Activist’s Death in Gaza Moved Atlanta Cousin to Push Palestinian Rights

“Rachel Corrie was my cousin.”

With those words, Elizabeth Corrie, an administrator and teacher at the Lovett School in Atlanta, thrust herself into one of the world’s most volatile situations — the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

On March 30, Elizabeth Corrie went to Piedmont Park, where a group was observing Land Day, referred to in Arabic as Yom al Ardh. It’s the day set aside by Palestinians to commemorate and protest what they refer to as the “theft” of “Arab land” by Israel.

She said she went to learn more about the struggle that had taken her cousin’s life and to pass out fliers. Instead — shortly after identifying herself — Corrie found herself in front of a microphone talking about Rachel.

Earlier that month, Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old from Olympia, Wash., was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer as she protested the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Her death made international headlines.

Since that day in Piedmont Park, Elizabeth Corrie has found herself in the spotlight as well. Corrie, who sometimes wears a pin with a black-and-white photograph of her cousin, has spoken to groups around the city about her cousin and the plight of Palestinians. She has called the White House and written letters to Congress. Each day, she has vowed to do something to keep Rachel’s memory alive and to seek answers about her death.

In a political hot zone

Rachel’s death “radicalized me to do something,” said Elizabeth Corrie, who considers herself a private person but who has deliberately placed herself in a political hot zone.

“Rachel is a way for the average American person to begin to understand what’s going on in the occupied territories,” said Corrie, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and moved to Atlanta in 1993 to attend Emory University. “For the most part, people don’t really know what’s going on. It’s just not covered that much in the news. We can relate to her because she’s like us. Young people especially relate to her.”

In the living room of her Candler Park apartment, Corrie thumbs through a blue binder filled with articles, photographs of Rachel and her e-mails, some of which were published in London’s Guardian newspaper after her death.

Corrie said when speaking to students, she tries to focus on Rachel’s life and not become too political. But in speaking to adults, politics is difficult to avoid.

“I know I have a bias,” she said.

When she first learned of her cousin’s death, Corrie said she was “not in an emotional state to be very public.” Later, upon hearing about the event in the park, she thought it might be a good way to meet people involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights.

Corrie was aware of the Middle East conflict, but her main focus had been on Northern Ireland, which she felt was “compelling.” The conflict was steeped in religion, and “that interested me,” said Corrie, who studied theology at Emory.

She had visited Northern Ireland several times as a graduate student and as part of the Ulster Project — a program that tries to provide a student exchange for Irish and American students.

Interest in world issues

Corrie said she and Rachel were relatively close although they lived in different states and were a little more than eight years apart in age. Each summer, they, and other family members, would spend time at their grandmother’s cabin in Aitkin, Minn.

She was struck by her cousin’s interest in world issues as they became adults. But it didn’t come as a surprise. When Rachel was 10, she made an impassioned speech before the Washington Legislature urging an end to world hunger by 2000. As a youngster, she also organized a student walkout in solidarity with striking teachers. Her father worried about her missing class, but Rachel was adamant that the walkout couldn’t be canceled. Why? She had already called the press.

“She was always concerned about the underdog,” Corrie said.

Rachel grew up in Olympia, a liberal city with a strong environmental activist community. Her father, a Vietnam vet, and her mother were against war and had a strong belief in nonviolence, which they passed down to their children.

Corrie said she hadn’t talked to her cousin in a while. Then she got an e-mail from Rachel telling her that she was going to the Gaza Strip as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group whose members often served as “human shields” between the Palestinians and the Israeli army. Rachel asked Corrie if she could be listed on her emergency contact list. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing?’ “

Corrie said she thinks her cousin became interested in the Palestinian movement while a student at Evergreen State College, where she was taught by an Israeli-born professor who was very active about Palestinian rights. She thinks Rachel may have also met someone at Evergreen who was a movement member.

“The more she learned, the more she felt called to act,” she said. But she was worried as well. “Oh, yeah, Rachel was scared. She was scared to go, but she felt this was something she had to do.”

As for Corrie, “I started educating myself as fast as I could,” she said. Corrie got on special e-mail lists and regularly checked Web sites for information about the conflict.

Corrie said that not long before Rachel was killed, she tried to send a message to her cousin telling her that Corrie’s church, Druid Hills United Methodist Church, was praying for her. “I never thought this would happen,” she said of Rachel’s death. “This was just so brutal. So brutal.”

The Israeli authorities have described Rachel Corrie’s death as an accident. They said they would investigate what happened the day an Israeli bulldozer ran her over.

Elizabeth Corrie said that as she started becoming more involved in her cousin’s cause, she has had to be careful to make sure she doesn’t become “anti-Israeli.”

She said she has met many Israelis and Jewish people in the United States who want to see a peaceful solution to the conflict and want to see equal rights for Palestinians and an end to the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

“I’m hugely supportive of the Jewish people, and I understand that they feel under threat. They have been persecuted [by other governments], and it’s real. But I don’t support violence. I would condemn suicide bombers as well as Israel for violence,” said Corrie.

Corrie isn’t sure she wants to meet the driver of the bulldozer. But she wonders if he feels some remorse. “He’s also a victim. He’s grown up in a culture that has taught him to hate Palestinians.”

Someday, Corrie hopes to visit the site where Rachel died. She wants to meet some of the families she lived with, and she hopes to visit a women’s empowerment center in the Gaza Strip that now bears Rachel’s name.

Until then, she plans to keep Rachel’s memory alive.

“Frankly, activism is a very fulfilling way to live,” she said. “It’s scary at times when you have to take an unpopular stand. My life has changed forever.”