A year has passed since Rachel Corrie, a 23 year-old American peace activist from Olympia, Washington, was killed by an Israel army bulldozer while nonviolently trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian house in the city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip.
During this time, the Israeli government has strenuously sought to obscure the circumstances of Rachel’s death and prevent an independent investigation. It has even refused to release its June 2003 military police investigation final report to the United States, only allowing an American embassy official to read and take notes from selected parts.
Yet what is even worse is that in response to mounting international criticism of Israel’s 37-year military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s current defenders have concocted a new security threat to justify Israeli policies: international activists who engage in nonviolent activism on behalf of Palestinian human rights.
Israel’s new security threat, according to this story, is led by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a small and mostly youthful group of international activists who travel to the Occupied Palestinian Territories to engage in nonviolent resistance against the Israeli occupation and attempt to reduce Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians.
Israeli officials and their colleagues in the US have leveled a bewildering assortment of accusations regarding ISM activities, including the predictable charge of aiding and abetting Palestinian terrorism. The Israeli army raided the ISM offices in Beit Sahour on May 9 2003, confiscating files and computers, but they have yet to make any formal charges. Perhaps there is not even enough evidence to fabricate any of their charges?
This defamation campaign against the ISM gained in scope and vitriol following the March 16, 2003 death of Rachel Corrie, an American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer while defending a Palestinian home from demolition in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. Another ISM activist Tom Hurndall, a British international, was shot in the head and left brain-dead weeks later in Rafah, and other ISM activists have been shot and wounded in the past year. Hurndall was recently pronounced dead.
But it is Rachel Corrie’s death that has become the subject of the most intensely defensive and vicious attacks by Israel’s most vociferous apologists, including a recent editorial in the right-wing Jerusalem Post. These attacks, in effect, mirror the outpouring of sympathy and support for Rachel and her actions around the world, and most significantly, in Palestine, where she has been embraced and memorialized in posters and youth centers.
Israeli apologists have excoriated Rachel as a tragically misguided young idealist or worse; a stooge of terrorists and perhaps their willing accomplice. Many have disgracefully applauded her death, even in correspondences to her parents.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of her death, it is necessary to review and debunk several of the most frequent propaganda claims about Rachel that continue to circulate.
1. “It was an accident…”
The initial Israeli army claim that Rachel’s death was an “unfortunate accident” is contradicted by overwhelming evidence from at six eyewitnesses who testify that Rachel was clearly visible to the bulldozer drivers with her bright orange jacket and that it lifted her up and then drove over her with its plow down, even as her fellow activists shouted and ran towards the bulldozer.
The Israeli military maintains that the bulldozer operators could not see Rachel-although there were two people in each bulldozer and two other bulldozers and an APC at the site in close radio contact. The other activists who were present that day stated that prior to Rachel’s death, the bulldozers stopped several times directly at their feet. This raises serious questions about the Israeli army claims of poor visibility.
Israeli officials have subsequently shifted their story from denying that Rachel was run over by the bulldozer, to now maintaining that Rachel was not actually touched by the bulldozer but killed by falling on a concrete block, which is contradicted by the Israeli autopsy report the Corrie family was able to obtain.
Some Israeli apologists incessantly point out that photographs posted on several websites by ISM activists show pictures of Rachel in two different locations confronting bulldozers, which they somehow take as proof that eyewitness accounts cannot be believed. It is true that there are several pictures from different locations posted on some websites, but only through twisting logic can one conclude that this has any bearing on the actual circumstances of Rachel’s death that day.
If Rachel’s critics were really serious about getting at the truth, they would join the rest of the world in calling for an independent investigation into Rachel’s death, which Israel refuses to countenance, so that the glaring discrepancies between the Israeli army whitewash and eyewitness accounts can be clarified.
2. “She was defending terrorists who smuggle weapons through tunnels to kill Israelis”
While no one disputes the existence of a small number of tunnels in Rafah that funnel weapons to militants, Israeli security claims about the need to destroy Rafah in order to find tunnels are little more than crude propaganda. Moreover, callous claims that Rachel was knowingly defending tunnels and suicide bombers illustrate the depths many Israeli sympathizers will plumb to defend the indefensible.
First, the Israeli army has never claimed nor provided any evidence that Dr. Samir Nasrallah, whose house Rachel was defending, or anyone else in this neighborhood, were concealing any tunnels or were engaged in any attacks on Israelis.
Second, any weapons that get through tunnels are only used in guerrilla actions against soldiers and settlers within the Gaza Strip, not against civilians within Israel. One of the main arguments Israeli officials use to justify building the barrier in the West Bank is the fact that no Palestinian suicide bombers have come from Gaza in the past three years. Gaza is surrounded by a heavily monitored 52-kilometer (30-mile) electrified fence that keeps its 1.3 million impoverished Palestinians isolated from the world. Gaza is arguably the world’s largest open-air prison, not a threat to Israeli civilians.
