Four eyewitnesses describe the murder of Rachel Corrie

19 March 2003

American peace activist Rachel Corrie was murdered by an Israeli bulldozer driver on 16 March 2003 while attempting to defend a Palestinian doctor’s home from demolition. Four of the seven International Solidarity Movement members present have written their recollections of the incident: Tom Dale (US), Greg Schnabel (UK), Richard Purssell (UK), and Joe Smith (US). Greg and Richard’s accounts are more formal accounts. Tom and Joe’s accounts are excerpted from e-mails to friends and families. Courtesy of the International Solidarity Movement.

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Rachel Corrie (right) defending a Palestinian well. (ISM Handout)

TOM DALE EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

British Citizen from Lichfield, Birmingham, born 17 August 1984.

Many of you will of heard varying accounts of the death of Rachel Corrie, maybe others will have heard nothing of it. Regardless, I was 10 metres away when it happened 2 days ago, and this is the way it went.

We’d been monitoring and occasionally obstructing the 2 bulldozers for about 2 hours when 1 of them turned toward a house we knew to be threatened with demolition. Rachel knelt down in its way. She was 10-20 metres in front of the bulldozer, clearly visible, the only object for many metres, directly in its view. They were in radio contact with a tank that had a profile view of the situation. There is no way she could not have been seen by them in their elevated cabin. They knew where she was, there is no doubt.

The bulldozer drove toward Rachel slowly, gathering earth in its scoop as it went. She knelt there, she did not move. The bulldozer reached her and she began to stand up, climbing onto the mound of earth. She appeared to be looking into the cockpit. The bulldozer continued to push Rachel, so she slipped down the mound of earth, turning as she went. Her faced showed she was panicking and it was clear she was in danger of being overwhelmed.

All the activists were screaming at the bulldozer to stop and gesturing to the crew about Rachel’s presence. We were in clear view as Rachel had been, they continued. They pushed Rachel, first beneath the scoop, then beneath the blade, then continued till her body was beneath the cockpit. They waited over her for a few seconds, before reversing. They reversed with the blade pressed down, so it scraped over her body a second time. Every second I believed they would stop but they never did.

I ran for an ambulance, she was gasping and her face was covered in blood from a gash cutting her face from lip to cheek. She was showing signs of brain hemorrhaging. She died in the ambulance a few minutes later of massive internal injuries. She was a brilliant, bright and amazing person, immensely brave and committed. She is gone and I cannot believe it.

The group here in Rafah has decided that we will stay here and continue to oppose human rights abuses as best we can. I want to add that more than 10 Palestinians have died in the Gaza Strip since Rachel.

Please: forward this message. Boycott Caterpillar. Take direct action against the Caterpillar Corporation - please do not let this be without cost to them. Legally, I shouldn’t ask you to do anything destructive or against the law.

If you’re wondering about Rachel: her writings, photos of her and statements on her death are available on the website below. More photos: go to yahoo news section, search for photos by ‘rachel’.

If you’re wondering about the International Solidarity Movement: www.palsolidarity.org

If you’re wondering about the bulldozers: They’re American, Caterpillar-made armoured D9 Bulldozers. I estimate the blade is maybe 8 ft high, 15 ft wide and the bulldozer more than 9 tons. They’re purchased from America using the $12 billion per annum military aid package that America gives to Israel. [Report on their previous usage, well worth reading — especially if you didn’t believe anyone would be crazy enough to do this].

If you’re wondering about Rafah: in the southern Gaza Strip, next to the Egyptian border. Apart from suffering in excess from the problems all over Palestine: Israeli manipulation of the water supply, economic strangulation, regular shootings and army operations, Rafah is afflicted by the building of an extra border wall. It has caused hundreds of homes to be destroyed.

The house in question, that of a doctor, like dozens of others in the area is not set to be demolished because of any supposed link to militants. Only because it lies within 100 metres of the new border wall, currently in construction. Families receive no compensation from Israel, and are frequently given just a few minutes warning in the form of live ammunition being shot through the walls of their house.

Tom Dale
18 March 2003

GREG SCHNABEL EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

United States citizen from Chicago, IL, USA, born 26 April 1974.

I, Greg Schnabel, came to Rafah to work with the International Solidarity Movement.

At approximately 3 p.m. on the afternoon of March 16, 2003 I was with Rachel at a water well in the Tel al Sultan district of Rafah. We received a call from our fellow I.S.M. activists in the Hyy Es Salam district. Our friends informed us that two bulldozers were in that neighborhood threatening to destroy family houses. Rachel and I went to the Hyy Es Salam area to help our friends. The homes that were being threatened by the bulldozers were the homes of families which our group had been sleeping with for the past four months. We had personal relationships with these families and defending their homes from being destroyed was very important to us.

When Rachel and I arrived on the scene, two bulldozers were clearing the ground near to these homes. There was also a tank. Our group began to stand in front of these bulldozers in an attempt to stop them. Generally they did not stop when we stood in front of them, but continued to push the earth up from underneath our feet to push us away. Several times we had to dive away at the last moment in order to avoid being crushed.

