Rachel Corrie: Detailed eyewitness account, remembrance, and thoughts about the future

My name is Joseph Smith, I am 21 years old and from Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

I have been working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Rafah for over two months and plan to stay for at least another month. I then plan to do peace work for one month in Israel before returning to the United States. Once home, I will attempt to spread the word about what is happening in Palestine and in Rafah, through speaking tours and media work. I will also be active in organizing demonstrations and other events in attempts to apply pressure and raise awareness about this conflict and other race and war issues. I plan to continue my college education in the fall, as a junior at Grinnell College in Grinnell, IA. I will study history and theatre.

Above: International Solidarity Movement, www.palsolidarity.org. Click to visit the site.

ISM is a Palestinian-led grassroots organization that facilitates the participation of international volunteers in non-violent direct action resistance to the Israeli occupation. We work and live in Palestinian communities, and get a first-hand account of the violence to which they are subjected every day by the Israeli military. We are in solidarity with them, as we share in their suffering and take some of the risks that they are unfortunately compelled to live with. It is important for us to show that the world has not forgotten these people, and that individuals from all over the world are willing to interrupt their comfortable lives to come and risk themselves for the sake of Palestinians.

Through this work we attempt to make links between Palestine and the outside world. We use our personal contacts, the international media, and our embassies to draw international attention to the Palestinian plight. And we work as observers of the immense human rights violations being committed by Israel, documenting Israeli atrocities and rights’ violations with established human rights organizations. Indeed, sometimes we are the only internationals present in this area. This is true for Rafah, as international media and UN officials are afraid to live and work here.

I chose to come to Palestine and work with ISM because I felt it was one of the best ways for me to use my privilege as a white middle-class American male to directly serve people of color who are under-privileged due to the Israeli and other Western governments, especially mine. I have dedicated my life to serving such people, as I believe my over-privilege is a direct result of their under-privilege. I have benefited from their suffering, and this must stop.

The following is my account of the events of Sunday, 16 March, the day of Rachel Corrie’s murder.

11:00-13:00

ISM members protect a water well in Gaza. On the right, Rachel Corrie. (ISM Handout)

We were split into two groups, one working as human shields for water workers at the Canada water well in Tel es-Sultan and the other doing the same for electricity workers in Hyy es-Salaam. It is dangerous for these workers to work near the border, as Israeli tanks patrol it and will often shoot at any Palestinian in sight, including civilian workers and children playing.

13:00-13:30

Hyy es-Salaam activists noticed that two Israeli Army bulldozers and one tank have entered onto Palestinian civilian property near the border and are demolishing farmland and other previously damaged structures. The military machinery was severely threatening nearby homes, so the three activists went up onto the roof of one home, and then called for others to come.

13:30-14:00

I arrived, and one of the three activists in the house joined me on the ground. The bulldozers moved away from the house that activists were occupying, so the other two joined us, and we began to disrupt the work of the bulldozers. We moved slowly at first, just standing near the area of their activity, and then sat and stood on a partially built house that appeared to be threatened.

One bulldozer began to damage part of the structure on which we were standing, so a Scottish activist began standing and sitting on the edge of the structure, and made it impossible for the bulldozer to work without injuring him.

At this point, Rachel and the two other activists who had been at the water well, joined us, bringing a banner and a megaphone. Rachel and a British activist were wearing fluorescent orange jackets with reflective striping.

14:00-15:00

Our press office informed the British and American embassies that Israeli Army bulldozers were behaving aggressively, and were endangering the lives of British and American citizens, but they took no action.

The bulldozer continued to try to damage the structure further, and we continued to get in its way. At one point, a concrete pillar almost fell on the Scottish activist, but he moved just in time. We were worried that the two houses behind this structure would be targeted, so we placed one activist on the roof of each house. I went onto the roof of the house closest to the structure.

Rachel Corrie confronts an Israeli bulldozer on 16 March 2003, Rafah, Gaza. Photo by Joe Smith.


