The Death of Rachel Corrie

Martyr, idiot, dedicated, deluded. Why did this American college student crushed by an Israeli bulldozer put her life on the line? And did it matter?

Photo: Getty Images

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At two o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, March 16, Rachel Corrie received a cell-phone call from a comrade in the International Solidarity Movement. “The Israelis are back,” she told Corrie. “Get over here right away. I think they’re heading for Dr. Samir’s house.” The news alarmed Corrie. Samir Nasrallah was a Palestinian pharmacist who lived with his wife and three children a few hundred yards from the battle-scarred Egyptian border in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. Corrie and other pro-Palestinian activists based in Rafah had frequently spent the night in Nasrallah’s house, acting as human shields against the Israeli tanks and bulldozers clearing a security zone around the border. Almost every other structure in the area had been knocked down in recent months; Nasrallah’s abode now stood alone in a sea of sand and debris.

Certain that the pharmacist’s house was about to be razed, Corrie caught a taxi to the Hai as-Salam neighborhood. The paved roads of downtown Rafah gave way to sandy tracks lined with scrabbly olive groves, mosques, modest houses, and dirt pitches where Corrie often played soccer — badly but enthusiastically — with local youths. At 2:30, a neighbor of Nasrallah’s named Abu Ahmed caught sight of the activist hurrying past his house. Slight, hazel-eyed, with high cheekbones and dirty blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, she carried a megaphone in one hand and an orange fluorescent jacket in the other. “Come inside and have some tea,” he urged her. But Corrie told him she didn’t have time, and he watched as she disappeared around the corner of his house, heading toward the roar of machinery.

This much has never been contested: Placing herself in the path of an Israeli bulldozer that she believed was about to flatten Nasrallah’s house, Rachel Corrie was crushed to death — her skull fractured, her ribs shattered, her lungs punctured. But the bitter accusations and violent recriminations that followed obscured almost everything else about the incident. Palestinians hailed her as a martyr of the Intifada. Several eyewitnesses charged that the bulldozer operator ran her down deliberately and called her killing “a war crime.” The Israeli government, which rarely acknowledges the deaths of Palestinian civilians killed during its military operations, went into damage-control mode. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised President Bush a “thorough, credible, and transparent investigation.” Later Israel declared the killing a “regrettable accident” and blamed it on overzealous Corrie and the other activists working as human shields. Charges and countercharges flew back and forth until, like Rashomon, the facts of Rachel Corrie’s death dissolved into a half-dozen competing versions of the truth, none of them fully convincing.

In the United States, the reaction to Corrie’s death also reflected the deep divide over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Candlelit vigils took place in her hometown; her poignant letters home were posted on the Internet along with tributes from friends and teachers; Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) called for a congressional investigation. But many others greeted Corrie’s death with a distinct lack of sympathy. Americans’ preoccupation with the impending war in Iraq combined with the perception that Corrie was in league with Palestinian militants dampened any sense of outrage. She was ridiculed as “roadkill” on one website and excoriated on others for burning a makeshift American flag before Gaza schoolchildren, a photo of which prompted anti-war protesters and other likely allies to distance themselves from her. A university newspaper ran a scathing cartoon depicting a woman standing in front of a bulldozer along with dictionary definitions of the word “stupidity” and one addition: “3. Sitting in front of a bulldozer to protect a gang of terrorists.” Most Americans, if they thought about her at all, considered Corrie a naif who had chosen the wrong side and paid, tragically, with her life. If Corrie thought that a white, American, female college student putting her life on the line could somehow change hearts and minds, she would, in death, be little more than a news blip, convincing people of nothing more than what they already believed. What remained unclear were the precise circumstances of her death — and why a 23-year-old woman from Olympia, Washington, would have placed her body in front of Israeli military bulldozers in the first place.

At the beginning of june 2003, two and a half months after Corrie was killed, I traveled to the Gaza Strip in search of those answers. Driving down from Jerusalem, I passed through the Erez Crossing, the nearly deserted transit point from Israel into Gaza. Despite a thaw in the peace process — the Aqaba summit and the inauguration of the “road map” were just days off — conditions had deteriorated since my last visit a few months earlier. Hamas militants had just ?red homemade rockets at Israel from a nearby village, and the Israeli army had seized control of the area to prevent more attacks. Two Israeli Merkava tanks blocked the road leading into Gaza. With cars no longer permitted in or out, I was forced to walk to a taxi stand a half-mile away, through a landscape of chewed-up asphalt and ?attened homes. I passed a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, the same type that ran over Corrie. The massive machine wheezed and spewed diesel smoke as it pushed an enormous heap of concrete debris, olive trees, and metal sheeting — evidently the remains of somebody’s house and garden — into a larger pile at the roadside.