This continued for about two and a half hours. All the time the bulldozers were approaching closer to the families homes. They made several attempts to evade us and outmaneuver us. At one point, Will from the United States was nearly crushed between the bulldozer and a pile of razor wire. The bulldozer stopped at the last minute in Will’s case. If it had moved any closer he would have been impaled by the razor wire.

The bulldozers destroyed part of a home which was unoccupied. Members of our group including myself stood inside this home in an attempt to stop them. One bulldozer then moved toward the house of Dr. Samir, one of the families with whom we had relations.

Rachel was standing in front of this home. As the bulldozer approached she stood her ground. Rachel was wearing an orange fluorescent jacket. She was clearly visible to the bulldozer driver as well as to the soldiers in the tank. The bulldozer began to push up the ground from beneath her feet. The pile of earth was mounding up and she tried her best to stay on top of it. As the ground continued to move Rachel went down on her knees. The bulldozer continued to move forward. Rachel began to become buried beneath the dirt. Still it did not stop. Finally, Rachel was beneath the bulldozer. The bulldozer did not even pick up its blade. It ran over her completely and continued to advance. It stopped when she was completely underneath the body of the bulldozer. It then moved backwards over her body. It moved clear of her and backed away.

At this point I and my friends ran to her. She was obviously in terrible condition. Her upper lip had been split open and was bleeding. We called an ambulance immediately and continued to monitor her vital signs. She was breathing but she was losing consciousness rapidly. Within a minute she was no longer able to give us her name or speak. We continued to talk to her encouraging her, breathing with her, and telling her we loved her.

The ambulance staff came and took her to the hospital. Once there she died within twenty minutes or less.

Greg Schnabel
16 March 2003

RICHARD PURSSELL EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

British citizen from Brighton, England. A Construction Worker born on 12 October 1971.

I am Richard Purssell of the United Kingdom. I am here in Rafah to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian people and take non-violent direct action to confront the illegal Israeli occupation. I am making this statement at 11:30 on the night after the incident.

On 16 March 2003 I, Rachel Corrie, and Greg were acting as human shields at the well in Tel al Sultan. We received a call at 2.30 from other ISM activists who were working in the Hyy es Salaam area that bulldozers had been spotted. We arrived ten minutes later at the area, which was near both to houses we were protecting and houses which had been destroyed in the previous week. Using a megaphone and banners to identify ourselves as international nonviolent activists we moved forward to confront the bulldozers.

For two hours we attempted at great risk to ourselves to obstruct and frustrate the bulldozers in their work. One activist from the U.S was trapped underneath barbed wire. The bulldozers seemed to be concentrating on ploughing up the land in front of the buildings whilst making occasional runs at houses. There were two bulldozers one marked 94 serial number 949623 the other 95 serial no. 949645. There was one tank but I do not recall its number. I noted these numbers prior to the incident.

At approximately 16:45 a bulldozer began making a straight run at a house which I now know to belong to a doctor Izmir [sic: Dr. Samir]. At this point the majority of the group were positioned around a wrecked building. We were all within 70 metres of each other. I was to the left of the ruined building and to the right of Dr. [Samir]’s house. Rachel was approximately 15 metres in front of me.

The ground was level and the light was good, I had a good view of everything which happened. Rachel was wearing an orange fluorescent jacket with reflective strips (the type worn by construction workers for high visibility and the avoidance of accidents). Rachel stood to confront the bulldozer and it approached her at about five or six miles an hour. The blade on the bulldozer was dipped into the ground and was scooping up soil.

As the bulldozer came nearer the pile mounted up. Rachel climbed up the pile and at the one stage was looking into the cabin window. There is no way that the driver could not have known she was there. The bulldozer continued driving forwards and Rachel turned round to face in my direction.

She began to slide down the pile, however as soon as her feet touched the ground for some reason she fell forward. Maybe her foot was caught or the weight of the soil pushed her forward. At this point the panic on her face was obvious.

We were all shouting, screaming and gesturing by this stage. The earth was totally pushed over her, engulfing her. She was lost to my sight. I noticed that the driver had not lifted the blade. The machine rolled straight over her and continued for a little way. It then reversed over her and retreated about twenty metres. Rachel was left in its tracks, bleeding from her mouth and twisted.

The tank came over to where she was briefly and then retreated to the border fence with the two bulldozers. At no point did any member of the Israeli forces enquire as to Rachel’s well-being or offer any assistance.

Eventually we were able to call an ambulance and one arrived shortly. Rachel was taken to hospital in Rafah, where I heard she had died.

I certify that this is a true account to the best of my recollection.

R.J.A. Purssell
16 March 2003

JOE SMITH EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

United States citizen from Kansas City, MO, USA, born 25 April 1981.