Rachel and two other activists began interfering with the other bulldozer, which was attempting to destroy grass and other plants on what used to be farmland. They stood and sat in its path, and though it would drive very close to them, and even move the earth on which they were sitting, it always stopped in time to avoid injuring them.

After about 10 minutes, both bulldozers gave up, withdrew to the border, and parked facing the houses, one on either side of the tank. I stayed on the roof, as the rest of the activists gathered to face the military machinery, and held an “International Solidarity Movement” banner, while Rachel shouted at them with a megaphone.

Soldiers in the tank yelled obscenities at us, and told us to leave. They fired a few warning shots at the ground, and then fired a teargas canister. The wind blew the gas east of us; it never came close to a single activist. After a few more minutes of this confrontation, the bulldozers began driving east together along the border strip, and we thought they might have finally given up. Just in case, five of the activists walked on the Palestinian land, following the bulldozers. The other activist and I came down out of our houses. He joined the others, and I joined Rachel who had stayed with the tank in order to speak to the soldiers over the megaphone. They requested that she approach the tank, but she refused due their rude and aggressive behavior.

15:00-16:00

Rachel is clearly marked. Photo by Joe Smith.

We noticed that the bulldozers had incurred again onto Palestinian land, and the six activists were opposing them, so we left the tank to join them. During this round, one bulldozer pushed Will, an American activist, up against a pile of barbed wire. Fortunately, the bulldozer stopped and withdrew just in time to avoid injuring him seriously, but we had to dig him out of the rubble, and unhook his clothing from the wire. The tank approached to see if he was okay. One soldier stuck his head out of the tank to see, and he looked quite shocked and dumbfounded, but said nothing.

16:00-16:45

We climbed onto some already damaged structures that were threatened, and kept the bulldozers from incurring any further onto Palestinian land. The bulldozer drivers began waving at us, making faces, laughing, and shouting what sounded like lewd comments. One even removed his helmet and posed for a picture, which unfortunately didn’t turn out.

16:45-17:00

One bulldozer, serial number 949623, began to work near the house of a physician who is a friend of ours, and in whose house Rachel and other activists often stayed. While we occupied the other structures directly west (the closest was less than 5 meters away and the furthest was less than 25 meters away), Rachel sat down in the pathway of the bulldozer.

I was elevated about 2 meters above the ground, and had a clear view of the action happening about 20 meters away. Still wearing her fluorescent jacket, she sat down at least 15 meters in front of the bulldozer, and began waving her arms and shouting, just as activists had successfully done dozens of times that day.

The bulldozer continued driving forward headed straight for Rachel. When it got so close that it was moving the earth beneath her, she climbed onto the pile of rubble being pushed by the bulldozer. She got so high onto it that she was at eye-level with the cab of the bulldozer. Her head and upper torso were above the bulldozer’s blade, and the bulldozer driver and co-operator could clearly see her. Despite this, he continued forward, which pulled her legs into the pile of rubble, and pulled her down out of view of the driver. If he’d stopped at this point, he may have only broken her legs, but he continued forward, which pulled her underneath the bulldozer.

We ran towards him, and waved our arms and shouted, one activist with the megaphone. But the bulldozer driver continued forward, until Rachel was underneath the cab of the bulldozer. At this point, it was more than clear that she was nowhere but underneath the bulldozer, there was simply nowhere else she could have been, as she had not appeared on either side of the bulldozer, and could not have stayed in front of it that long without being crushed.

Rachel crushed, as the bulldozer driver that killed her retreats. Photo by Richard Purssell

Despite the obviousness of her position, the bulldozer began to reverse, without lifting its blade, and dragged the blade over her body again. He continued to reverse until he was on the border strip, about 100 meters away, and left her crushed body in the sand.

Three activists ran to her and began administering first-response medical treatment. Her body was in a mangled position, her face was very bloody, and her skin was turning blue. She said, “My back is broken!,” but nothing else. The three activists took care to keep her neck straight, and turned her to her side in case of vomit or blood from the mouth.

Rachel, fatally crushed. Photo by Joe Smith.