Mohammed Qishta, a slender, 23-year-old Palestinian who works as an interpreter for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and knew Corrie, met me at a crowded taxi stand on a hillside above the tanks. In his friend’s battered Toyota we drove south toward Rafah, following the same coastal road Corrie had taken when she arrived in Gaza four months earlier. A small, 140-square-mile rectangle of land, Gaza was in Egyptian hands until Israel seized it during the 1967 Six Day War. Still surprisingly fertile, abounding with small plots of olives, squash, cucumbers, and oranges, Gaza is now surrounded by electri?ed security fences, its population barred from Israel. One million Palestinians are effectively held hostage by 6,700 Jewish settlers and the Israel Defense Forces (idf) — although the sea provides a vital escape valve. As we sped down the coast, Palestinians played beach volleyball and swam in the placid blue waters of the Mediterranean. Then, north of the Palestinian town of Khan Younis, the coastal road abruptly ended: The beachfront land now belonged to the forti?ed Jewish settlement of Gush Katif. We cut inland and continued down the main Gaza highway, past a concrete bunker where Israeli soldiers peeked out through a tiny slot, machine guns at the ready.

By the time I arrived in Rafah, the posters that had gone up across Gaza in Corrie’s honor — one slogan read “Rachel was a U.S. citizen with Palestinian blood” — were faded and peeling, and Yasser Arafat’s pledge to name a street after her had apparently been forgotten. New martyrs were being produced nearly every day. As we sipped coffee in Rafah’s main square, across from the run-down apartment block containing ISM headquarters, a convoy of vehicles festooned with the black ?ags of Islamic Jihad drove by, heading for the cemetery: One bore the body of a militant killed the day before. Later, as we left the of?ces of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in northern Rafah, an Israeli sniper perched in a nearby watchtower began ?ring down the road, apparently without provocation. We hit the ground and crawled back inside the building. During the fusillade, which lasted 15 minutes, one young man was shot.

Rachel corrie grew up in Olympia, where her father worked as an insurance executive and her mother, an accomplished ?utist, volunteered at local schools. In September 1997, she entered Evergreen State College in Olympia, a small liberal-arts institution known for its experimental curriculum and its left-wing orientation. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, graduated in 1977 and is often held up as the kind of irreverent, creative personality allowed to ?ourish at the school. A distrust of authority and a passion for unpopular causes permeate the politics of both students and faculty. In 1999 Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former journalist and Black Panther convicted of ?rst-degree murder in the shooting of a Philadelphia police of?cer, delivered Evergreen’s commencement address via audiotape from death row, sparking outrage in conservative circles. “The radical ideologies espoused every day at Evergreen State College are of every nasty branch of extremISM,” one columnist recently wrote. “Anti-AmericanISM. Anti-God. Anti-life. Anti-Israel. Anti-capitalISM. Anti-tradition.”

Corrie aspired to be a writer or an artist, ?lling her messy apartment with half-?nished sculptures and poetry, and dabbled in political activISM. Some of her causes verged on New Age parody: She paraded through Olympia dressed as a dove in the “Procession of the Species,” billed as an “environmentally aware celebration of the earth and life.” But she also grappled with the burning issues of the day. In the fall of her senior year a friend returned from ?ve months in Gaza and talked enthusiastically to Corrie about the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian activist group founded just the year before. A motley collection of anti-globalization and animal-rights activists, self-described anarchists and seekers, most in their 20s, the ISM upholds the right of Palestinians to carry out “armed struggle” and seeks “to establish divestment campaigns in the U.S. and Europe to put economic pressure on Israel the same way the international com- munity put pressure [on] South Africa during the apartheid regimes.”

The group has courted controversy from the start. Embracing Palestinian militants, even suicide bombers, as freedom ?ghters, ISM has adopted a risky policy of “direct action” — entering military zones to interfere with the operations of Israeli soldiers. Members held vigil with Yasser Arafat during the siege of his Ramallah headquarters in April 2002. The next month, 10 activists dashed across Bethlehem’s Manger Square in front of astonished Israeli snipers and took refuge alongside 150 Palestinian gunmen trapped inside the Church of the Nativity. “Part of their gig is to break laws in acts of civil disobedience in order to draw attention to what the Israeli military is doing,” says one human-rights observer in Jerusalem. “They provide important information about places where journalists and other human-rights groups don’t often go. But what they do is incredibly frightening. Would I do it? No way.”

