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Documentary Play About Death of US Activist in Gaza Sparks Controversy, Revives Questions


A documentary play that's met with both praise and controversy is heading to Seattle, Washington, following a two-month run in New York City and original productions in London. My Name is Rachel Corrie tells the story of a young American human rights activist who traveled to the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip in 2003, and died there. The play has also revived questions, still not answered, about the death of Rachel Corrie.

Actress Megan Dodds originated the part of the 23-year-old Rachel Corrie in the one-character drama, which is composed of emails, phone messages and journals by the real Rachel Corrie, compiled after her death. Corrie was a student and human rights activist who hoped to become a writer. The play tells the story of her last few months, when she left her hometown of Olympia, Washington, to volunteer in Gaza. She had joined the International Solidarity Movement [ISM], a Palestinian-led movement of activists from abroad that non-violently opposes the Israeli occupation. The ISM activists were living with families in the town of Rafah, where the Israeli military was building a large wall near the border with Egypt.

"And when they construct that wall, they then destroy the houses for some hundreds of meters into the Gaza strip, into the Palestinian territories, away from that wall," her father, Craig Corrie, said in an interview. "So, Rachel was staying, as other members of the International Solidarity Movement, was staying often with families who had houses right along that border."

Craig and Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother, said their daughter was in Gaza in part to help protect those homes.

Her father explained, "Part of that might be to sleep in the houses at night, to go out in front of them when the bulldozers were going around them in the daytime, and by standing in front of them and taking a position, [to] make the bulldozer go somewhere else, or maybe if you're photographing what's going on, that would make them stop."

Two days before her death, Rachel Corrie spoke with the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation about the deteriorating situation in Rafah.

"This is the most difficult situation I've ever seen," she told the interviewer. "In the time I've been here, children have been shot and killed. On the 30th of January, the Israeli military bulldozed the two largest water wells, destroying over half of Rafah's water supply. Every few days, if not every day, houses are demolished here."

She listed other incidents she had witnessed, and ended, "I feel that what I'm witnessing here is a very systematic destruction of people's ability to survive, and that is incredibly horrifying."

On March 16, 2003, Rachel Corrie was among a group facing down Israeli military bulldozers as they cleared the area. Late in the afternoon, she knelt in the path of a bulldozer that was heading towards her host home, where four adults and five children lived. As the activists often did, she wore a florescent orange jacket so that she could easily be seen. When the bulldozer continued moving towards her, other ISM activists who were eyewitnesses say, she climbed atop the mound of earth that was building up in front of the blade - close enough, the witnesses said, to be seen by the two soldiers inside.

The bulldozer did not stop. In a few seconds, the moving earth caused her to fall, and she was engulfed by the dirt. The witnesses said the bulldozer continued driving over where Corrie lay, and then backed up.

"She was alive when the bulldozer backed off," Craig Corrie says. "She had time to say, 'I think my back is broken,' but those were her last words. I think an ambulance got there within about five minutes, very quickly by their standards, but we heard from the ambulance driver there was no sign of life when they got there."

Corrie died within an hour.The next day, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised President Bush a full report on the incident. Israel's investigation, concluding the death was an accident, has not been has released, though Cindy and Craig Corrie say they and several U.S. diplomats were allowed to read it.

"Our own government, the U.S. government, is on record - Colin Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, said the report didn't indicate an investigation that was thorough, credible and transparent," Cindy Corrie said. "We don't see direct testimony in it. What we see are pieces of testimony that one person has pulled from other evidence that they apparently gathered, and then created a report from. So we're still after almost four years now, we're still working for some accountability."

In the last two years, controversy over My Name is Rachel Corrie has helped keep the matter in the public eye. James Hammerstein Productions opened the play in New York only after the first theater group set to produce it there bowed out, in response to what some said were complaints that the play presented a biased view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Canada's largest non-profit theater, CanStage, recently canceled plans to present the play in Toronto amid reports of concerns that Jewish theatergoers would be offended.

At the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York, pro-Israel demonstrators often gathered outside, with pamphlets defending the demolition of houses in Rafah.

A spokeswoman for the group, Hope Winters, said, "The reason there was so much suffering in particular in Rafah at the time, why there were checkpoints and bulldozers, is that it was the height of suicide bombing in Israel. Just before Rachel arrived," Winters said, "there were 70 underground tunnels discovered, tunnels that were bringing explosives, bombs, from Egypt, which is right next door to Rafah, into Rafah - so they could be strapped onto suicide bombers and suicide bombers could then walk into Israel, and blow up innocents in pizza parlors and bus stations."

Ms. Winters' group critiqued the play on other factual grounds, too, and allege that Rachel Corrie was being used by the International Solidarity Movement, and that the group is not, in truth, dedicated to non-violence - a charge the ISM firmly rejects. The pro-Israel demonstrators also point out that Palestinian suicide bombers have deliberately killed many innocent people, whom they say died in part because activists like Rachel Corrie are used as pawns by Palestinian terrorists.

However, Israel has never said that there were tunnels concealed by the house that Rachel Corrie was attempting to protect. It was owned by a family never accused of involvement in violence, and who later received visas to travel to the U.S. The house remained standing for some months after Corrie's death, the last in a neighborhood of demolished homes - but it, too, was later knocked down.

Cindy Corrie said that independent investigations have found that the demolition of Palestinians' homes is unjustified.

"It's important for people to know," she says, "that the position of third parties like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B'Tselem, which is an Israeli human rights organization, is that these demolitions are against international law, and that they happen for clearing reasons, in order to take control of an area, as in Gaza. They happen because people don't have [building] permits, as around Jerusalem - but Palestinians can't get permits to build homes. And some happen because they are punishing individuals who have done violence against Israel, but even those demolitions are illegal under international law, because it is collective punishment against all the other family members."

Since their youngest child's death, Craig and Cindy Corrie have become activists for Middle East peace. They say that they, like Rachel, are not pro-Israeli, or pro-Palestinian, but pro-all the people in the region. And they hope their daughter's story, which is memorialized now not just in the play, but in several films and songs, will also draw attention to the plight of the people of Gaza.

Reviews for My Name is Rachel Corrie, which was assembled from Corrie's writings by the director, Alan Rickman, and journalist Katharine Viner, have generally ranged from lukewarm to enthusiastic.

Its severest critics have attacked it as a piece of political propaganda that is unfair to Israel. Reviewers who like the play say it doesn't pretend to be a dispassionate overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but only to tell the story of one brave, even heroic young idealist.