She was showing signs of brain hemmoraging (I found out later from the British medical activist), so they elevated her head in order to allow it to drain blood, as this injury was more serious than simply a spinal injury. They continued to talk to her in attempts to keep her conscious.

The other bulldozer, which had been working about 30 meters to the west, abandoned work and withdrew to the border strip, and parked about 10 meters to the west of the murderous bulldozer. The tank came over to see what had happened, and I shouted that they had run over our friend, and that she may die. The soldiers in the tank never spoke to us, nor did they ask us any questions or offer us any help. They simply talked on their radio and then withdrew to the border strip and parked between the two bulldozers.

One activist ran to the doctor’s house less than 5 meters away to ask for his help and to call an ambulance. I also called a Palestinian friend and asked him to call an ambulance, as our Orange network cell phones cannot dial the emergency number. An activist used the megaphone to inform the soldiers that a Palestinian ambulance was on the way, and demanded that they not shoot at the paramedics. He also told them that a Palestinian doctor is present and is going to come out into the area.

The doctor came out and suggested that we move her, but it was clear that we could not. He used cotton swabs to dab some of the blood coming from her face.

17:00-17:15

The ambulance arrived. The Palestinian paramedics risked their lives to come out onto the border strip and put her onto a stretcher. We worked as human shields for them, and tried to make it difficult for the tank to fire at the ambulance workers, as they have at many others in the past.

While the paramedics loaded Rachel onto a stretcher, one activist suggested that I get a good picture that clearly showed the serial number of the bulldozer responsible. I walked all the way out to the border strip, passed the tank, and began photographing the bulldozer. The tank soldier hollered something at me, and the bulldozer began driving in such a way as to prevent me from seeing the side of the bulldozer that displayed the serial number, or the side windows from which one might see the drivers.

Despite their clever maneuvering, I managed to get several pictures of the serial number, but the tinted windows on the machine did not allow me to get a decent photo of the driver. By the time I’d finished, the paramedics were carrying Rachel on a stretcher to the ambulance. She was still breathing at this point, and her eyes were open, but she was clearly in a great deal of pain. Four activists piled into the ambulance with Rachel and the paramedics and were rushed to Al Nejar Hospital. She was brought directly to the emergency room, and was in there when I arrived in a taxi.

17:20

She was pronounced dead and was wheeled out of the emergency room with a white sheet covering her head.

“It’s over”. Al-Najjar Hospital, Rafah. (Mohammad Al-Moghair)

“It’s over,” said Mohammed with tears in his eyes. He was a close Palestinian friend of hers and mine, and a trusted member of our group. I couldn’t believe it. It was so unreal. There was a part of me that couldn’t accept that she was gone. It had all happened so fast, I was in complete shock. I became less emotional than I’d been since the incident. I was just dumbfounded. As others began to cry, I joined in, and was on international television being comforted by the before-mentioned Mohammed. But I have yet to even come close to expressing the emotion that is built up inside me.

Aftermath

I’m still having trouble accepting that it’s real. I keep remembering small things about her, for instance, that she liked juice, and used to wear this ridiculous pink jump suit that was given to her by a Palestinian woman. I’ve started smoking cigarettes since her death, and I’m constantly telling the story of how Rachel had quit smoking for a year before coming to Rafah, but started again the night she arrived, while staying in a tent along the border that came under heavy tank fire. One of the bullets being fired around the tent in attempts to frighten them actually hit the top of the tent. She’d smoked ever since, and how I wish that she’d lived long enough to die of lung cancer. Perhaps now I will, instead.

Few activists actually come to Palestine planning to come to Rafah. In fact, many have to be talked into it, as the West Bank has gotten so much more publicity. But Rachel had heard about Rafah from a good friend of hers who’d spent time here a few months ago, and he told her about how neglected Rafah is by the world, and by the activist community. She was also aware of how dangerous Rafah is. In fact, more people have been killed per-capita in Rafah than any other place in Palestine. So not only is it the most dangerous place, but it is also considered the poorest city in all of Palestine, a country considered one of the poorest in the world. Rafah is one of the poorest and most dangerous places in the world, and Rachel made a bee-line straight for it.