Corrie proposed an independent-study program in which she would travel to Gaza, join the ISM team, and initiate a “sister city” project between Olympia and Rafah. She ?ew to Israel from Seattle on January 22, checked into a youth hostel in East Jerusalem, then joined another Olympia resident, William Hewitt, 25, at a two-day training course at ISM West Bank headquarters. Filled with curiosity about the Middle East, “she engaged with everyone she met,” says Hewitt. “She would start a dialogue with the taxi drivers, ask- ing about their lives, their families.” She took part in role-playing exercises — playing an angry settler or soldier, or an activist trying to defuse the situation — and received tips about blending into Palestinian society. The activists were to abstain from drugs, sex, and alcohol; women were encouraged to wear the hijab. They studied direct-action tactics and learned a few basic rules about avoiding harm while removing military roadblocks, defying curfews, and blocking house demolitions: Wear ?uorescent jackets. Don’t run. Don’t frighten the army. Try to communicate by megaphone. Make your presence known. On January 27, she and Hewitt traveled to Erez and, after a cursory check of their U.S. passports, were permitted to cross the border.

A town of 150,000 people at the southernmost edge of Gaza, Rafah has been a center of Palestinian resistance for the past three years. Masked militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades prowl the city’s sandy alleyways at night, past gray cinder-block homes and shops whose walls are covered with “martyr” posters and brightly painted images of assault ri?es and exploding Israeli tanks. Nightly gun battles pit Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers (apcs) patrolling the border strip — known by the Israelis as “Philadelphi Road” or the “Pink Line” — against guerrillas ?ring anti-tank missiles, grenades, and Kalashnikovs. Roadside bombs lie buried in the sand, and a local Bedouin family controls a lucrative business smuggling weapons from Egypt via tunnels dug as deep as 100 feet and often concealed inside Palestinian homes. Israel’s response has been to raze houses considered guerrilla sanctuaries using the D9 bulldozer, a fearsome machine with a 410-horsepower diesel engine, a mine- resistant hull, and a seven-foot-tall, 14-foot-wide blade that can turn a two-story house into a pile of rubble in 10 minutes. The Israeli military insists that demolitions are carried out with as little pain to civilians as possible: Human intelligence pinpoints homes containing tunnel exits or providing cover for guerrillas; residents can gather their belongings; and each house is searched for occupants before it is demolished.

But human-rights groups and Palestinians say that the destruction is a form of collective punishment and only rarely meets international de?nitions of military necessity. “Nobody questions that tunnels exist in Rafah or shooting from militants takes place. But whether that has anything to do with the scale and size of the demolitions is a burning question,” says Miranda Sissons of Human Rights Watch. Last October, Israel began building a two-and-a-half-mile-long iron and cement security wall to protect its military bases and adjacent Jewish settlements. Along the wall, the idf has cleared a swath as wide as a football ?eld, shearing off row after row of houses. The United Nations says that since the Al-Aqsa Intifada began in 2001, 582 Rafah homes have been demolished, another 721 have been damaged, and 5,305 people have been made homeless, more than in the rest of the Gaza Strip combined.

The demolitions, human-rights activists and Palestinians say, have been accompanied by random gun?re from Israeli snipers perched in watchtowers and occupied buildings scattered throughout Rafah. Two hundred and forty people, including 78 children, have been killed, according to Dr. Ali Moussa, director of Rafah’s hospital. “Every night there is shooting at houses in which children are sleeping, without any attacks from Palestinians,” he says. As I traveled around Rafah, I saw posters memorializing dead children: Nafez Mishal, 2, killed by a tank missile on November 12, 2002; Salem Abdul Kadr Al Shaer, 12, fatally shot in the stomach on October 26, 2002; Asa Zanoun, 13, struck in the head and killed while studying in her bedroom. The idf says that civilians get caught in cross?re and blame militants for using them as human shields. “It’s sad that Palestinian terrorists are using the civilians to hide behind,” Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman, told me.

