US President Barack Obama’s impending visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank lent urgency and focus to the Rachel Corrie Cultural Center for Children and Youth’s annual commemoration on Saturday of its namesake’s death a decade ago.
“Ten years ago, a beautiful American girl arrived in our town,” 12-year-old Heba Saqir said at the rally in Rafah, reading a letter addressed to Obama. “Ten years ago, Mr. President, that girl, Rachel Corrie, was run over by an Israeli military bulldozer, one that was made in the United States and paid for by the American government.
“That act of murder was not the first or the last committed against those who came to stand with us,” she added. “And as you know, many thousands of our people were killed in more ways than I can tell you. Like Rachel, they were innocent, and so very beautiful.
“When I see you on television, I hear you speak of values like democracy, equality and freedom. But when our neighbors talk about the US government, they speak of the money and weapons that are regularly sent by your government and are used to carry out the horrific wars against my people.”
The Israeli military bulldozer that killed Corrie, rolling over her twice as she attempted to block its demolition of a Palestinian home near Rafah’s border with Egypt on 16 March 2003, was a weaponized Caterpillar D9. It had been made by Peoria, Illinois-based Caterpillar Inc. and sold to Israel through the US Department of Defense’s Foreign Military Sales program, a purchase subsidized by US aid to Israel that totaled more than $4 billion in 2003 alone (“A Conservative Estimate of Total U.S. Aid To Israel: More Than $123 Billion,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2011).
Spike in home demolitions
Corrie’s death came during a spike in Israeli home demolitions in the Gaza Strip. Between September 2000 and 2004, more than 2,500 homes in Gaza, including 1,600 in Rafah alone, were destroyed. Since its 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel has demolished more than 18,000 homes there (“Factsheet: Home Demolitions and Caterpillar,” Center for Constitutional Rights).
Today, Israel’s D9s are known mainly for the ongoing demolitions of Palestinian homes in Israel and the West Bank. But their use in the Gaza Strip also continues. Gaza’s Palestinian Centre for Human Rights “documented the bulldozing of 55,833 dunums (13,797 acres) of land in the Gaza Strip, of which 50,193 was agricultural land and 2,646 was forest land,” between October 2000 and November 2010 (“The right to food in the Gaza Strip,” PCHR, November 2012 [PDF]).
“Caterpillar bulldozers destroyed my farm east of Khan Younis three months ago,” Mourad Qidah, a farmer in Khuzaa, said. “I can see them operating across the fence almost every day.”
Before its 21 November ceasefire with Palestinian resistance groups following the most recent series of attacks on Gaza, Israel routinely sent D9s to bulldoze land up to 300 meters within the Gaza Strip. On 25 February, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military’s civil administrative unit, announced that farmers could grow crops up to 100 meters from the wall along Gaza’s boundary.
By last week, the announcement had disappeared from COGAT’s website, and the military spokesperson said the “buffer zone” remained at 300 meters. When asked by Israeli organization Gisha about these conflicting claims by units of the same army, the spokesperson replied, “If those are the numbers COGAT wants to publish, let them take responsibility for the area.”
Israel also deployed D9s deep inside the Gaza Strip during its 2008-2009 attack. These unmanned “Black Thunder” machines, developed for the Israeli army by the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, proved so conducive to Israel’s military effort (which killed approximately 1,400 mostly civilian Palestinians) that its army’s Ground Forces Command announced plans to double the number of them in its fleet (“‘Black Thunder’ unmanned dozers to play greater role in IDF,” The Jerusalem Post, 30 March 2009.)
Heba, the 12-year-old speaker in Rafah, could not remember Corrie’s death under a D9 ten years ago, or the seven weeks she spent in the town. But others in the crowd that gathered Saturday had vivid memories of both.
“She was a nice person,” said Khalil al-Khatib, now a 22-year-old student of business administration at the University of Palestine. “She helped us as much as she possibly could.”
“When she died, my uncle, who was her friend, brought a huge American flag to cover her,” he added.
“She slept at my home twice,” said Abed al-Whab Qishta, a 23-year-old business administration student at al-Azhar University. “But she slept in the neighbor’s homes a lot, because they were closer to the border.”
“I remember in the first days after she came here, she seemed afraid of the Israeli occupation. But when she saw how people lived under the constant threat of death, I think it made her want to help more. Somebody seeing is very different from somebody hearing.”
Israel eventually bulldozed Qishta’s home in 2005, two years after Corrie’s death and just before its soldiers and settlers retreated from the Gaza Strip. “I had a picture of Rachel and a letter she wrote to me,” he says. “I lost them when my home was destroyed. But I remember them very well.”
Anees Mansour, now director of the Rachel Corrie Cultural Center that organized the event in Rafah on Saturday, knew Corrie well. In 2003, she inadvertently recruited him as a local “fixer” for her organization, the International Solidarity Movement.
