In honor of Rachel Corrie: Her spirit lives on in those who follow

March 16 is the seventh anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteer who was run over by an Israeli army bulldozer while she was trying to stop the demolition of a home in the Gaza Strip. Her parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie, are still fighting to hold the government to account, and are currently in an Israeli court with their civil suit.

To many in Gaza, Rachel is a heroine, a young girl they consider "Palestinian" regardless of her American heritage. But although Rachel stands out because she paid the ultimate price to defend her commitment to justice, there are others who came before and since then -- and a few who are achieving "legend" status for their own tenacity and dedication to the cause. One of these is Eva Bartlett, a 33-year-old ISM volunteer who entered Gaza on a siege-breaker boat in November 2008 -- just one month before Israel launched its horrific, 22-day invasion. Fifteen months later, she is still there.

"Gaza is not like the West Bank, where it's relatively easy for new international activists to join the team. Gaza is like a prison...it's very difficult for anyone to get in or out," explains Eva. Until recently, when another ISM "legend" -- Vittorio Arrigoni -- managed to re-enter, there have been only three of them. And at times, Eva was one of just two. "Gaza is a long-term crisis -- not a place you can report on and then forget about. Even after last year's massacre, Israel has continued to randomly bomb and attack throughout Gaza. I couldn't just walk away."

Eva was born in Michigan to what she describes as a "political" family -- a leftist orientation that led her parents to move Eva and her two older brothers to Canada when she was just two years old. Her parents were professional musicians -- her father a cellist and her mother a violinist before she stayed home to raise her family -- and for a while Eva toyed with the idea of following in their footsteps. However, after earning a liberal arts degree, her wanderlust took her on a peripatetic path that led her to South Korea, Poland, Germany, back to South Korea, then to Thailand and China, and back to South Korea again.

Most of the time, she was teaching English. Although she always had progressive leanings like her parents, she was not an activist. That proclivity didn't start to develop until she was exposed to the plight of the Tibetans while traveling in China. Later, when she became a fan of the Democracy Now! radio program while in Korea, she was introduced to the Palestinian plight, and saw clear parallels in their tragic situations.

"Until then, I didn't even know Palestine existed, actually," recalls Eva. "It was through Democracy Now that I was introduced to the cause, including the existence of the International Solidarity Movement. It was 2004, one year after Rachel was killed."

However, she didn't immediately turn that knowledge into action. In 2005, Eva returned home, then applied for, and got, an internship in Washington DC with the International Campaign for Tibet. A year later, Israel invaded southern Lebanon and her interest in Palestine was re-ignited.

"My co-workers at the Campaign for Tibet couldn't see the parallels with Palestine. Many of them were Zionists and refused to acknowledge what their beloved Israel was doing to an entire people," Eva says.

She left, and in May of 2007 finally traveled to Palestine. She entered the West Bank through Jordan, and before making her way to the ISM, checked out the situation on her own, so she could come to her own conclusions. After meeting with various organizations involved in trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, such as Combatants for Peace, Eva joined the ISM. She worked throughout the West Bank for eight months, accompanying farmers to their olive groves, protesting to try to stop the construction of the "separation barrier" and fighting home demolitions as Rachel did. Along the way she was arrested and then deported back to Canada when a passport raid at her hostel discovered her expired visa, which she had been unable to get renewed. She was banned from re-entering Israel for 10 years.

"That was in early 2008. I did some speaking at home, but I couldn't stay away from Palestine," admits Eva. In May of that year, she travelled to Cairo with several fellow activists hoping to get into the Gaza Strip through Egypt's Rafah Crossing. They were unsuccessful, and she was forced to go home in August when her father had a heart attack. Eva got her chance, though, when the Free Gaza boats left Cyprus for the Gaza Strip in November of that year. She was on board, along with seven other new ISM volunteers.

"The West Bank experiences more everyday violence, but when things erupt in Gaza, they are of a greater magnitude," says Eva. But no one had any idea what was to come.

"There had been a lot of propaganda in the Israeli media, warning of attacks. The borders were closed beginning Nov. 4 -- just four days before our boat came in. But we were expecting a ground invasion, not the massive air attack that hit so suddenly the morning of Dec. 27. No one expected a second nakba [catastrophe, the name given to the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel]."

At 11:20 a.m. on Dec. 27, 2008, 88 Israeli aircraft flew above the Gaza Strip and simultaneously struck 100 targets within a span of just 220 seconds. Thirty minutes later, a second wave of 60 jets and helicopters struck an additional 60 targets. At least 230 Palestinians were killed and more than 700 injured on that one day alone.

"On the first day of the strikes, I was in Gaza City. I had been doing an internship with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, writing English narratives," recalls Eva. "At 11: 30 a.m., I heard bombs, and ran to see a friend and figure out what was happening. All the police stations had been hit, and I started taking photos almost automatically, to record it. We also tried to pull the busted up concrete out of the roads so the ambulances could get through. We went to Al-Shifa Hospital, and car after car with bodies were arriving. Later, all of the ISM volunteers met and decided what to do. Israel was calling on all foreign nationals to leave, and many did. But we held a press conference and said we wouldn't leave if the Palestinians couldn't."

Eva and about five other ISM volunteers made Jabilya Refugee Camp their base, and spent most of their time riding in ambulances, documenting what they saw and hoping their presence would deter the Israelis from stopping the vehicles from getting to their destinations. The other volunteers made their base in Rafah. On Jan. 3, when Israel sent in ground troops, Eva was in the Red Crescent office in Jabilya. The tanks came rolling in, and the entire building shook. Because their apartments had no electricity, Eva and her fellow volunteers went there only for a change of clothes. They slept instead in the Marna House hotel, until it was bombed and shut down. Then they resorted to sleeping in the hospital or the ambulances themselves.

That's when Eva began to write and publish in earnest, first in a blog whose entries were often published by Electronic Intifada.

Now, she also is widely published by the Inter-Press News Service. "During the attack, we sometimes scribbled our reports in a notebook and dictated them over the phone. It was like war reporting in the days before high technology," she says

When the invasion finally ended 22 days later, on Jan. 18, many of the ISM volunteers reluctantly left -- some to go to school, others to share their experiences at home, and still others due to financial constraints. But Eva stayed on.

"We need people back home, to lobby Congress and Parliament, and to educate the media and the general public," says Eva. "If you are a strong speaker, come and witness what is going on in Gaza, but then go back to your home country. But we also need people here, on the ground -- where I think I have been most useful. After all, I don't have children or other obligations to worry about. By partnering with the Palestinians who have no other choice but to stay and make the best of it, we're supporting non-violent resistance, and serving as a link between them and outside world."

Eva grows pensive when asked what is next for her, as the Israeli siege on Gaza surpasses 1,000 days. Although Palestine -- and especially Gaza -- "is in her blood" now, she is beginning to think it might be time to take a "breather" on the outside. She muses about using her experience to build support elsewhere through a speaking tour, a book and other as-yet-unidentified platforms.

And when she leaves, she will be remembered through a legacy of her own. Rachel would be proud.

Pam Bailey, of Maryland, was one of CodePink's 60-member international delegation to Gaza in March. She shares her experiences (with great photos!) on her blog.

 

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