Corrie had come to rafah a paper radical, primed for outrage, but with little real-world experience. That changed immediately. On her ?rst night in Rafah, she and two other human shields, a fellow Olympian and an Italian, set up camp in a heap of rubble inside Block J, a densely populated neighborhood along the Pink Line and frequent target of gun?re from an Israeli watchtower. By placing themselves between the Palestinian residents and the troops, and hanging up banners announcing the presence of “internationals,” the activists hoped to discourage the shooting. But the plan back?red. Huddling in terror as Israeli troops ?red bullets over their tent and at the ground a few feet away, the three activists decided that their presence at the site was provoking the soldiers, not deterring them, and abandoned the tent. Corrie was so shaken by the experience that she resumed the smoking habit she had quit a year earlier. Within a week she was smoking two packs a day — harsh, Pakistani-made Royals — leaving her with a chronic, hacking cough.

Corrie also learned that she had waded into a situation more complex than she’d imagined. Instead of embracing the ISM team as saviors, many Palestinians regarded them with suspicion, even hostility. Weeks before her arrival, activists had erected tents near Israel’s new security fence. Neighborhood Palestinians rose up in protest. “We are in a war, this is a closed society, and some Palestinians thought maybe they were working for Israel,” Mansour Lawani, a resident, told me. Local toughs tried to take down the tent by force, and armed men from the Popular Resistance Committee — an umbrella group of all the militant factions — ordered the activists to leave. “The armed groups didn’t want the internationals to be caught in the cross?re and they also suspected they might be spies,” says Lawani. He spent days trying to persuade locals that they had nothing to fear, until they grudgingly allowed the tents to remain. They didn’t stay up for long. “The ISM group suffered from rain and mud and sickness,” Lawani says. “So we decided to accept them into our homes, and our family was among the ?rst to take them in.”

Corrie worked hard to break down the barriers. She learned a few phrases of Arabic and tried them out at every opportunity. Trying to integrate herself into the community, she denounced the “crimes” of the Bush administration at a mock trial, taught English, learned traditional dances from Palestinian kids, and proposed cultural exchanges as part of her “sister cities” project. But her main focus was on direct action. She and the other activists printed up white calling cards in English and passed them out on the streets. “We are ISM volunteers that come to Palestine to be in solidarity with Palestinians and to confront the illegal Israeli occupation,” the cards read. “If there is anything that we can do in cases of human rights or injustice we will not hesitate. Call us anytime; we are available 24 hours a day.” Bit by bit, they earned the locals’ trust. Families provided meals and beds to the human shields, and the phone calls began pouring in to the ISM hotline. “Late January and February was a very crazy time,” the interpreter Qishta told me as we drove through a neighborhood ravaged by Israeli bulldozers. “There were house demolitions taking place all over the border strip and the activists had no time to do anything else.”

Day after day, the activists unfurled banners, placed themselves between bulldozers and homes, and pleaded with Israeli troops over megaphones to stop their work. Corrie often did the talking. “We are protecting civilians,” she would say. “We are unarmed. We are no threat to you. Please do not shoot.” The activists were gambling that their international status would protect them, and for the most part they were proved right. The soldiers manning the tanks and apcs that accompanied the D9s on their demolition runs would hurl curses, ?re live rounds at activists’ feet or in the air, and spray them with tear gas and pepper spray. But ISM usually held its ground, frequently forcing the Israelis to withdraw. Sometimes, however, there were close calls: One Brit- ish woman was struck in the leg by tank grenade shrapnel when she entered an olive grove to retrieve the body of a young Palestinian man killed by a sniper’s bullet; an Irish peace activist named Jenny was nearly run down by a D9. “The bulldozer’s coming, the earth is burying my feet, my legs, I’ve got nowhere to run, and I thought, ‘This is out of control,'” she told me. “Another activist pulled me up and out of the way at the last minute.” Riskier still were the nighttime actions, in which Corrie carried a large ?uorescent light to illuminate her in front of Israeli snipers. “They were not only brave; they were crazy,” says Qishta, who often accompanied the ISM activists to the Pink Line — but took refuge inside nearby houses while they carried out their “actions.”

