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‘We are all Rachel Corrie’: Palestinians mourn 20 years after Israel killed activist

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Picture: ANA File – Rachel Corrie, protesting at the demolition of a house in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, speaks through a megaphone to the driver of an Israeli army bulldozer moments before she was crushed and injured. Corrie later died of her injuries.

By Brett Wilkins

Palestinian rights activists on Thursday remembered the life and legacy of Rachel Corrie, the American human rights defender who was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer on March 16, 2003, while trying to shield a Palestinian home from demolition in occupied Gaza.

“Rachel was 23 when she was killed. She could have satisfied her conscience by protesting against global injustice in a demonstration in America or by calling for a boycott of the aggressors,” Palestinian journalist and activist Ahmed Abu Artema — who is from Rafah, where Corrie was killed — wrote for Mondoweiss.

“But her high sense of morality was not satisfied with these symbolic gestures,” he added. “Her conscience would not rest without complete involvement, without standing side-by-side with us. That’s why she came to Palestine.”

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian politician, scholar, and activist, called Corrie “an icon of resistance, freedom, and self-sacrifice”.

“Palestine is forever grateful,” she added. “Always in our hearts. Rest in love and peace.”

Corrie, who hailed from Olympia, Washington, was a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led group resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine through nonviolent direct action.

“No amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing, and word-of-mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here,” Corrie wrote to family and friends on February 7, 2003, 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 said.

“I feel like I’m witnessing the systematic destruction of a people’s ability to survive,” Corrie told a reporter two days before she was killed.

On the afternoon of March 16, Corrie received an urgent call from ISM activists telling her to rush to the home of Samir Nasrallah, a pharmacist who lived with his wife and three children near the Egyptian border in Rafah. Israel Defence Forces (IDF) troops were 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 in the area.

Corrie hurried to the home, clad in a fluorescent orange jacket and carrying a megaphone. As the IDF’s American-made Caterpillar D9R armoured bulldozer approached Nasrallah’s home, Corrie stood in its path and was fatally injured. She was rushed to a nearby hospital, where she died.

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 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.

IDF officials denied intentionally killing Corrie, despite court testimony from army officers that Corrie and other activists were legitimate military targets who were “doomed to death” for resisting Israeli occupation forces.

An IDF investigation concluded that Corrie had not been crushed to death by the bulldozer, despite an Israeli autopsy that concluded 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 for their own harm because by “placing themselves in a combat zone”.

Efforts in the United States by Corrie’s family, activist groups, and US Rep. Brian Baird (D-Washington) to achieve accountability and justice for Corrie bore no fruit.

While Corrie 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, just as there were no repercussions after Israeli warplanes killed 34 American sailors and wounded 173 others during a 1967 attack on the USS Liberty — an attack numerous top US officials believe was deliberate.

In 2012, an Israeli court ruled against Corrie’s parents, who had sued the IDF, with the judge claiming the activist’s death was the “result of an accident she brought upon herself”.

Former US President Jimmy Carter condemned the ruling as a confirmation of the “climate of impunity which facilitates Israeli human rights violations”.

“Rachel’s case was cast aside by Israel’s colonial courts. But Rachel won,” Abu Artema wrote Thursday. “She became a worldwide symbol of freedom and a source of inspiration for everyone who dreams of a world of justice and peace.”

The parents and sister (front row) of Rachel Corrie sit together in Haifa district court before the verdict in a civil case.

“Israel may have killed her,” Artema wrote, “but Rachel Corrie lives on in all of us.”

Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.