Remembering Rachel Corrie

Published : Apr 23, 2004 00:00 IST

In Ramallah, West Bank, on March 16, Palaestinians at a memorial demonstration on the first death anniversay of Rachel Corrie. - MAGNUS JOHNSSON/REUTERS

In Ramallah, West Bank, on March 16, Palaestinians at a memorial demonstration on the first death anniversay of Rachel Corrie. - MAGNUS JOHNSSON/REUTERS

The killers of the U.S. citizen-activist in Palestine a year ago continue to remain free thanks to the Bush administration's unwavering support to Israel.

MARCH 16 marked the first anniversary of the martyrdom of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American peace activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Occupied Territory of Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Rachel was a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group of Palestinian-led international activists committed to non-violent activism to resist the brutal Israeli military occupation (Frontline, April 11, 2003).

On the heels of Rachel's murder came the attack on 23-year-old Brian Avery, an ISM activist from New Mexico in the United States. He was shot in the face by Israeli soldiers from an armoured personnel carrier in Jenin on April 5 when he went out to see if anyone needed help during an evening curfew. Avery, now back in the U.S., is being treated for severe injuries in the face; his left cheek was almost completely ripped off in the machinegun fire. On April 10, Tom Hurndall, a 22-year-old ISM activist from London, was shot in the head while attempting to protect Palestinian children from Israeli gunfire in Rafah. Hurndall, who was on life support system for nine months, died on January 13, 2004. James Miller, a British television cameraman and documentary film-maker, was fatally shot in the neck by Israeli soldiers on May 2 in Rafah. Miller was shooting a documentary on the Israeli Army's destruction of Palestinian homes.

This was followed by the Israeli Army's harassment and deportation of human rights and peace activists working in the Occupied Territories. On May 9, Israeli military personnel raided the ISM media office in Beit Sahour and damaged office equipment, including computers and video footage. In August, two activists were deported after being held in an Israeli jail for 10 days. They were arrested while trying to prevent the demolition of a house in the Balata refugee camp.

IN one of her last e-mails home, Rachel wrote about her experiences and her relatively privileged position in Palestine as a U.S. citizen: "You just can't imagine it unless you see it - and even then you are always well aware that your experience of it is not at all the reality: what with the difficulties the Israeli Army would face if they shot an unarmed U.S. citizen... ." Unfortunately, this was not to be. The Israeli government exonerated the two soldiers, identified in the military police's partly published June 2003 investigation report only as Sergeants Y.F. and E.V., who drove the bulldozer. The report concluded that the drivers did not see Rachel. On the contrary, six eyewitnesses have testified that Rachel was clearly visible to the drivers as she was wearing a bright orange jacket with a cross, the kind usually worn by ISM activists. In fact, on that day there were two bulldozers manned by two people each and an armoured personnel carrier at the site where Rachel was killed. Worst of all, the report quoted Rachel's autopsy record, which noted that she had broken ribs, broken vertebra of the spine, broken shoulder blades and ruptures of the lung, and claimed that her death was probably caused by tripping on the debris or perhaps being covered by the debris.

Israel has refused to release the full report despite assurances given by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to President George Bush on March 17, 2003, that a "thorough, credible and transparent investigation" would be conducted and the conclusions would be made available to the U.S administration. On March 19, 2003, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said: "When we have the death of an American citizen, we want to see it fully investigated. That is one of our key responsibilities overseas, to look after the welfare of American citizens and to find out what happened in situations like these." Later the State Department informed Rachel's parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, that the alleged killers would not be tried, the investigation was complete and that Israel had refused to release the report. Finally, after much pressure was exerted on the Israeli government, the concluding part of the report was made public and Rachel's parents and two U.S. Embassy staffers in Tel Aviv were allowed to go through the `full' report and take notes. Richard LeBaron, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, said about the report: "There are several inconsistencies worthy of note."

The U.S. Congress is yet to pass House Concurrent Resolution 111, which demands the "United States government to undertake a full, fair and expeditious investigation into the death of Rachel Corrie". Moved by Representative Brian Baird of Washington State, the Bill has been signed by 56 House members till date. Reports suggest that the Israeli lobby in Congress is trying hard to prevent the passage of the Bill since it might be detrimental to Israeli interests.

In sharp contrast, the Bush administration reacted with speed when three U.S. nationals were killed in an explosion, allegedly triggered by Palestinian resistance fighters, in Gaza on October 15. 2003. Within 25 hours, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) personnel were on the scene to investigate the incident. Importantly, the U.S.' "most allied ally" in the West, the United Kingdom, called for inquiries into the killings of its nationals Tom Hurndall and James Miller. In a rare case of prosecution of a member of the Israeli military for attacking a civilian, the soldier who shot Hurndall was charged with aggravated assault soon after the incident. In the wake of Hurndall's death and thanks to lobbying by his family and the U.K. Foreign Office, the charge was likely to be revised to murder or manslaughter.