After a grueling day, Corrie would frequently huddle in front of a terminal at a downtown Internet café, tapping at the keyboard from early evening until dawn. Chain-smoking and downing cups of sweetened tea, she pounded out ISM reports as well as personal notes to friends and family about life inside a combat zone. Sometimes she became so consumed that colleagues had to phone the shabab (young men) who managed the place to rouse her from her corner perch. She wrote about the Palestinian families she lived with and the children she saw shot dead and buried, about her halting attempts to learn Arabic and the Israeli checkpoints that made traveling through Gaza an ordeal. “It became a joke about how much time she spent writing at the Internet café,” says Jenny, the Irish activist. “She wrote more than anyone, and she loved doing it. She summed up exactly how I felt, and she’d only been here a couple of weeks.” Despite what she witnessed, Corrie never lost her sense of humor or her playfulness. Sometimes, Mansour Lawani recalls, she would stand on his balcony and regale the Egyptian troops stationed across the border fence with Arabic phrases Lawani had taught her. “Ya, dofa, ihna awzeen nzur il ahramat!” she would shout. “Oh, soldiers, I want to visit the pyramids!” The troops would wave back good-naturedly. When Corrie came down with the ?u, Lawani’s wife presented her with a 1970s-era powder-pink-and-white-striped jumpsuit and matching head scarf to keep her warm. Corrie found the out?t hideous, says a comrade, but she showed up at work the next day wearing it. “We told her, ‘If you wear this in front of a tank, they’ll be laughing too hard to shoot you,'” Jenny recalls. “She went off dressed in the jumpsuit and played football in a pitch nearby with the local boys.”

The second week of march had been unusually quiet inside the Pink Line. On Friday, March 14, two days before her death, Corrie gave an interview to the Middle East Broadcasting network about conditions in Rafah. Perched on the roof of a bullet-pocked house, Corrie squinted into the sun and cast a nervous glance at a nearby Israeli watchtower. Her neck wrapped in a checked white-and-black kaffiyeh, thin frame draped in a blue sweatshirt, her hair pulled back in a disheveled ponytail, Corrie cut an appealing, impassioned ?gure. “I feel like I’m witnessing the systematic destruction of a people’s ability to survive. It’s horrifying,” she told the reporter. “It takes a while to get what’s happen- ing here. People here are trying to maintain their lives, trying to be happy. Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and I realize there is a massive military machine surrounding us, trying to kill the people I’m having dinner with.”

Corrie spent Friday and Saturday nights in the home of Ibrahim and Jindiya al-Shaer in Hai as-Salam. Bulldozers had systematically sheared off one home after another between theirs and the border, leaving the al-Shaer house standing exposed on the front line. The front door was now too dangerous to use, so the family entered and exited their house via a small aperture cut into the rear wall. Corrie had grown close to the family’s 17-year-old daughter, Naela, who’d been grazed by shrapnel while sitting on her porch in early January. “We should be inspired by people like you who show that human beings can be kind, brave, generous, beautiful, strong — even in the most dif?cult circumstances,” Corrie scribbled in Naela’s diary. “Follow your dreams, believe in yourself and don’t give up. Much love and respect, Rachel from Olympia, Washington.”

Awakening at dawn on Sunday to the sound of tanks rumbling along the border strip, Corrie drank a cup of sweet tea proffered by Naela’s mother and then presented the family with a bag of powdered zattar, a pungent blend of spices including thyme, marjoram, and salt. Jindiya sprinkled it on pita bread saturated with olive oil and served it to the family for breakfast. Rachel ate quickly, as she always did — eager to get into the ?eld. “Don’t go,” Naela’s father teased her. “Stay here and marry me.”

“You’re an old man, and besides, you’ve already got a wife,” Rachel joked back.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ll teach you Arabic. You’ll teach me English. We make a perfect pair.”

Begging off the family’s continued pleas, at 8:30 Rachel climbed through the hole in the rear of their house and walked down the sandy alley toward her of?ce.

She was propelled, in part, by frustration. During the past few days she and the nine other ISM activists had become preoccupied with an anonymous letter circulating through Rafah that cast suspicion on the human shields. “Who are they? Why are they here? Who asked them to come here?” it asked. The letter referred to Corrie and the other expatriate women in Rafah as “nasty foreign bitches” whom “our Palestinian young men are following around.” It was a sobering reminder that outsiders — even international do-gooders — were untrustworthy in the eyes of some Palestinians.

That morning, the ISM team tried to devise a strategy to counteract the letter’s effects. “We all had a feeling that our role was too passive. We talked about how to engage the Israeli military,” Richard “Fuzz” Purssell told me by phone from Great Britain. “We had teams working in the West Bank, going up to checkpoints, presenting a human face to soldiers. But in Rafah we’d only seen the Israelis at a distance.” And as is so often the case in the Middle East, lack of any humanizing interaction meant that the idf and the ISM knew each other only by their worst acts. Few activists had spent much time in Israel or spoken to soldiers except in moments of con?ict; the soldiers experienced the peace activists only as nuisances who were getting in their way in highly volatile situations. That morning, team members made a number of proposals that seemed designed only to aggravate the problem. Purssell, for instance, suggested marching on a checkpoint that had been the site of several suicide attacks. “The idea was to more directly challenge the Israeli military dominance using our international status,” Purssell told me.

