Ten years ago today, American peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer while attempting to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in the occupied Gaza Strip.
Corrie was a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led group committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine using non-violent, direct action methods and principles. The 23-year-old Olympia, Washington native became a committed peace activist while studying at Evergreen State College, and during her senior year she came up with the idea to travel to Gaza, join ISM and establish a ‘sister city’ relationship between Olympia and Rafah.
Corrie arrived in Gaza at the height of the second intifada, an uprising against more than three decades of illegal Israeli occupation, colonization and repression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. She was immediately stricken by the harrowing plight of the people of Gaza, especially the children.
“No amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here,” she emailed back to family and friends on February 7, adding that she had “very few words to describe” what she saw in Gaza. “An 8-year-old child was shot and killed by an Israeli tank two days before I got here,” she wrote, describing the daily hardships faced by Gazans, especially the children, who live under the crushing repression of occupation.
In those early days in Gaza, Corrie attended a two-day ISM training course on direct action tactics and how to avoid being injured or killed by Israeli troops. “Wear fluorescent jackets. Don’t run. Don’t frighten the army. Try to communicate by megaphone. Make your presence known.” She would do all of these things on the fateful day of her death, to no avail. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
It wasn’t long before the courageous young activist was participating in demonstrations in Gaza. She spent a lot of time at a water well destroyed by the IDF, helping to protect local workers who were under constant fire from Israeli snipers as they attempted to restore drinking water to Rafah’s besieged residents. She also acted as a human shield, attempting to stop Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops from demolishing the homes of Palestinian civilians. Such illegal demolitions had left some 17,000 men, women and children homeless in Rafah, a city of 140,000, between 2000 and 2004, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Despite making their presence known with banners, IDF troops shot at them anyway. One British ISM activist was wounded by shrapnel while attempting to retrieve the body of a Palestinian killed by an IDF shrapnel. An Irish activist was nearly run over by a bulldozer.
But Corrie was undaunted. Writing home to her mother Cindy Corrie on February 27, she decried the “chronic, insidious genocide” being committed by Israel against the Palestinians, a crime which she said left her “questioning [her] fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature.”
“I feel like I’m witnessing the systematic destruction of a people’s ability to survive,” Corrie told a reporter on March 14, two days before her death. “Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and I realize there is a massive military machine surrounding us, trying to kill the people I’m having dinner with.”
“This has to stop,” she said of Israel’s repression, and she meant to do everything she could to make it stop.
At 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 16, 2003, Corrie got an urgent call from her ISM comrades telling her to rush to the home of Dr. Samir Nasrallah, a pharmacist who lived with his wife and three children a few hundred meters from the Egyptian border. The IDF was in the process of destroying homes in the area and ISM activists feared the Nasrallah’s residence was next, as it was one of the few houses left standing. Corrie hurried to the home, clad in a fluorescent orange jacket and carrying a megaphone. As an American-made Caterpillar D9R armored bulldozer approached Nasrallah’s home, Corrie stood in its path and was fatally injured. She was rushed to a nearby hospital, where she died minutes later.
Witnesses claim that the Israeli bulldozer deliberately crushed Corrie to death as she attempted to prevent the demolition of the Nasrallah family residence. Joe Carr, an American ISM activist, gave this account of the incident:
“Still wearing her fluorescent jacket, [Corrie] knelt down at least 15 meters in front of the bulldozer, and began waving her arms and shouting… When it got so close that it was moving the earth beneath her, she climbed onto the pile of rubble being pushed by the bulldozer… Her head and upper torso were above the bulldozer’s blade, and the bulldozer operator and co-operator could clearly see her. Despite this, the operator continued forward, which caused her to fall back, out of view of the driver. He continued forward, and she tried to scoot back, but was quickly pulled beneath the bulldozer. We ran towards him, and raised our arms and shouted; one activist with a megaphone. But the bulldozer operator continued forward, until Rachel was all the way beneath the central section of the bulldozer.”
For its part, the IDF denies intentionally killing Corrie, despite court testimony from IDF officers that Corrie and other activists were “legitimate military targets” who were “doomed to die” for resisting Israeli actions in the occupied territory. An IDF video attempted to make the point that the bulldozer crew couldn’t see Corrie through the narrow, double-glazed bulletproof windows, which greatly reduced visibility and had significant blind spots. But the ISM eyewitnesses claim Corrie looked “directly at the operator, who kept on advancing” just before she was crushed.
“There’s no way he didn’t see her,” another ISM activist said of the bulldozer operator.
Incredibly, an IDF investigation concluded that Corrie had not been crushed to death by the bulldozer, despite an Israeli autopsy that found “her death was caused by pressure on the chest with fractures of the ribs and vertebrae of the dorsal spinal column and scapulas, and tear wounds in the right lung.” The IDF called Corrie’s death a “regrettable accident” while blaming the ISM activists, who believed they were stopping crimes against humanity, for their own harm by “placing themselves in a combat zone.”
Shortly after Corrie’s death, US Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) introduced a resolution in Congress calling on the US government to “undertake a full, fair and expeditious investigation” of the incident. No action was taken. Rachel once wrote that she felt protected by “the difficulties the Israeli army would face if they shot an unarmed US citizen.” There were no such difficulties. Corrie’s assumption belies a certain naïveté; after all, in 1967 Israeli warplanes killed 34 American sailors and wounded 173 more aboard the USS Liberty in what many top Pentagon brass and US government officials believe was an intentional attack, and US aid to Israel skyrocketed in the aftermath of the shocking incident.
Corrie’s parents filed a lawsuit against the IDF and Israeli Defense Ministry. The judge ruled in Israel’s favor, clearing the IDF of any wrongdoing and blaming Rachel for her own death. Former US President Jimmy Carter slammed the ruling, asserting that it “confirms a climate of impunity, which facilitates Israeli human rights violations.”
In 2012, Dan Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel, told Corrie’s parents and sister that he did not believe the Israeli investigation into Rachel’s death was “thorough, credible and transparent,” as had been promised.
Sadly, Rachel Corrie was not the last ISM activist to be killed or seriously wounded by Israeli forces. A month after her death, 21-year-old British student Tom Hurndall, who was also wearing a bright orange jacket to identify himself as a peace activist, was shot in the head by an IDF sniper as he attempted to rescue Palestinian children from an Israeli tank that was firing in their direction. The shooting left Hurndall in a coma; he died nine months later in a London hospital. A British jury found that Hurndall was “intentionally killed.”
Rachel Corrie’s legacy lives on in the work of countless activists fighting to end Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, which critics, including several Nobel Peace laureates, call ethnic cleansing and apartheid. One of the humanitarian aid ships purchased by the Free Gaza Movement for use in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was named the MV Rachel Corrie in her honor. Sadly, the ship was part of a tragic May 2010 incident in which Israeli forces raided and boarded the flotilla ships in international waters and killed nine peace activists, including American teenager Furkan Dogan, by shooting them in their heads at close range.
In a memorial tribute to Corrie posted on Saturday, ISM reaffirmed its commitment to carrying on the peaceful fight to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“[Corrie] is remembered with love still by Palestinians and new generations of ISM volunteers, for many of whom Rachel’s untimely death was an inspiration to become more involved in the struggle for freedom for Palestine,” ISM wrote.
“Our thoughts today are with Rachel’s family, and as we’re sure Rachel would have wanted, also with all the Palestinian families who have lost a loved on to the Israeli occupation.”