“She was the first foreigner I met in my whole life,” he said. “I remember every moment I spent with her. When I started to work with her, it came as a surprise. A crazy boy, about nine years old, stole her phone. She came to me and some friends in a shop and asked for her help. We couldn’t understand a word she said. She borrowed my friend’s phone and talked to her colleague, who spoke Arabic. He told us she had lost her phone. Then he asked me to take her to the place on the border where she was staying that night.”
Once, Mansour recalled, Israeli troops invaded the Rafah refugee camp, where he lives, with bulldozers. “I went out of my house, to see what was going on, and found they were destroying homes. I called Rachel and told her to come quickly and bring her friends. They came, but only arrived after the bulldozers had destroyed the houses.”
“This was the first time for me to see Rachel’s tears, when she cried. My English was really broken, and I asked my friend, ‘Why is she crying?’ He told me that it was because she couldn’t save the houses. It was very strange for me.”
“Rachel is gone”
When an Israeli sniper shot in the head British activist Tom Hurndall one month after Corrie’s death, Mansour was standing meters from him and helped carry him to hospital. But on 16 March 2003, he was at home following news on television.
“I remember it was Al Jazeera,” he says. “I saw that an [International Solidarity Movement] member had been killed, but they didn’t say the name. I called my friends, because when I’d called Rachel, she hadn’t answered her phone. I told myself, it’s impossible for it to be Rachel. But when I called Alice Coy [another activist] from Scotland, she shocked me when she said, ‘Rachel is gone.’
“I went to find her, but they had already moved her to the hospital. When I went there, she wasn’t there, either. It was a black day for me.”
Qishta, the al-Azhar student, saw Corrie’s death. “She had a megaphone, and bulldozers and tanks were coming from the border,” he said. “They wanted to destroy some houses in the area where she was. She started to shout that the houses belonged to civilians: ‘I live here. They have no resistance.’ The Israelis didn’t care. They started to destroy.
“The Israelis said that they didn’t see her, but she was very clear. The tanks are higher than the mounds here. They can see far. I remember the bulldozer rolling over her twice. If she still had any breath left, it was finished then.”
After Corrie’s death, tributes to her quickly appeared. One of the first, the Rachel Corrie Cultural Center where Mansour works, was announced by its parent organization, the Union of Health Work Committees, within days.
“I kept working with ISM until the death of Tom Hurndall,” Mansour said. “But after he was killed, I decided I would work in the center, where I started in 2005, and find something I could give to the children. And I like it. We hope to educate people about international solidarity and make sure Rachel stays alive among us: her beliefs, her activities, her ideas.”
Campaigns continue Rachel’s work
Campaigns by the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, especially those against Caterpillar, have highlighted Corrie’s case. The Church of England’s General Synod voted for the church to divest from “companies profiting from the illegal occupation, such as Caterpillar Inc.”
In 2010, students at Corrie’s alma mater, The Evergreen State College, voted not only in favor of divesting the school’s holdings in such companies, but also banning Caterpillar equipment from its campus. Weeks later, members of the nearby Olympia Food Co-op, in her hometown of Olympia, Washington, voted to remove Israeli products from their shelves, as did the college’s student-run Flaming Eggplant Café in 2012.
Also in 2012, her parents Craig and Cindy Corrie, the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice they founded, and allied groups pressured the National Building Museum into canceling an award ceremony honoring Caterpillar (“National Building Museum Cancels Caterpillar Award Ceremony,” Rachel Corrie Foundation, 7 September 2011).
When pension fund giant TIAA-CREF dropped $72 million of Caterpillar stock after the company’s delisting by three social responsibility indexes in 2012, major media like the Associated Press attributed Caterpillar’s growing notoriety, in part, to publicity over Corrie’s death (“Caterpillar pulled from social indexes,” 27 June 2012).
“Corrie’s murder, although not the first and certainly not the last instance in which the [Israeli army] slaughters indiscriminately, sheds light on the roles that military technologies and the companies that produce them play in perpetuating oppression in Palestine,” said a spokesperson for Students for Justice in Palestine at UC San Diego, where the Associated Students voted for divestment last Thursday. “This is the heart of the divestment effort on American college campuses, including divestment at UC San Diego.”
For Mansour, his center’s work with Rafah children — offering art, dabke (traditional dance), literature, poetry and theater workshops, a library, psychological care, protection from economic exploitation, or simply a safe place to play — is a continuation of Corrie’s.
“Rachel was the inspiration,” he said. “She inspired all of us. What we are doing here keeps her memory alive.”
For 12-year-old Heba Saqir, the meaning of Corrie’s legacy is a simple one.
“The people of Rafah, of Gaza, in fact all Palestinians, will never, ever forget Rachel,” she said Saturday. “In our town, we call her a martyr, and we have pictures of her on many of our decaying walls. She was the proof that Americans don’t hate Rafah.”
Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He works with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and other Palestinian groups and international solidarity networks, particularly in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions and prisoners’ movements. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter @jncatron.