The meeting broke up at 11 o’clock, and Corrie and two other activists caught a taxi to a municipal well at the northern end of Rafah. In mid-January, the idf bulldozers had demolished two of Rafah’s six wells, claiming that gunmen had ?red from the well houses upon the Ra? Yam settlement, 500 yards away. Whatever the cause, the attack had cut off half of the city’s water supply. Rafah’s municipal water director had asked the foreign activists to serve as human shields during the repair work. Corrie and the others had erected tents and banners, and now worked in alternating shifts, standing guard as the crew rushed to put the well back on-line. It was tedious work, usually involving nothing more than donning their orange jackets and sitting idly in the back of a ?atbed truck. But they were certain that their presence was the only factor preventing the Israelis from attacking again.

According to the Israeli army, as Corrie guarded the well, two D9 bulldozers, accompanied by a small tank, left their base along the Egyptian border at 1:17 p.m. and lumbered toward the no man’s land surrounding Samir Nasrallah’s home in Hai as-Salam. Israel says that the crew’s assignment was to sweep the area for booby traps planted by militants. The ISM team insists that it was another house-demolition mission. Corrie received a call from a fellow activist in Hai as-Salam at 2:00 and arrived near the scene 20 minutes later. Walking briskly down a dusty alley, she slipped into her orange ?uorescent jacket and tested her loudspeaker. Donkeys brayed, and the pungent aroma from a nearby slaughterhouse wafted over the neighborhood. Turning the corner, Corrie could see the pair of green behemoths probing and undulating the earth as the tank stood guard. Across the swath of empty land, scarred with tread marks and piles of rubble, she could gaze out at the fence separating Gaza from Egypt. Behind it, a minaret rose over a smattering of ugly brown buildings and a few scraggly palm trees.

Five members of the ISM team were in place by the time Corrie and two others arrived. Positioned near Nasrallah’s house, they waved banners, called to the troops through their megaphones, and attempted to obstruct the bulldozers’ movements. At 3:04, soldiers in the tank ?red warning shots at the protesters to “no effect,” the Israeli military says. Seventeen minutes later, they launched shock grenades and tear gas, again to “no effect.” At 3:28, work was temporarily suspended. Then, at 4:15, according to a military log, “twenty Palestinians crouch east of the road; a grenade is tossed at a D9.” The troops ?red more tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Just before five o’clock, one of the D9s rumbled lazily toward a high cinder-block wall near Nasrallah’s house. Corrie swiftly positioned herself between the wall and the bulldozer, then about 30 yards from her. Crouching on the earth, almost like a supplicant in prayer, she placed her right foot behind her left and rested her right knee on the ground. Looking toward the bulletproof windows, she could probably see the silhouettes of two Israeli operators. The steel blade began pushing a huge pile of debris and sandy soil toward her, so close that the scent of the moist earth permeated her nostrils. The ground began to shift beneath her feet. Tom Dale was standing a few yards from Corrie as the bulldozer got close. “The bulldozer built up earth in front of it. Its blade was slightly dug into the earth,” he told me. “She began to stand up. The earth was pushed over her feet. She tried to climb on top of the earth, to avoid being overwhelmed. She climbed to the point where her shoulders were above the top lip of the blade. She was standing on this pile of earth. As the bulldozer continued, she lost her footing, and she turned and fell down this pile of earth. Then it seemed like she got her foot caught under the blade. She was helpless, pushed prostrate, and looked absolutely panicked, with her arms out, and the earth was piling itself over her. The bulldozer continued so that the place where she fell down was directly beneath the cockpit. I think she would have been between the treads. The whole [incident] took place in about six or seven seconds.”

Dale looked on, stunned, as the D9 slowly reversed and dragged its blade along the ground — back over Corrie’s body. Then he and the six other activists rushed to her aid. A photograph an activist took of the moment captures the tragedy with painful clarity: Corrie sprawls on the ground, face contorted in pain, her legs twisted pitifully, her lip split open, blood trickling down her cheek. In the background the bulldozer’s blade looms over her crumpled body like a wall of steel. A British activist named Alice cradled her head and assured her an ambulance was on its way. “My back is broken,” Corrie gasped. Then she lapsed into uncon- sciousness.

At 5:04, the bulldozer driver’s voice crackled over Israeli military radio. Speaking Hebrew with a thick Russian accent, the soldier blandly announced, “I hit someone.”

