the [United States-Mexico] border is being funded in part by Israeli companies. You’ve seen the technology they have and my Canadian friends want to use the same technology to keep them out of Canada. It’s a mundane banality of all these rules and what they do to life, and we ask all these young [Palestinian] people that are basic college age, or a bit past college age, “What would you like to do the most?” and they say, “I want to go to the ocean and have a beer with my friends.” It’s just that common and people not understanding that [not being able to do that] is the basis of interference in your life.
For a person beginning to learn about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, what would you say to pique their interest even further?
Craig: Go there, and it’s not impossible. I used to think, “That’s insane, I’m not going to go there,” but Rachel did, and now we have a number of times. It’s not that hard.
Cindy: People should know that this particular issue has impacted what is happening in the rest of the Middle East and the rest of the world. Canada and the United States, they are a minority if you look at the United Nations, and the support for the Palestinians is very strong. There are only four or five countries [that support Israel]. It’s in our interest and it’s really concerning to see what is going to happen if we don’t work it out soon, particularly looking at Gaza right now. Recognizing that the world views [the United States and Canada] negatively for the positions [they’ve] taken and the messes [they’ve] helped to create there and are largely responsible for. It’s bigger than Israel and Palestine, it’s about the entire region.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.