MORE than 30 memorial events were held across the U.S. to pay tributes to Rachel and to create awareness about the Palestinian cause. The city of Santa Cruz in California observed March 16 as `Rachel Corrie Day'. City Mayor Scott Kennedy said in a statement: "It is a very sad commentary on the state of political affairs in the United States that our national government has done virtually nothing to find out what happened and to insist that those responsible for her death can be held accountable." Activists organised protests outside the offices of Caterpillar, the Illinois-based company that built the D9R bulldozer that killed Rachel. The nine-tonne bulldozer, sent to Israel as part of a U.S. aid package, is used mainly to destroy civilian homes in the Occupied Territories. Adam Shapiro, a co-founder of the ISM, told mediapersons during a protest outside the Caterpillar office in Washington: "Our message to Caterpillar is to stop selling bulldozers to Israel and to demand that the Israeli military cease and desist from using the Caterpillar bulldozers in its occupation of Palestinian land." The U.S. section of the Amnesty International repeated its call for an independent investigation into Rachel's death. Earlier, on February 16, Rachel was posthumously honoured with the Housing Rights Defender Award by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). The award, which was received by her parents at a function in Washington, went to Rachel for the "unwavering bravery and courage" she displayed in standing up to "ruthless violence".

A `die-in' was organised at the Erez crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Activists wearing T-shirts smeared with red paint and announcing the various victims of the Israeli occupation - justice, peace and Palestinian lives and property, among others - lay `dead' on the street in order to draw popular attention to Israeli atrocities.

Dr. Samir Nassrallah, the Palestinian pharmacist whose home Rachel defended to her death, said in a note on March 22: "... she was in pursuit of the truth. She dedicated her life to that. She conveyed the truth as she saw it, reporting the crimes of the Israeli army against innocent Palestinian civilians. The hands of the occupation killed her in cold blood as if to say to us, `I will deny you your spoken voice'. I don't feel safe as long as our voice does not reach the outside world."

The right-wing media in Israel and the U.S. used the day to carry forward their vilification campaign against Rachel. The Jerusalem Post's Ruhama Shatton, in an article titled "A tribute to Rachel Corrie", wrote on March 2: "I want to thank Corrie for the explosives that flow freely from Egypt to Gaza, via the smuggling tunnels under the Gaza homes she died defending... I want to thank Rachel Corrie for showing Palestinian children how to despise America... ." In fact, the "tribute" elicited a response from an otherwise pliant U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv: "This article is nothing less than hateful incitement. The author's disgusting abuse of the anniversary of the death of this American citizen is inexcusable. The article reflects a level of discourse unbefitting any serious newspaper. We're disappointed that you chose to publish this article."

Ruhama Shatton's article was reproduced by the The Wall Street Journal on March 16. On the same day Journal editor James Taranto wrote in his daily column "Best of the Web Today": "A year ago today, terror advocate Rachel Corrie of Olympia, Washington, died in a bulldozer accident while trying to obstruct an Israeli operation against Palestinian weapons-smuggling tunnels." However, facts point elsewhere. Steve Niva, who worked with Rachel and teaches International Politics and Middle East Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, wrote in The Seattle Times on March 16: "Most Palestinian homes in Rafah, including the one Corrie was killed defending, are being demolished daily by Israeli bulldozers to make way for a massive, six-metre-high, steel wall Israel is building along the Egyptian border with Rafah. According to United Nations officials, over the past three years, Israel has destroyed nearly 900 houses in Rafah in order to create a 100-metre `buffer zone' between Palestinian homes and the wall. ... This wall is the Gaza link to the massive wall and fence barrier that Israel is building deep within Palestinian lands in the West Bank."

WAS Rachel aware of the inherent limitations of non-violent resistance against a thuggish Israeli leadership with a horrendous human rights record, and its awesome military might? In a remarkable e-mail to her mother she said: "If any of us had our lives and welfare completely strangled, lived with children in a shrinking place where we knew, because of previous experience, that soldiers and tanks and bulldozers could come for us at any moment and destroy all the greenhouses that we had been cultivating for however long, and did this while some of us were beaten and held captive with 149 other people for several hours - do you think we might try to use somewhat violent means to protect whatever fragments remained? ... I really think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves as best as they could. I think uncle Craig would. I think probably grandma would. I think I would." She did. Martyrdom, history tells us, is the supreme example of the courage to be.

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