A soldier monitoring the conversation relayed the report to base, assuming the activ- ist was a man. “He was too close to Dooby [the code name of the operator] and he hit him.”

“Somebody from the foreigners?” asked a female soldier.


“Are they evacuating him?”

“Yes, they’re taking him now.”

At 5:03, a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance received a call and arrived at the scene four minutes later. Corrie still lay half buried in sand. “She had no pulse, she wasn’t breathing, her eyes were dilated,” paramedic Ashraf Shafeeq al-Khateeb told me. “We used a neck collar and a board to stabilize the body, cleared an airway, and used cpr with suction.” The ambulance delivered her to the Abu Yusuf al-Najjar Hospital at 5:15 “as a dead body,” according to the medical report. Corrie had “one seven-centimeter cut on the left side of her upper lip, hematoma, and severe cyanosis of the full face, neck, and upper body indicative of suffocation.” Her lungs had been crushed, her left clavicle and ribs were fractured, vital organs had ruptured. According to Dr. Ali Moussa, the hospital director, Corrie probably died from a combination of three causes: the damage to her lungs, blockage of her respiratory tract, and severe internal hemorrhaging. It would likely have been, he said, an extremely pain- ful death. “We tried to resuscitate her for half an hour using arti?cial respiration, cardiac massage,” he says. “But it’s dif?cult for a doctor to return respiration. The heart we can revive, but not the lungs.” She was pronounced dead at 6:30 p.m.

Was it murder? Corrie’s colleagues believe that it was. “I never dreamed it’d be like this, the intentional crushing of a human being,” ISM eyewitness Joe “Smith” wrote in an af?davit ?led with Palestinian human-rights attorneys. “I do believe it was intentional. I saw it, and I know he saw her, I know he did, and I know he knew she was still under the bulldozer when it backed up without raising its blade. I don’t know if he wanted to kill her, or if he was just focused on doing his work and didn’t care if he killed her or not, I don’t know which is scarier.” Five other activists testi?ed that the driver must have seen Corrie before mowing her down. A damning sequence of photographs shot by ISM activists and almost immediately released by Reuters appears to show Corrie standing before the bulldozer and addressing the soldiers with her megaphone seconds before being crushed.

Yet “Smith” later gave an interview in which he acknowledged that the bulldozer operator could well have lost sight of Corrie after she tumbled down the dirt pile. And the infamous photo series turned out to be misleading. In fact, the megaphone photo was taken hours before Corrie’s death; she had handed the loudspeaker to a colleague some time before she was run over, and she was kneeling, not standing, in front of the machine when she was killed. As newspapers ran corrections, the activists claimed that Reuters had “miscaptioned” the photographs. The episode probably did more to mute anger over Corrie’s death than anything else. The ISM activists were widely dismissed as frauds. In reality, they were probably just too young and inexperienced to know that if the media feels burned, it’ll turn on you, or worse, ignore you.

“Dooby,” the army reservist who ran Corrie down, is a Russian immigrant with long experience as a bulldozer operator. On Israeli TV he insisted that his ?eld of vision was limited inside the D9 cabin and that he had no idea Corrie was in front of the machine. “You can’t hear, you can’t see well. You can go over something and you’ll never know,” he said. “I scooped up some earth, I couldn’t see anything. I pushed the earth, and I didn’t see her at all. Maybe she was hiding in there.” The idf compiled a video about the Corrie incident that includes footage taken from inside the cockpit of a D9. It makes a credible case that the operators, peering out through narrow, double-glazed, bulletproof windows, their view obscured behind pistons and the giant scooper, might not have seen Corrie kneeling in front of them.

Whatever the truth, the Israeli army showed no remorse for its action that afternoon. Days after Corrie’s death, Arafat’s Fatah Party sponsored a memorial service for her in Rafah, attended by representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as well as ordinary Palestinians. Midway through the service, an Israeli tank pulled up beside the mourners and sprayed them with tear gas. Peace activists chased the tank and tossed ?owers, and the Israeli soldiers inside threatened, in return, to run them down. After 15 minutes of cat and mouse, Israeli bulldozers and apcs rolled in, ?ring guns and percussion bombs and putting a quick end to the memorial.

