One year ago today 23-year-old Rachel Corrie was killed. This striking young American, representing the values of the American people if not its current government, was run over by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting house demolitions in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah.
Rachel was the first international to be killed while peacefully protesting illegal Israeli military actions in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) interviewed Palestinian and international witnesses in the aftermath of Rachel’s brutal death. These witnesses consistently confirmed that Rachel was unarmed and standing in the way of a bulldozer, which ran over her and then backed up over her fallen body. The horrifying incident occurred in the presence of Rachel’s eight American and British colleagues who screamed for the Israeli soldiers to stop.
Israeli military forces offered no help. Indeed, such cavalier disregard for civilians by Israeli forces is commonplace.
Rachel was a first in that she was the first American opponent of the occupation to be slain while demonstrating. But she is only one of the thousands of civilian casualties resulting from Israeli military actions in the territories. As of March 3, 2004, over 2,700 Palestinians had been killed in the current Intifada, and more than 25,000 injured — the majority of them civilians.
We document these abuses every day. The U.S. State Department itself in its Human Rights Report on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories stated that Israel had committed serious human rights abuses.
Many Palestinians have been victims of “targeted killings.” The official Israeli governmental policy of extra-judicial assassinations is absolutely illegal. As recently as March 7 Israeli officials spoke of their “pinpointed” military strikes on Palestinian targets in refugee camps. But if this is the case then why were several Palestinian children killed? And why in all of 2003 were more civilian bystanders killed in such “targeted killings” than actual targets? The rhetoric of Israeli officials does not withstand close scrutiny and would not in Rachel’s case if a proper investigation were ever to be launched.
In recent months the frequency of large-scale house demolitions has sharply increased. Almost 3,000 homes have been totally or partially demolished in the Occupied Territories since the beginning of the current Intifada. Thousands of Palestinians have been rendered homeless and destitute. In Rafah, where Rachel was staying, the situation is especially dire. PCHR Rafah fieldworkers report that Israeli occupying forces have demolished 1,615 homes since September 2000. Entire neighborhoods no longer exist.
Following Rachel’s death, Israeli authorities have increased restrictions on internationals entering the Occupied Territories, particularly the Gaza Strip, further hindering human rights monitoring. Clearly, Israeli authorities fear international monitoring of their actions, and are taking increasingly dubious measures to constrict independent monitoring. PCHR has submitted thousands of carefully documented legal complaints against Israeli military policies in the Occupied Territories to Israeli courts, and despite small victories in some cases, there has been no substantial progress towards greater respect for Palestinian civilians’ human rights.
The question of Palestine is not merely one of land ownership and acceptance of the other. It represents the international community’s commitment to implementing international humanitarian and human rights law. Since the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories in 1967, Israel has consistently refused to accept de jure applicability of international humanitarian law in the Occupied Territories. The applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War is indisputable in international law, and is thus applicable to Israel, to which it is a state party.
Israel’s assassinations, Apartheid Wall, and appalling disregard for Palestinian civilians clearly place it outside of international law. Rachel Corrie came to fight these injustices, yet she has been savaged all over again by defenders of Israel’s occupation and left undefended by even her own government.
Her death has proven insufficient to shock the international community from its lethargic slumber. What will it take? We at PCHR can document it all and point to every legal detail upholding our rights as Palestinians, but the government of the United States can block all of these principled efforts.
Rachel’s death, however, raises the stakes. How long can the United States government uphold a policy that is antithetical to the principles of more and more young Americans who are standing for our rights? Rachel was right. No people should abuse and dominate another for decade after decade. Yet one year after her tragic death, that occupation continues with no end in sight.
Raji Sourani is the Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 29 Omar al-Mukhtar St, PO Box 1328, Gaza City, Gaza Strip via Israel. Tel: +972-8-282-4776/5893/3725.