Rachel and I actually went to the same college, but were only acquaintances, so I nearly flipped when I got a random email from her telling me that she is coming to Palestine and planning to come directly to Rafah. The coincidence was incredible, plus I was excited to have another activist joining us for the long-term, especially one with her kind of dedication and initiative.

Rachel planned to stay in Rafah for at least four months, maybe more, in order to set up a sister-city relationship with her hometown of Olympia, Washington. Olympia has several relationships of this kind, and they basically consist of a relationship between the people and institutions of each city. Schools, hospitals, governments, businesses, and many individuals provide services for and interactions between the two “sisters”.

She had made dozens of contacts with individuals and organizations in the Rafah community. Her eventual goal was to bring groups of Olympians to Rafah, and maybe even someday groups of Rafians to Olympia. It was a beautiful dream, one that I intend on attempting to continue in memory of her.

Rachel Corrie

That type of project is representative of Rachel’s personality. She had an incredible amount of initiative, and was willing and able to invent and carry through all kinds of creative and challenging projects. I had the privilege of meeting her during one of these such projects. Olympia has this fabulous event called “Procession of the Species,” an annual parade featuring community members of all ages, races, classes and political affiliations. Each participant constructs a costume or a puppet of any shape, size, or color that represents a particular species, i.e., plants and animals. In April of 2002, during the Afghanistan war, Rachel decided to organize a group of people to dress as doves, in symbolic protest of this and all wars.

She made signs, called people, sent out numerous emails, and set up workshops for people to coordinate their efforts. I had experience making large backpack puppets, and other large and mobile structures, so she found me and asked for my help; I agreed, of course. I found her incredibly passionate and organized, as well as a lot of fun and remarkably creative. She was responsible for over 30 doves in that parade, including one that was over 12 feet tall, and a huge one on a bicycle. Her message was clear, and creatively expressed.

This is more than representative of her personality and style of organizing. I can’t get over how much fun she was. She could be totally spontaneous and random at times, and her sarcasm always brought a laugh. She truly made a huge impact on the Rafah community in the seven weeks that she was here.

I can’t tell you how many people have come to her funeral ceremony expressing their deep sadness. I recognize so many of them as frequent visitors of hers, and people whom she loved and trusted. She had very close relationships with the children of Rafah. It was not uncommon at all to have a few small boys show up at our office to visit, and she’d be ready with soda or candy, and sometimes join them for quick game of football (soccer). They loved her dearly, and she cherished them endlessly.

She had a relatively close relationship with the physician whose house she died protecting. She especially liked his wife and children, and truly thought of them as family. She slept in their house many nights, and it does not surprise me that she would give her life to defend this family’s only home and possessions.

Rachel stayed in a few other threatened Palestinian homes as well, and quickly developed close relationships with these people. They would constantly request that she stay at their home, and would feel sad if she was away for too long. We sleep in many houses along the border that are threatened with demolition. Israel has already demolished over 700 homes in Rafah, as they attempt to create a 100-meter perimeter between the houses and the 12-meter high and 8-meter deep steel wall currently under construction along the Egyptian border.

Israeli soldiers currently patrol the border with tanks, and frequently shoot into the streets and houses still standing along the border. Much of this shooting is random, and not in response to resistance fire. We place large banners on the houses and in the communities in which we stay, and we hope that this deters the blanket fire, as well as demolition attempts. When necessary, we use lights, florescent and reflective gear, and megaphones to alert the IDF to our presence.

Rachel also helped organize a demonstration in Rafah in solidarity with the people of Iraq. It took place on the international day of action in March, and attracted several hundred Palestinians, despite some bad weather. She made a banner that said, “No War on Iraq, No War on Rafah”.

She was active in the aforementioned human-shield work for civilian Palestinian workers. Especially at the two biggest water wells in Rafah, which were recently destroyed by Israel. She’d sometimes stay all day with the water workers as they rebuilt these wells, even when no tank was near. She was ready to protect them if a threat did come along.