I have never experienced anything like this in my life. I’ve never had someone close to me die before, let alone be brutally murdered right in front of my eyes. I don’t even know how to react. I went through stages of dumbfounded shock and serious crying fits. I had no chance to be alone at all, I was either surrounded by Palestinians or on the phone with media. I chose the latter. I was doing interviews non-stop starting 30 min. after her death, all the way until midnight, and then starting again at 6am and continuing all day today. I literally would never hang up the phone, just switch to an incoming call on call waiting. When I did finnally get a second to breath, I’d have like 30 missed calls.

Anyway, it was a bit therapeutic I think, telling the story over and over, and interviews make me feel [as if I was doing something] important [in the aftermath]. All this thing is is a media event now, so we must continue a campaign as hard as possible before the new and bigger tragedy, the Iraq war, begins. The few hours I had off interviews last night between midnight and 4am, was spent organizing today’s events, press conferences, live TV/radio interviews, a demonstration and the begginings of the traditional Palestinian 3-day ceremony. Now we’re preparing for a serious influx of people from the West Bank and Israel, as well as some people from abroad, possibly including her family.

The stress is really getting to me. I couldn’t sleep for the 2 hours I was allowed because my body won’t relax. My heart is racing and shake a lot, and even have trouble breathing. My jaw is the worst though. It won’t losen to save my life, and it hurts like hell, especially when I chew (when i get time to grab a falafel sandwhich). I’ve never experienced physical stress and tension like this.

We thought this might happen eventually. We often spoke in the abstract that eventually one of us would get killed, but we always figured they’d shoot us, or it’d be an “accident”, like in a house that is missiled or a stray bullet gets an unlucky activist. I never dreamed it’d be like this, the intentional crushing of a human being.

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. I don’t feel like telling the whole detailed story right now. I promise that for the record I will tell it in detail, but give me a few days. I just want to quickly dispel a few myths you may have heard in the media. She did not “trip and fall” in front of the bulldozer. She sat down in front of it, well in advance, wearing one of the orange flouro jackets I got in Amsterdam. (By the way, I took the pictures you may have seen of her, standing with the megaphone in front of the bulldozer, and the ones of her friends helping her.)

He clearly saw her, and continued to drive until she was forced onto the top of the dirt he was pushing, elevating her so much that she was at eye level with the bulldozer’s cab, he could see right into her eyes. He continued forward, pulling her underneath the dirt, and out of his vision. He continued forward, crushing her underneath the weight of the blade. He continued forward, until she was well underneath the bulldozer. It was then quite clear that she was nowhere but underneath him, but he proceded to back up, without lifting the blade, crushing her again.

I believe that it was the combination of these two crushings together that caused her death. She was defending the house of a physician. We’ve all stayed in the house, we know that there are no weapons of any kind there. Just a middle aged doctor and his lovely family. They want to demolish it because it happens to lie near the border, and they’re systematically demolishing all the houses near the border. It has nothing to do with retaliatory or preventative operations. They were not searching for tunnels or bombs either. We know what this looks like, they do it a lot. It involves armored drills and bomb dogs and shooting at the ground, none of which was present here.

It’s just a further example of the Israeli military’s blatant lies. There was never any gunfire from any Palestinians, the only gunfire came from the tank, when it shot at the ground a few times in order to scare us. But even this was extremely minimal. The Palestinian that was killed was in a totally seperate area of Rafah, and was killed by blanket fire into the area, not in a gun battle. It is quite unfortunate that his death probably wouldn’t even be reported anywhere if it weren’t for [what happened to] Rachel. The Palestinians have been incredible. They are quite used to this, as thousands of their people have died. Indeed, I now know how every Palestinian family feels, as many of them have lost multiple freinds and family to this occupation.

Their support has been invaluable, however; they’ve gone to full lengths to give her a proper demonstration and ceremony, like they give every other Shahid (martyr). They’ve made a nice poster of her as well, which will be posted in all of the places she has been, and there’s going to be a big march and demonstration this afternoon. We’re planning actions for the comming days as well. We’re planning to occupy the murder sight, and line the whole area with flowers, and erect a nice visible memorial as well. I don’t know what this means for us now.

It could go one of two ways. It could make us more effective, because now they know that we are not going to move, and that we will risk our safety to oppose them. Thus they will be forced to be more careful, and withdraw sooner. Or, it could mean that they no longer care, and will willfully kill and injure us without hesitation. This would render us useless as human shields, and our work would be impossible. So we’ll have to see.

I know we’ll be much more careful, and have long talks about tactics, and what people are still comfortable with. I have a lot of thinking and considering to do. But we’re not leaving, that’s for sure. We’re dedicated to staying here, especially with the Iraq war and the risk of a full invasion of Gaza. If any of you heard anything else and have questions, I’d gladly respond to them.

[…] I’m sure you’ll keep me in your thoughts, I need all the energy I can get as I deal with this trauma. My close friends and family have been wonderful, and haven’t freaked out on me like I thought they would. But I share their concern. Ok, I must go to the press conference.

Joe Smith
17 March 2003