In rapid succession, Israeli troops shot three more foreign civilians working in the West Bank and Gaza. On April 5, Brian Avery, a 24-year-old American ISM volunteer in Jenin, was shot in the face by an Israeli sniper and seriously wounded. Six days later, a bullet ?red by an Israeli soldier in a Rafah watchtower tore through the back of 21-year-old Tom Hurndall’s skull as the ISM volunteer stooped to carry two Palestinian girls to safety. Hurndall now lies comatose in a British hospital. On May 2, James Miller, a 35-year-old Briton ?lming an hbo documentary along the Egyptian border, was shot in the neck and killed while walking under a white ?ag toward an Israeli apc. Few suggest that the army is deliberately targeting foreign activists and journalists; but critics say that these casualties are the inevitable result of a shoot-?rst-ask-questions-laterpolicy — one that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian noncombatants. “We do not target civilians,” idf spokeswoman Feingold assured me. In the case of Hurndall, she said, “a gunman was coming out of a house and started shooting, and a single shot was ?red toward this gunman. Hurndall was hit.” Miller, she explained, “was outside ?lming in pitch-black darkness just as someone ?red an anti-tank rocket from somewhere nearby, and the soldiers returned ?re.”

Those shootings received little media attention. In April, Israel’s chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, announced a crackdown on the International Solidarity Movement. During the following weeks, Israeli troops rounded up a dozen foreign activists; several were deported. Soldiers raided the group’s Beit Sahour headquarters on May 9, detained three people, seized eight computers, and “trashed the of?ce,” according to an ISM spokesman. The activists are now banned from traveling into the Gaza Strip, and several who’ve landed at Ben-Gurion Airport have been refused entry into Israel. The crackdown has all but ended ISM’s role as front-line observers. Direct actions to block Israeli bulldozings have petered away, and “because of the arrests we’re avoiding sleeping on the border,” says Jenny, Corrie’s Irish colleague. The stresses of the last months have taken a psychological toll on ISM. “They’re traumatized,” says Sissons of Human Rights Watch. “They don’t have the support structure, the ability to cope. They’ve seen their colleagues shot in front of them. They’ve underestimated the danger that faces them.”

ISM has also found itself placed on the defensive by its own recklessness. During a raid on their Jenin of?ce on March 27, Israeli soldiers arrested Shadi Sukiya, an alleged Islamic Jihad guerrilla found hiding with two ISM activists. The idf says that Sukiya, 20, was a “senior militant” who’d sent four suicide attackers into Israel. ISM insists he was an innocent, terri?ed teenager who’d asked for refuge during an Israeli sweep. But following the incident, the International Committee for the Red Cross, which occupies an of?ce in the same compound, asked the ISM to leave the premises. In late April, two Pakistan-born Britons posing as activists stopped in for tea at the group’s of?ce in Rafah. Five days later one Briton blew himself up at the entrance to a Tel Aviv pub called Mike’s Place, killing three and wounding dozens. (The other escaped; his battered body later washed ashore near Tel Aviv.) The ISM denied any link to the bomber. “Their sole contact [with us] was a brief social encounter in Rafah in the Gaza Strip and no ‘links’ were ‘forged’ in such a short time,” a spokesman said. Still, the perception has lingered that the group is a sympathizer — and even a harborer — of terrorists. “These unsubstantiated allegations about their involvement in terror have tarred all human-rights groups,” says Sissons of Human Rights Watch. “Some of them are dedicated and disciplined, but in a dif?cult environment you also need to be smart. They’ve got a problem keeping control of their people.”

Five days after her death, Rachel Corrie’s body was shipped home to Olympia. The idf has since pulled out of the northern part of Gaza, but demolitions along the Pink Line continue. The inquiry promised by Ariel Sharon cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing, and momentum has faded for a U.S. congressional investigation. A skeleton staff at the ISM Rafah of?ce spends most of its time attempting to revitalize Corrie’s sister-city project. And Corrie herself has faded into obscurity, a subject of debate in Internet chat rooms and practically nowhere else. And that, perhaps, is what is saddest. No matter what one thinks of Corrie, her death should have prompted more of a conversation. She should be an iconic ?gure — to foolish idealISM, to bravery against impossible odds, to the bittersweet conviction of youth — and to a handful of people she may be, but so far the larger message of her life appears to be one of futility. In the last three years, 3,000 people — Palestinians, Israelis, journalists, soldiers, suicide bombers, settlers, and human shields — have died. No one death has the power to shock anymore.

In Rafah, Corrie is cherished by a few Palestinian families who talk about her grace, humor, generosity, and, above all, bravery. Graf?ti sprayed on the ruins of a house behind the ISM of?ce pay tribute to that spirit. “To Rachel, who came to Rafah to stop the tanks,” it reads. “We remember her with love and honor as an inspiration.”


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