Third, the primary reason Palestinian homes in Rafah are being demolished daily by Israeli bulldozers is to make way for a massive 6-meter high steel wall Israel is building along the Egyptian border with Rafah, not tunnels. According to United Nation’s officials, over the past three years Israel has destroyed nearly 900 houses in Rafah in order to create a one hundred meter “buffer zone” between Palestinian homes and the wall. Daily shelling and armed raids over the past three years have killed nearly 300 Palestinians and have left more than 8,600 people homeless.
The fact that Israel possesses ample equipment to discover and unearth these tunnels without resorting to widespread destruction and violence makes it clear that the ultimate goal of house demolitions in Rafah is to clear land for the wall. The governor of Rafah, Majid Ghal, rejects Israel’s claims about tunnels as nonsense. “What they are doing is to carve out a buffer zone between Rafah and the border. The Israelis have always said they do not want Palestine to control its borders or to have borders with other countries. They are trying to drive people out.”
The Israeli army denies any such motive but as The Guardian’s Chris McGreal reported on October 27, 2003, even the previous head of the military’s southern command for Gaza, Colonel Yom Tov Samya, has admitted that Israel’s house demolitions policy was an end in itself, not a by-product of a search for tunnels. “The IDF (Israeli Defence Force) has to knock down all the houses along a strip of 300 to 400 metres. It doesn’t matter what the future settlement will be, this will be the border with Egypt.”
The massive steel wall that killed Rachel, and has destroyed the lives of thousands of Palestinians in Rafah, is being built for one reason: to protect the security of the 7,000 Israeli settlers with green lawns and swimming pools who illegally occupy 30 percent of Gaza’s land. These settlements, along with dozens of military fortresses and Jewish-only bypass roads effectively divide Gaza into 3 sealed areas or ghettos, where a powerful army, with hundreds of tanks, attack helicopters, F-16s and overwhelming firepower largely operates with impunity against the civilian population. Their mission, protect the Israeli settlements. The wall built on the border signals that Israel plans to retain most, if not all of them, regardless of any settlement.
3. “If she really cared about human rights, she would ride with Israeli buses to protect Israeli citizens against suicide bombings”
Suicide bombings are vicious and grave abuses, war crimes under international law for intentionally killing civilians. But many Israeli attacks on Palestinians and their civilian infrastructure in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza, and such practices as using Palestinians as “human shields” and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, also constitute war-crimes for killing and targeting civilians. Both must be unequivocally condemned. Unfortunately, Rachel’s critics are typically silent about Israel’s atrocious record.
But from a human rights perspective, the main point, however, is that the Palestinian civilian population is illegally occupied by Israel and victimized in far greater numbers than Israel’s with no real ability to protect itself. In the past three years nearly 3000 Palestinian civilians were killed as opposed to nearly 600 Israeli civilians. In addition, the Palestinian population is being subjected to a debilitating military siege punctuated by brutal military assaults and assassinations that has led to a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe.
No more so that in Rafah, where in addition to demolishing hundreds of homes, razing agricultural lands, destroying electrical infrastructure and terrorizing the population through nightly raids and sniper fire, the Israeli army has destroyed at least 10 major water wells upon which the Rafah municipality depends for pumping drinking water to residents.
The severity of this imbalance and the corresponding lack of protection for Palestinian civilians against grave human rights abuses committed by Israel had led to attempts to convene meetings of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva convention with the express intention of preventing Israeli violations of the Conventions in July 1999 and December 2001. In an official statement on this issue on December 5, 2001, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson called for an international monitoring presence in the occupied Palestinian territories stressing that:
“the failure of successive Israeli government to comply with the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention and international human rights standards, has left the population of occupied Palestinian territories in a vulnerable situation, lacking protection and exposed to a wide range of violations. Protection needs to be accorded to the people of the occupied territories in strict compliance with the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
Needless to say, the United States, acting on Israel’s request rejected the proposal, leading to the creation of the International Solidarity Movement and its small-scale efforts to undertake this urgent task of defending Palestinian civilians against heavy odds. People like Rachel are actually those most truly committed to the international human rights agenda because their efforts are most desperately needed.
4. “She burned an American flag in an anti-American demonstration…”
Israeli apologists frequently circulate a picture of Rachel burning an American flag at a Palestinian demonstration, as if to prove that she was an irresponsible promoter of anti-American hatred. But according to several accounts, Rachel found herself in the middle of a routine demonstration by Palestinian youth against the impending US war on Iraq and was pressed to burn a homemade paper Israeli and American flag, agreeing only to the second on the grounds that as a US citizen she could only bear responsibility for opposing US actions.
Yet the most important point that her critics miss is that the symbol of an American questioning her government’s policy in the Middle East is extremely important and highly beneficial to Americans in general. It is very important for Americans to show people in this region that America is not monolithic and that some American civilians strongly disagree with their government’s policies. Lack of exposure to these voices is a major factor that increases the likelihood of terrorism and animosity towards American citizens.
Compared to the immensely dangerous impact on regional public opinion of the widely disseminated images of U.S. Marines placing flags on Iraqi government symbols during the recent war, Rachel’s act appears altruistic. Americans should be thankful for people like Rachel who uphold deeply rooted American values about freedom from illegitimate domination and for presenting a progressive image to the world.
Steve Niva teaches international politics and Middle East Studies at The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington.