Eighteen years ago today, the American peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) armored bulldozer in Gaza. She was only 23 years old. Rachel was in Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led human rights organization that is dedicated to nonviolent methods. Rachel had been standing in front of armored bulldozers with other activists, in a peaceful protest against the demolition of Palestinian homes, a common tactic of collective punishment meted out by the IDF, when she was run over.
Witnesses to the events that day said there was no way that the operator of the bulldozer did not see Rachel, and that she was dragged for 10 to 15 meters while activists shouted to him that she was being crushed. And although an investigation was carried out, it was done by the Israeli military. Israeli human rights organizations B’Tselem and Yesh Din, along with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, criticized the investigation as severely compromised and biased.
In the month prior to her death, Rachel provided support to the civilians of Gaza attempting to repair the Canada Well which had provided 50% of Rafah’s water supply prior to damage done by Israeli bulldozers. Israeli tanks and snipers would routinely shoot at the workers there so the presence of international activists was necessary to reduce harm and provide a witness.
Rachel also worked closely with the children of Gaza who had suffered enormously from the ravages of war and from living under the collective punishment of the IDF in what today has become the world’s largest open air prison. 78 children in Rafah alone had been killed from 2001 to 2003. Despite all of this, she described the people of Gaza as being incredibly hospitable and kind.
Rachel’s life and death have been memorialized in a cantata by the Alaskan composer Philip Munger and in a play by the late Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner, based on her journals and emails to her parents. Songs were written in her honour by Billy Bragg, Mike Stout and David Rovics. And there have been several documentaries made.
I had the great privilege of meeting Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie, at a fundraiser for Medical Aid for Palestinians in California several years ago. They never gave up on seeking justice for their daughter, but they have done so with enormous grace, determination and humanity.
As the world watches the war against Ukraine in horror and the brave Russians coming out to oppose it, it is worth remembering that Rachel also courageously opposed her own government’s brutal war against Iraq. She understood the principle of internationalism. That borders were far less important than our shared humanity. In truth, there was no equivocation when it came to her commitment to universal human rights. And even though her life was short, she had an impact on how we think and act on issues of injustice that is both profound and enduring.
Kenn Orphan, March 2022
*Title image is “Rachel Corrie” by Palestinian artist: Imad Abu Shtayyah