As world attention turns to the Iraq war, conflict continues to rage between Israelis and Palestinians. The bloodshed hit closer to home recently after an Israeli Army bulldozer crushed an American peace activist in the Gaza Strip.
Twenty-three-year-old Rachel Corrie of Olympia, Washington, was off to an early start as an activist. At age 11, she spoke at a press conference about world hunger. In her teenage years she worked with the homeless and answered telephones on a suicide hotline.
But her mother, Cynthia Corrie, says the September 11 terrorist attacks motivated her daughter to take activism one step further. "She decided to become a peace activist as a result of September eleventh. I think she just felt that was the response we needed to have," she said. "That was such a violent act and we needed to counter it with a peaceful response, and that through a peaceful response we needed to gain some understanding of all the people of world."
Rachel wanted to do something about human suffering in the world. She concentrated her energy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In January, she volunteered to work in Rafah in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip with the International Solidarity Movement, an organization dedicated to non-violent resistance to Israeli control of Palestinian territories. Foreign volunteers often serve as human shields to prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes and buildings.
Mark Regev, press counselor at the Israeli embassy in Washington, said Rachel chose a particularly dangerous place, where Israelis regularly confront armed Palestinian fighters. He said there is no Israeli policy of destroying homes. "We don't have a policy of destroying anything, but what we do is if we have a situation where there are bushes or a fence from which terrorists continually shoot at Israelis, we'll have to, unfortunately, remove those trees or walls or so forth," he said.
Hundreds of Palestinian homes have been destroyed in Rafah since the Palestinian uprising began in late 2000. On March 16, as an Israeli bulldozer approached a Palestinian house, Rachel sat in front of it to try to stop it. But the bulldozer continued on -- even as other activists shouted at the driver to stop -- and crushed Rachel to death.
The Israeli military said the heavily armored American-built bulldozer has limited visibility and the driver did not see her. They called it a very regrettable accident.
International Solidarity Movement eye-witnesses and Rachel’s congressman, Brian Baird of Washington State, accuse the driver of intentionally running her over and have called for U.S. authorities to investigate.
Mr. Regev says an independent and objective investigation by Israel is underway to find out what happened. "This is truly a saddening event," he said. "It is not just the government of Israel. This is the people of Israel. This is truly a tragic situation where our hearts go out to her family and to her friends. No one on the Israeli side has any intention of hiding material or not doing an inquiry as deeply and sufficiently as we can. Ultimately, it is unacceptable that an innocent person has been killed and we take it extremely seriously. If someone on the Israeli side has been criminally negligent, possibly even worse, they will be prosecuted in full accordance with the law."
After Rachel's death, her mother Cynthia decided to release a series of e-mails she sent home describing life in the Gaza Strip. "It was not until Rachel starting writing me that I felt an intimate connection with the people in Gaza," she said. "I am hoping that maybe her words will help others in the world make that connection. I felt they had given me such insight on the situation there. I felt that they would help others gain that insight, too."
Rachel Corrie told her family in a February 7 e-mail that her brief experience left her shaken:
"Hi friends and family, and others. I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now, and I still have very few words to describe what I see. No amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here.
I don't know if many of the children here have ever existed without tank-shell holes in their walls and the towers of an occupying army surveying them constantly from the near horizons. I think, although I'm not entirely sure, that even the smallest of these children understand that life is not like this everywhere. An eight-year-old was shot and killed by an Israeli tank two days before I got here, and many of the children murmur his name to me 'Ali' - or point at the posters of him on the walls."
In another e-mail, she described a February 14th standoff in which members of her group "stood in the path of the bulldozers and were physically pushed with the shovel backwards, taking shelter in a house." She said "the bulldozer then proceeded on its course, demolishing one side of the house" with protesters still inside. Rachel continued her work despite her fear.
"She was both deeply compassionate about others and social justice issues. At the same time, she was very level-headed and intelligent," said Middle Eastern Studies Professor Steve Niva of Evergreen State College where Rachel studied.
Professor Niva spoke with Rachel and said she was well aware of the dangers involved. He said her work in Gaza reflected the activist spirit of Evergreen State College and he admired the courage of her convictions, though she clearly took sides in a war with impassioned partisans on both sides.
"Like many Americans, she was concerned that American foreign policy was not balanced between Israeli and Palestinians," he said. "She felt a number of international laws were being broken. She took these together, and she came to feel that if American foreign policy wasn't balanced and if the international community was not serving as a buffer between Palestinian civilians and Israeli military occupation, then she felt as a citizen, she had to act on those values she held dear."
Rachel Corrie sent this electronic message on February 27 to her Mother:
"Love you. Really miss you. I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house and you and me inside. Yesterday, I watched a father lead his two tiny children, holding his hands, out into the sight of tanks and a sniper tower and bulldozers and Jeeps because he thought his house was going to be blown up.
I'm really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. 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.
When I come back from Palestine, I probably will have nightmares and constantly feel guilty for not being here, but I can channel that into more work. Coming here is one of the better things I've ever done."
Rachel's Mother said more than anything, her daughter wanted the violence to stop against all innocent people. "I also know that she had great empathy for the Israelis who have suffered through violence. I know she wanted the violence to stop. That's the message that I hope that we will all listen to, that would be a wonderful tribute to Rachel."