Remembering the death of one idealistic young American girl

Posted: September 12, 2012 in Political musings
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Rachel Aliene Corrie (April 10, 1979 – March 16, 2003) was a 24 year old pro-Palestinian activist and member of International Solidarity Movement (ISM) from Olympia, Washington who was crushed to death by an Israel Defense Forces armored bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza.

Her death happened during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. The exact nature of her death and the culpability of the bulldozer operator are disputed, with eyewitnesses saying that the Israeli soldier operating the bulldozer deliberately ran over Corrie, and the Israeli government saying that it was an accident since the bulldozer operator could not see her.


Peace activist, and daughter, Rachel Corrie

Who was Rachel Corrie?

She was the youngest of three children of Craig Corrie, an insurance executive, and Cindy Corrie. Cindy describes their family as “average Americans—politically liberal, economically conservative, middle class”.

In 2005 Rachel’s parents filed a civil lawsuit against the state of Israel. They sued for a symbolic one U.S. dollar in damages to to make the point that their case was about justice for their daughter and the Palestinian cause she had been defending.

The lawsuit charged Israel with not conducting a full and credible investigation into the case and with responsibility for her death.

In August 2012, an Israeli court upheld the results of Israel’s previous military investigation and ruled that the Israeli government was not responsible for Corrie’s death. The ruling, the Israeli Justice system, and the investigation it exonerated have been widely criticized.

Rachel Corrie’s life has been memorialized in several tributes, including the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie and the cantata The Skies are Weeping. Her collected writings were published in 2008 under the title Let Me Stand Alone, opening “a window on the maturation of a young woman seeking to make the world a better place”. The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice has been established to continue her work.

Excellent article

This link is to a well researched and achingly honest article about the case, written by an American Jewish writer who studies the situation in Israel closely. If you care about justice – and about the right of both the Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace – I urge you to read it.

Havign read widely, and unlike the Israeli justice system, I do not for one moment believe Rachel Corrie died merely accidentally. That she was knowingly placing herself in danger is undoubted. But given her role in the conflict, how could she not? In short, I believe she was killed by an individual – deliberately, or with deliberate disregard for her safety, which surely amounts to the same thing – who was acting under an understanding, if not a direct order, that the lives of those opposing Israeli behavior in Gaza were not to be valued, or protected.

“The Object is Dead”

It is chilling, deeply chilling, when one hears the commentary from inside the cockpit of the bulldozer that killed her; the driver refers to her as “The Object”, not a person.

Was Corrie responsible for her own death?

Now if you think Rachel Corrie was some idiot hippy, just in the wrong place at the wrong time, then watch this interview with her, recorded two days before she was killed. Far from being an idealistic airhead, she was an intelligent, thoughtful, motivated and coherent individual, operating from the highest moral standards. The sort of person, indeed, we would all want our daughter to be.

But was Rachel insanely foolish? Well, after flying to Israel on January 22, 2003, Corrie underwent a two-day training course at the ISM’s West Bank headquarters before heading to Rafah to participate in ISM demonstrations. During her training, Corrie studied direct action tactics, which included basic rules for avoiding harm.

A later article on the Corrie incident summarized these as: “Wear fluorescent jackets. Don’t run. Don’t frighten the army. Try to communicate by megaphone. Make your presence known.”

While in Rafah, Corrie acted as a human shield in an attempt to impede house demolitions carried out by the IDF using armored bulldozers.

There is no doubt the activists were aware of the threat to their well-being, and also that they took steps to minimise their danger.

On Corrie’s first night there, she and two other ISM members set up camp inside Block J, “a densely populated neighborhood along the Pink Line and frequent target of gunfire from an Israeli watchtower”.

By situating themselves visibly between the Palestinian residents and the Israeli snipers manning the watchtowers they hoped to discourage shooting by displaying banners stating that they were “internationals”. However, Israeli soldiers fired bullets over their tent and at the ground a few feet away.

Deciding that their presence was provoking the Israeli soldiers rather than deterring them, Corrie and her colleagues dismantled their tent and left the area.

Video of Corrie’s death

Now look at the video of her death. Note her bright clothing, with which she is trying to protect herself from harm and make it clear she is an international observer, and the fact she is level with the window of the bulldozer, and the fact she is carrying and using a megaphone.

