Rachel Corrie: A Different Kind of Liberator


James Zogby’s Column

A very different kind of American liberator was tragically killed last week, days before the Iraq war began. Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old student from the state of Washington, was murdered by an Israeli bulldozer driver in Gaza.  She was part of a courageous group of activists who have come to Palestine from all over the world to provide non-violent assistance to the Palestinian people.

During the past few years, these peace activists have: placed themselves between Israeli tanks and Palestinian demonstrators; worked to stop Israeli bulldozers from destroying Palestinian homes; and provided eye-witness testimony to Israeli behavior at checkpoints and other human rights violations.

Without any official support and often times ignored even by the international media, this band of civilian liberators has bravely risked their lives to support the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom.

Last week, Rachel, who had taken six months off from her college work to go to Gaza, became the first of these international peace activists to be the victim of what appears to be a cold-blooded murder.  The Israeli bulldozers had arrived in Rafah to demolish the home of the Samir family.  After a two-hour argument and standoff between Rachel and the vehicle’s driver, Rachel sat down refusing to allow the bulldozer to move on the house.  The driver drove right over Rachel and then reversed and drove over her again.  Her body was crushed and though rescued by her colleagues-she died from massive injuries a short while later. 

The story of Rachel spread like a wildfire throughout the United States.  Newspapers featured the story and websites of dozens of organizations showed pictures of this young woman’s courageous standoff with the machine that ended her life.

Many of these websites have carried Rachel’s extensive writings about her experiences in Gaza and her growing understanding of the Palestinian situation.  She was an extraordinarily, perceptive young woman and gifted writer.  In one of her letters from Gaza she wrote: 

February 7

No amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here. You just can’t imagine it unless you see it – and even then you are always well aware that your experience of it is not at all the reality: what with the difficulties the Israeli army would face if they shot an unarmed US citizen, and with the fact that I have money to buy water when the army destroys wells, and the fact, of course, that I have the option of leaving. Nobody in my family has been shot, driving in their car, by a rocket launcher from a tower at the end of a major street in my hometown. I have a home. I am allowed to go see the ocean. When I leave for school or work I can be relatively certain that there will not be a heavily armed soldier waiting…

February 27

Sometimes the adrenaline acts as an anesthetic for weeks and then in the evening or at night it just hits me again – a little bit of the reality of the situation. I am really scared for the people here. 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 exploded.

…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 labor of love it is. I really think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves as best they could.

…This is what I am seeing here. The assassinations, rocket attacks and shooting of children are atrocities – but in focusing on them I’m terrified of missing their context. The vast majority of people here – even if they had the economic means to escape, even if they actually wanted to give up resisting on their land and just leave (which appears to be maybe the less nefarious of Sharon’s possible goals), can’t leave. Because they can’t even get into Israel to apply for visas, and because their destination countries won’t let them in (both our country and Arab countries). So I think when all means of survival is cut off in a pen (Gaza) which people can’t get out of, I think that qualifies as genocide.

On March 16, Rachel’s pen stopped writing.  Her parents in their horror and pain reacted bravely.  In a statement they issued after visiting members of Congress who promised to work for an investigation into the cause of their daughter’s death they said:

We are speaking out today because of Rachel’s fears about the impact of a war with Iraq on the people in the Occupied Territories. She reported to us that her Palestinian friends were afraid that with all eyes on Iraq, the Israeli Defense Forces would escalate activity in the Occupied Territories. Rachel wanted to be in Gaza if that happened.

…In the last six weeks, Rachel became our eyes and ears for Rafah, a city at the southern tip of Gaza. Now that she’s no longer there, we are asking members of Congress and, truly, all the world to watch and listen.

…We are asking members of Congress to bring the U.S. government’s attention back to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and to recognize that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is an overwhelming and continuous act of collective violence against the Palestinian people.

…Rachel would not want her death to overshadow that of others. In barely glancing at headlines since word came of Rachel’s death, I note that many have died this week in the Occupied Territories – one a four-year-old child. I would like to be able to hold the mother of that child and to have her hold me.

Rachel and her parents make me proud to be an American.  They represent a uniquely American spirit.  Rachel should not be forgotten, as the war with Iraq steals the world’s headlines and attention.  Many Americans have come together to support Rachel’s parents’ call to Congress to: provide protection both for international volunteers who are in Palestine to promote human rights and justice and for the Palestinian people as a whole during these difficult times.

We are also calling for a complete investigation into Rachel’s murder.  Finally, we are working to establish a scholarship in Rachel’s name so that her memory and her commitment to human service and liberation lives on.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.