Gaza – Seven years ago, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) caterpillar crushed Rachel Corrie, an International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist, to death in Rafah, in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip. She was wearing a fluorescent vest, screaming through a microphone at the armored vehicle as it bore down upon her as she tried to use her body to defend a Palestinian pharmacist’s home. She was on a pile of dirt, and as the bulldozer rumbled forward, she tried to descend from it. She slipped and fell under the vehicle, which ran her over. It seems impossible that the driver did not see her, and eyewitnesses say that he looked directly at Corrie shortly before killing her.
“Corrie came to Gaza in 2003, during the Second Intifada, taking a sabbatical year from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She proposed a project involving making Rafah and Olympia sister-cities, and working as an ISM volunteer. After training in Ramallah in techniques in non-violent direct-action, she went to Rafah as a human shield, intending to use her body to protect Palestinians from the IDF.”
Last week, I went to a small commemoration at the place where the Israeli Army killed Corrie. There was no trace of the house, just an earthen hillock. The Army had successfully leveled the home later that year. The area where Corrie died is now studded with tents covering the entrances to the tunnels that supply the Gazans with the food, fuel, and consumer goods they rely upon to survive. The World Bank estimates that 80 percent of Gaza’s imports come through the tunnels
The excavated earth from the tunnels created an inadvertent burial mound, atop which ISM volunteers placed a bouquet of white flowers and posters with black and white images of Rachel, and then sang a few songs, led by Vittorio Arrigoni, an activist from Milan, leading those assembled in singing “Bella Ciao.”
The remains of an Israeli barrier wall, the planks, gray concrete miniatures of those that compose the West Bank’s separation wall, were plainly visible, jarringly protruding from the earth in an isolated stand. Several hundred meters away were the buildings that the IDF hadn’t destroyed. Rafah has seen fierce fighting. The buildings are pocked with thousands of bullet holes. Some of them have larger chunks gouged out of them, the aftermath of rocket fire.
The seventh anniversary of Corrie’s death, ever poignant for the Corrie family, comes at a time when they may finally be seeing a bit of justice for her murder. Five years ago, they began legal proceedings to try to hold the IDF responsible for killing Corrie. Their civil suit against the Israeli Army is now being tried in an Israeli courtroom. They want at least $300,000 in damages.
The IDF long ago ruled her death an accident, and is trying to have the suit dismissed. The State prosecutor’s office has released a statement, reading in part, “Rachel Corrie was injured as a result of her prohibited action, for which she is solely responsible, due to her considerable negligence and lack of caution.” It added that the death occurred during “a military action in the course of war,” for which reason the state is exempt from responsibility.
The doctor who treated Corrie accompanied the ISM volunteers to the Rafah memorial earlier this week. He said that when she arrived at the hospital, her “mouth, eyes, and nose” were full of sand. She had “wounds all over her body,” and was dead on arrival at the hospital. The physicians attempted CPR, but it failed. Female nurses took care of the body.
Palestinians consider Corrie a hero. In Gaza, her willingness to put her life at risk, and, ultimately, to lose it while nonviolently resisting the encroachments of the Israeli Army has made her a martyr.
Abu Waleez Zak, an organizer of weekly nonviolent demonstrations in Gaza in which Palestinians, mostly farmers, march to within a few score or less meters from the border fence to protest the unilaterally decreed Israeli “buffer zone,” a hundreds-of-meters thick swathe of land that the IDF has declared off-limits, said that “Rachel is a symbol of international solidarity with Palestinians and for her humanitarianism she paid with her life.”
He added, “She has strengthened the bond between Palestinians and internationals who oppose the occupation. She is part of our history and in our hearts.”
Anees Mansour, a close friend of Corrie and the director of public relations for the Rachel Corrie Foundation in Rafah, describes one of his memories of Corrie that he has enshrined. One time, he says, she started to cry. “I asked her why she was crying,” he said. She responded that she was crying because she was not there when houses were being destroyed, she “could not stop the bulldozers.”
I met Mansour at the headquarters of the Rachel Corrie Foundation in Rafah. The foundation mostly does educational work, teaching children English and the arts. One of the goals of the foundation is also to “tell people who Rachel Corrie is.” There, children had painted or penciled a series of pictures. Several were painstakingly shaded portraits of Corrie. Some of them were of Mickey Mouse – prosaic kids’ stuff. And another was of helicopter gun ships and F-16s dropping munitions on Palestinian cities, of tanks firing rockets, with a military bulldozer in the foreground. The drawing is black and white, except for a flash of red: a body bleeding in front of the bulldozer’s blade. These images are not the typical products of the Western child’s imagination.
Every year, Mansour commemorates her death, usually by himself. Shortly after her death, he saw an IDF sniper shoot British ISM volunteer Tom Hurndall, who was trying to rescue children from Israeli bullets. Hurndall was shot in the head. Mansour was “surprised they shot him,” saying that they must have seen that Hurndall was an international. Mansour did not offer the corollary: the IDF does discriminate between its various varieties of potential victims. That’s why the ISM and other international volunteers accompany Palestinians as they carry out nonviolence. But it’ would appear they are still willing to shoot at Westerners, too, as in the cases of Corrie and Hurndall, or of Tristan Anderson, shot in the skull with a tear-gas canister as he was protesting in Bil’in.
One ISM volunteer at the memorial, Adnan Mormech, of Manchester, England, said, “Rachel’s death has a particular resonance for us, we’re here trying to do the same kind of work.” He added that it is nothing compared to the “strength of the feeling that so many people here must be going through,” as they honor Corrie’s memory this week.