Warning, this video is distressing, and you may need to sign into YouTube to watch it, as you see Rachel Corrie killed.

So what do you think?

Deliberate murder? At the very least, careless manslaughter? Well, no, not according to Israeli justice. The court judgement was a “regrettable accident”.

The IDF produced a video about Corrie’s death that includes footage taken from inside the cockpit of a D9. The video makes a “credible case”, wrote Joshua Hammer in Mother Jones, that “the operators, peering out through narrow, double-glazed, bulletproof windows, their view obscured behind pistons and the giant scooper, might not have seen Corrie kneeling in front of them”.

And indeed, with commendable decency, Rachel’s father, Craig Corrie has said “I know there’s stuff you can’t see out of the double glass windows.”

But he has denied that as a valid excuse for the death of his daughter, saying “you’re responsible for knowing what’s in front of your blade.”

Based on his experience of overseeing work with bulldozers similar to the D9 while serving as a combat engineer in Vietnam he said: “It’s a no brainer that this was gross negligence”, adding “they had three months to figure out how to deal with the activists that were there.”

Eye witness Tom Dale commenting on the 2012 verdict said: “Whatever one thinks about the visibility from a D9 bulldozer, it is inconceivable that at some point the driver did not see her, given the distance from which he approached, while she stood, unmoving, in front of it. As I told the court, just before she was crushed, Rachel briefly stood on top of the rolling mound of earth which had gathered in front of the bulldozer: her head was above the level of the blade, and just a few meters from the driver.”

A legitimate military target?

During the trial, Israeli military officials gave evidence in court stating that Rachel and other activists were legitimate military targets.

Despite this attitude, a spokesman for the IDF told the Guardian that, while it did not accept responsibility for Corrie’s death, it intended to change its operational procedures to avoid similar incidents in the future. The level of command of similar operations would be raised, said the spokesman, and civilians in the area would be dispersed or arrested before operations began. Observers will be deployed and CCTV cameras will be installed on the bulldozers to compensate for blind spots, which may have contributed to Corrie’s death.

Was the court case fair?

One has to ask whwther the court even heard accurate details of what happened. After all, in 2005, Human Rights Watch published a report raising questions about the impartiality and professionalism of the earlier IDF investigation. Some of the problems that the report mentioned were the investigators’ lack of preparation, the “hostile,” “inappropriate,” and “mostly accusatory” questions they asked witnesses, the failure to ask witnesses to draw maps or to identify locations of events on maps, and their lack of interest in reconciling soldiers’ testimonies with those of other eyewitnesses.

International opinion

In August 2012, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro stated that the Israeli investigation was not satisfactory, and was not as thorough, credible or transparent as it should have been. Shapiro said further that the government of the United States is  not satisfied with the IDF’s closure of its official investigation into Corrie’s death.

Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories and vocal critic of Israel, said of the verdict that it was “a sad outcome, above all for the Corrie family that had initiated the case back in 2005, but also for the rule of law and the hope that an Israeli court would place limits on the violence of the state, particularly in relation to innocents and unarmed civilians in an occupied territory”.

So what do I think?

It is a deeply sad tale. I just hope that somewhere Rachel Corrie rests at peace, and that her parents quest for justice will one day have a happier ending. They have conducted themselves with astonishing dignity in a situation where many of us would simply have yielded to murderous rage.

Surely the best thing we could do for Rachel Corrie – and for the thousands of innocent Palestinians and Israelis killed in this conflict, would be to find a solution to this endless cycle of violence – and also to consider, very deeply, Rachel Corrie’s absolute conviction based on her own eyewitness observation that this cycle of violence is not merely an accident of history, but the result, particularly, of Israeli Government intransigence.

It is very difficult for those of us who long for a settled and peaceful Israel to assert that it is now largely the aggressor in the conflict.

But unless we see a greater awareness from Israeli officials – and especially the current crop of senior political figures – that their core policies of occupation, segregation, and heavy-handed and sometimes indiscriminate violence are both losing them support and also prolonging their own lack of security, then there will be more Rachel Corries – and most of them will be, sadly, much less well known, or noticed.

We owe it to her to prevent that. And if that means confronting ugly truths, then so be it.

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