I am deeply saddened at the loss of a good friend and a brilliant activist. I am outraged that these soldiers have murdered my friend, as they have murdered thousands of Palestinian civilians. I am terrified at what they will do to internationals and other dissenting voices in the future. I now feel how every Palestinian family must feel. I am determined to continue to resist this brutal occupation, and have learned from the courage and dedication that Rachel displayed.

I will always remember Rachel’s unmoving dedication to this cause, which eventually led to her death.

We are unsure about what this means for us now. I believe that the way the world reacts to her murder will determine the effectiveness of our work in the future. If Israel learns that they can kill internationals with impunity, then we will be useless as human shields. If, however, Israel receives enough international pressure instead, this tragedy could make our work more effective. Especially because now Israel knows that we will not move, and that we will take risks in order to peacefully resist their brutal occupation. None of us are planning to leave, indeed we will continue our work in Rafah, with more energy and support than ever.

I don’t expect much of a reaction from the United States Government. The D9 bulldozer that killed her was designed and built by Caterpillar, a U.S.-based multinational corporation. Furthermore, one fourth of all U.S. foreign aid goes to Israel, mainly in the form of military assistance.

Israel, a fairly wealthy and developed nation with six million citizens, gets more than the entire continent of Africa, home to tens of millions of people. Indeed, Israel receives more money from the U.S. government’s coffers than any of the 50 U.S. states. Israeli soldiers shoot at Palestinians with American M-16s, and fire missiles at their homes with American Apache Helicopters and F-16 fighter planes.

The U.S. embassy knew that we were being threatened, yet took no action. I suspect that the reaction will be similar in the future, but hopefully they will at least make an effort to tell the Israelis that we are indeed U.S. citizens, and that they should try to guarantee our safety, as we attempt to guarantee the safety of Palestinians.

I imagine that the U.S. Government will speak regretfully about the incident, but will try and defend Israel, and conclude that it was a tragic accident caused by us, a group of reckless and irresponsible youths. Supposedly there is an investigation underway, but no investigator has contacted us, or been to visit the sight, which has been severely desecrated and destroyed by the Israeli Army. The destruction of evidence is a blatant sign of guilt.

To commemorate Rachel’s death, we have observed the Palestinian tradition of a three-day ceremony, commencing with a popular demonstration and march and followed by all-day grieving periods including numerous visits by community members. Black coffee and dates are served in the spirit of the nomadic tradition. Chairs are set up in a line, and the family (us in this case) sit in them and shake hands with lines of Palestinians that come to express their condolences. Underneath a large tent there are chairs in which visitors may sit and talk. Beautiful Arabic music is played over a loud speaker, along with comments and speeches about the deceased.

All around, signs and banners are suspended, along with many copies of her “shahid [martyrdom] portrait” Palestinians always design a portrait or poster for each shahid, displaying the shahid’s picture and words about them. Thousands of copies have been made, posted, and distributed all around Rafah. We especially placed them in areas Rachel frequented, such as the internet cafe in which she sometimes spent all night.

On the top of the poster we printed it says, “Rachel, she came to stop the tanks.” It is from a quote we found in her journal about an Italian activist that was once here.

The Palestinians have been incredibly supportive as they are quite used to this. We all only hope that her death will bring the world’s attention to the brutal and senseless violence that this occupation represents. The fact that one American peace activist was killed should only show how frequently Israeli soldiers kill unarmed civilians. It especially should not be forgotten that a young Palestinian man was killed in Tel es-Sultan, a different area of Rafah, around the same time as Rachel’s murder. He happened to be walking in the street when a tank opened up with blanket fire into the area. Somehow his death, along with those of thousands of innocent Palestinian men, women, and children, has gone unnoticed.

“You’re one of us now.” Some Palestinians have said to me. “You were a foreigner before, but now you know what it is to be Palestinian.” Spray painted on a wall near our apartment, is graffiti that reads: “Rachel Corrie, an American citizen with Palestinian blood.” That says it all.