A young martyr from America

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

Rachel Corrie speaks through a megaphone to the operator of an Israeli Army bulldozer before she was crushed by it, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on March 16.- REUTERS

Rachel Corrie speaks through a megaphone to the operator of an Israeli Army bulldozer before she was crushed by it, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on March 16.- REUTERS

JUST ahead of the United States-led war on Iraq, the peace movement had its first American martyr. Rachel Corrie, a young American working among downtrodden Palestinians, was killed in the third week of March, run over by an Israeli bulldozer. Rachel, along with seven other Americans and Britons, was acting as a human shield to try and prevent the demolition of Palestinian houses in Rafah, a small town on the Gaza Strip.

Rachel was part of the International Solidarity Movement, a group of activists in their twenties and thirties who oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Most of its members are from the U.S. and the U.K. The group came into prominence when some of them rushed into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in May 2002, right under the noses of Israeli soldiers, to show solidarity with a group of Palestinians who were under siege inside for more than a month. Their activism probably saved the lives of the Palestinians, for the stand-off ended soon afterwards and many of the Palestinians were granted safe passage.

Rachel, who was to graduate from college in the United States later this year, had come to Palestine two months earlier. She and her friends lived with poor Palestinian families in areas where Israeli bulldozers were routinely demolishing Palestinian houses. Rachel Corrie and her comrades had on several occasions tried to prevent such demolitions. In an e-mail message she sent her parents shortly before she was killed, Rachel had described one such incident in which members of her group "stood in the path of bulldozers and were physically pushed with the shovel backwards, taking shelter in a house". The message went on to say that "the bulldozer then proceeded on its course, demolishing one side of the house" while the protesters were still inside. Israel has been demolishing Palestinian homes in towns like Rafah on a daily basis.

The incident that claimed the young American's life was eerily similar to the one she had described in her own message. Rachel was kneeling before an Israeli Army bulldozer to prevent it from destroying a home. Kneeling before bulldozers on a demolition job was a standard practice adopted by the group. The Army driver did not stop, although Rachel's friends used a megaphone to ask the driver to do so. The Army later described it as a "very regrettable incident", although eyewitnesses said nothing obscured the driver's vision. Rachel died of a fractured skull and other injuries. Ironically, Rachel had said in her e-mail that the Israeli Army would not dare shoot at an unarmed American civilian - as it often did at Palestinians.

According to one of her teachers at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, Rachel was very "active" in opposing the U.S. "war against terror" and American militarism in general. Justice for the Palestinian people was a cause that was close to Rachel's heart. She decided to go to the Gaza Strip mainly because she felt that the presence of international observers was essential in the occupied territories at a time when American troops were invading Iraq. Indeed, many Palestinians think that Israel will try to drive out Palestinians from the West Bank and re-occupy Gaza once international attention is sufficiently diverted to the war in Iraq.

'You just can't imagine it'Excerpts from an e-mail message that Rachel Corrie sent to her parents on February 7:

I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now, and I still have very few words to describe what I see. It is most difficult for me to think about what's going on here when I sit down to write back to the United States - something about the virtual portal into luxury. I don't know if many of the children here have ever existed without tank-shell holes in their walls and the towers of an occupying army surveying them constantly from the near horizons. I think, although I'm not entirely sure, that even the smallest of these children understand that life is not like this everywhere. An 8-year-old was shot and killed by an Israeli tank two days before I got here, and many of the children murmur his name to me, Ali - or point at the posters of him on the walls. The children also love to get me to practice my limited Arabic by asking me "Kaif Sharon?" "Kaif Bush?" and they laugh when I say "Bush Majnoon," "Sharon Majnoon" back in my limited Arabic. (How is Sharon? How is Bush? Bush is crazy. Sharon is crazy.)... There are 8-year-olds here much more aware of the workings of the global power structure than I was just a few years ago - at least regarding Israel.

Nevertheless, I think about the fact that no amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here. You just can't imagine it unless you see it, and even then you are always well aware that your experience is not at all the reality: What with the difficulties the Israeli Army would face if they shot an unarmed U.S. citizen, and with the fact that I have money to buy water when the army destroys wells, and, of course, the fact that I have the option of leaving. Nobody in my family has been shot, driving in their car, by a rocket launcher from a tower at the end of a major street in my hometown. I have a home. I am allowed to go see the ocean... When I leave for school or work I can be relatively certain that there will not be a heavily armed soldier waiting halfway between Mud Bay and downtown Olympia at a checkpoint - a soldier with the power to decide whether I can go about my business, and whether I can get home again when I'm done. So, if I feel outrage at arriving and entering briefly and incompletely into the world in which these children exist, I wonder conversely about how it would be for them to arrive in my world.

They know that children in the United States don't usually have their parents shot and they know they sometimes get to see the ocean. But once you have seen the ocean and lived in a silent place, where water is taken for granted and not stolen in the night by bulldozers, and once you have spent an evening when you haven't wondered if the walls of your home might suddenly fall inward waking you from your sleep, and once you've met people who have never lost anyone - once you have experienced the reality of a world that isn't surrounded by murderous towers, tanks, armed "settlements" and now a giant metal wall, I wonder if you can forgive the world for all the years of your childhood spent existing - just existing - in resistance to the constant stranglehold of the world's fourth largest military - backed by the world's only superpower - in its attempt to erase you from your home. That is something I wonder about these children. I wonder what would happen if they really knew...

Currently, the Israeli Army is building a 14-meter-high wall between Rafah in Palestine and the border, carving a no-man's land from the houses along the border. Six hundred and two homes have been completely bulldozed, according to the Rafah Popular Refugee Committee. The number of homes that have been partially destroyed is greater...

I've been having trouble accessing news about the outside world here, but I hear an escalation of war on Iraq is inevitable. There is a great deal of concern here about the "reoccupation of Gaza". Gaza is reoccupied every day to various extents, but I think the fear is that the tanks will enter all the streets and remain here, instead of entering some of the streets and then withdrawing after some hours or days to observe and shoot from the edges of the communities. If people aren't already thinking about the consequences of this war for the people of the entire region then I hope they will start.

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