Rachel Corrie, 1979-2003
(Source: Rachel Corrie Foundation)
Israel’s spectacular announcement yesterday that it is planning to construct 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem – made during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, who supposedly traveled there to help restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians – threatens to overshadow another major story that is hitting the newswires. Today the civil suit regarding the death of American human rights activist Rachel Corrie is beginning in a Haifa courtroom.
Corrie, a student from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and a member of the International Solidarity Movement, traveled in January, 2003, to the Gaza Strip during the Second Intifada. The ISM is a Palestinian-led non-violent movement aimed at protesting Israeli activities in the West Bank and Gaza. On March 16, Corrie's body was crushed by an armored Israeli military bulldozer while she and other activists sought to protect Palestinian homes in the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip with their bodies. She was wearing a reflective vest at the time. The exact circumstances remain unclear, and it is still not known whether she died on the scene, in transport, or at the Palestinian hospital.
Rachel Corrie facing down an IDF bulldozer
on the day of her death
Eyewitness Tom Dale later wrote: “The bulldozer drove toward Rachel slowly, gathering earth in its scoop as it went.... They pushed Rachel, first beneath the scoop, then beneath the blade, then continued till her body was beneath the cockpit. They waited over her for a few seconds, before reversing. They reversed with the blade pressed down, so it scraped over her body a second time. Every second I believed they would stop but they never did.” The IDF, however, claims her death was an accident and that the bulldozer was not demolishing houses but merely clearing away brush and potential explosive devices.
The family has filed suit for damages, claiming that the government of Israel is to blame either because of intent to cause harm or through negligence. They had already made an unsuccessful attempt to sue Caterpillar Inc., the company that manufactures bulldozers for the IDF. The Obama administration is maintaining a low profile, claiming that the IDF has not provided a thorough investigation. According to a State Department report from 2005, “US officials who have seen the IDF report found inconsistencies among the statements of those observing the incident. Some observers continue to raise questions concerning whether the investigation was thorough, credible, and transparent.” Vice President Biden’s staff met with the Corrie family on Tuesday and have ensured them that a US Embassy official will be on hand throughout the civil trial.
The Corries themselves accuse the IDF of destroying video evidence of the incident and otherwise obstructing a thorough investigation. For example, Dr. Ahmed Abu Nakira, a Palestinian physician who treated Corrie after the incident and later confirmed her death, has been refused permission by the Israeli authorities to leave the Gaza Strip and travel to Haifa for the trial.
In her emails home, Corrie called for non-violent resistance, but also said she understood why many Palestinians would feel the need to reach for stronger measures:
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 think about this especially when I see orchards and greenhouses and fruit trees destroyed - just years of care and cultivation. I think about you and how long it takes to make things grow and what a labour of love it is. I really think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves as best they could.
[…] This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don't think it's an extremist thing to do anymore. I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my coworkers. But I also want this to stop. Disbelief and horror is what I feel. Disappointment. I am disappointed that this is the base reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it. This is not at all what I asked for when I came into this world.
Many Israelis regard Corrie differently, however, claiming that far from protecting Palestinian civilians, Corrie was a terrorist stooge and the International Solidarity Movement is a cover organization for terrorist activities. “An Israeli bulldozer injured Corrie as she tried to prevent it doing its job of protecting Israeli civilians,” writes Jerusalem-based journalist Judy Lash Balint. Rabbi David Forman goes a step further, essentially depicting any display of solidarity towards the Palestinians as an act of appeasement and, ultimately, terrorism:
Given [the Rachel Corrie Foundation's] lofty goals, how is it that there is not a word mentioned about a high-level delegation from Gaza that joined Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's gathering in Iran to lend support to President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan after he was accused by the International Court of the Hague of committing genocide, or for that matter, any mention of the violent takeover of Gaza by Hamas, or the firing of rockets into the Negev? By pure syllogistic reasoning, the foundation supports genocide in Darfur, brutal Hamas killings and indiscriminate assaults on Israel's civilian population.
So welcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Biden. It’s the best zero-sum game in town.