Rachel Corrie case stirs fresh pain and hope

HAIFA, Israel — Shortly before Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16, 2003, she said in a video interview that she marveled at Palestinians’ ability to “hold onto their humanity as much as they have.”

Seven years later, Corrie’s friends in the Gaza Strip are planning a remembrance ceremony in her honor. They are also following news of the civil court trial under way in Israel; they hope the Israeli military is found liable for Rachel’s death and that the case challenges what they consider to be a policy of impunity toward Israeli soldiers.

Corrie was 23 when she arrived in the Gaza Strip in 2003 as part of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which places foreign volunteers in high-conflict zones to monitor human rights abuses and which uses non-violent methods to resist Israeli military actions, such as attempting to interrupt the construction of the West Bank barrier and blocking army vehicles. 

Although events surrounding Corrie's death are still disputed, she was killed by a bulldozer operated by the Israel Defense Forces while seeking to defend a Palestinian home from demolition. The house was located in an area near the Egyptian border that sometimes hosted entrances to tunnels used to smuggle weapons, including supplies for unguided rockets launched into civilian areas of southern Israel. 

Five years ago, the Corrie family initiated legal proceedings in an effort to hold the Israeli military liable for Rachel’s death. The family is seeking at least $300,000 in damages.

Israel's State Prosecutor's Office has appealed to the Haifa District Court to dismiss outright the civil suit on the basis that the bulldozer driver said he did not see her, and the Israel Defense Forces had ruled her death an accident.

Khaled Nasrallah, 40, lived in the home that Rachel died defending.

“Rachel really changed our fundamental ideas,” Nasrallah said. “Sometimes we believed that Western people were fully supporting the Israeli side and did not have feelings for us ... . [My family] didn’t do anything against any party, but the Israeli Defense Forces gave the innocent and the guilty the same treatment. I hope the trial will give hope to the next generation.”

Palestinian Anees Mansour, 28, joined the work of Corrie and her fellow activists because he felt "they were doing something good — they were fighting the occupation by peaceful ways." He held back tears as he recalls running to the hospital and viewing Rachel’s body in disbelief. “This is the life here," he whispered. "She is still in our hearts. I call the day she was killed the black day."

A month after Corrie's death, Mansour was just three feet away when a British member of ISM, Tom Hurndall, was killed by an Israeli Defense Forces sniper while trying to rescue children caught in gunfire. The soldier was convicted of manslaughter and obstruction of justice and sentenced to eight years in prison, which he is currently serving. The soldier told the military tribunal that the Israeli army "fires freely in Rafah."

"I decided that nothing works to end the occupation — peaceful ways or the armed way," Mansour says. "[Israel] doesn’t respect the peaceful. They don’t respect anyone. They don’t care if Tom or Rachel are internationals. They will do whatever they want."

In mid-2003, after Corrie, Hurndall and journalist James Miller were killed by Israeli soldiers, the Israeli government implemented strict restrictions on civilian entry into the Gaza Strip. Between 2003 and 2008, said ISM co-founder Huwaida Arraf, ISM "only managed to get a couple of delegations [into the Gaza Strip]," but she declined to say how they entered. In August of 2008, eight ISM members entered the strip on the "Free Gaza" boats that sailed from Cyprus to Gaza.

About 20 westerners from ISM are currently partnering with Palestinians in the West Bank, where foreign civilians are not prohibited from entering. However, hundreds have been denied entry or deported for their association with non-violent resistance groups, according to ISM. Adam Shapiro, a co-founder of ISM, was deported from Israel in 2002 and barred from returning.

In December 2008, a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which had previously fired thousands of unguided rockets into Israel, began to disintegrate. Israel then launched a three-week bombing campaign and ground invasion of Gaza. The hostilities claimed the lives of 13 Israelis and about 1,400 Palestinians, many of them civilians. A U.N. commission headed by Judge Richard Goldstone later accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes.

Corrie's parents, Cindy and Craig, have made four trips to the Gaza Strip and established a foundation in Rachel’s honor.

A play based on Corrie’s emails and diaries premiered in London in 2005, and was performed in dozens of venues across the world. A 2009 documentary movie by French-Israeli film maker Simone Bitton investigates the death of Rachel Corrie. The family has also published "Let Me Stand Alone," a book of Corrie’s journals.

The Israeli government maintains that Corrie was killed accidentally and acted in "reckless disregard" for her own life by interfering in a war zone. The Corrie family alleges that the driver of the bulldozer killed Rachel Corrie intentionally and unlawfully, or alternatively by "gross negligence" in failing to protect civilians.

Four eyewitnesses to Corrie’s death were granted entry visas only following external diplomatic pressure. The doctor in Gaza who treated Corrie and confirmed her death has yet to be issued a permit to give testimony in Israel.

Craig Corrie emphasizes that "so many families harmed as deeply as ours cannot access the courts. Palestinians are routinely denied their petitions, or are required to post impossibly expensive bonds to file their cases."

By coincidence, the trial is occurring during the anniversary of Corrie's death. Events celebrating Corrie’s life are planned for March 16 across the United States, Israel and the Palestinian territories. In Rafah, Gaza, about 800 people will attend a ceremony at a children’s center that was renamed in Rachel’s honor.

One of the attendees at this ceremony will be Mohammed Abu Asaker, a 30-year-old project manager with the U.N. Development Program. Corrie helped him apply for a USAID-funded presidential scholarship. After 11 rejections, he was finally accepted in 2005. Israeli border closures delayed Abu Asaker’s trip to the U.S., but he was elated just to have the opportunity.

He recalled, "Rachel inspired me because she had all the facilities to make her life easy — but she sacrificed that and came to Gaza … . The moment I arrived on the American University campus [in Washington, D.C.] and walked on the quad, it thrilled my heart, because that was a first step to get knowledge and skills and a good education, then come back and help my people. I believe that is the way that I can honor Rachel and make her soul rest. And here I am [back in] in Gaza."