Rafah 2003: Remembering Rachel Corrie Crushed by Israeli Bulldozer

We mark the 21st anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old U.S. peace activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli soldier driving a military bulldozer on March 16, 2003. Corrie was in Rafah with the International Solidarity Movement to monitor human rights abuses and protect Palestinian homes from destruction when she was killed.

To this day, nobody has been held accountable for her death, with the Israeli military ruling it an “accident” and the Supreme Court of Israel rejecting an appeal from her parents in 2015. Rachel Corrie has since become a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian people, and her legacy must be used “to direct attention back to Rafah” and prevent an escalation in the war, says her friend and fellow activist Tom Dale, who witnessed her final moments. We also speak with Corrie’s parents, Cindy and Craig, who say they have met many Palestinians over the years who continue to honor their daughter’s memory. “For Palestinians everywhere, Rachel’s story has been very important,” says Cindy Corrie. “They tell us over and over again how much it meant.” After Corrie was killed, they devoted their lives to her cause and founded the nonprofit Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Saturday marked the 21st anniversary of the death of U.S. peace activist Rachel Corrie. She was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer in Rafah on March 16th, 2003, three few days before the U.S. attacked Iraq. Rachel was 23 years old. She was an Evergreen College student from Olympia, Washington. She went to Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement, which formed after Israel and the United States rejected a proposal by then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to place international human rights monitors in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by a U.S. Caterpillar bulldozer that was run by the Israeli military. She had been trying to prevent the demolition of the home of a Palestinian pharmacist in Rafah near the border with Egypt. Eyewitnesses say she was wearing a fluorescent orange vest. She was in full view of the bulldozer’s driver, as photographs show.

In June 2003, the Israeli military concluded her death was, quote, “an accident.” Human rights groups condemned the Israeli’s army investigation as a sham. A year later, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, told Rachel’s parents he did not consider the Israeli investigation credible, thorough or transparent.

Rachel’s parents initiated lawsuits against Israel, the Israeli military and the Caterpillar corporation, but a U.S. federal appeals court ruled they could not sue the company because that would force the judiciary to rule on a foreign policy issue decided by the White House. In its ruling, the three-judge panel said the case could not go to court without implicitly questioning, and even condemning, U.S. foreign policy towards Israel. In 2015, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Rachel Corrie’s parents after they had sued the Israeli Ministry of Defense for a symbolic $1 in damages, and upheld a lower court’s ruling that cleared the military of responsibility, saying Rachel’s death had taken place in a, quote, “war zone.”

In a minute, we’ll be joined by Rachel’s parents and one of her colleagues with the International Solidarity Movement. But first, this is Rachel Corrie in her own words, from a documentary about her by Concord Media called Death of an Idealist.

RACHEL CORRIE: I’ve been here for about a month and a half now, and this is definitely the most difficult situation that I have ever seen. In the time that I’ve been here, children have been shot and killed. On the 30th of January, the Israeli military bulldozed the two largest water wells, destroying over half of Rafah’s water supply. Every few days, if not every day, houses are demolished here.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Olympia, Washington, by Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie. After she was killed, they devoted their lives to what Rachel Corrie lived and died for, and founded the nonprofit Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice. Cindy is the foundation’s president; Craig, the treasurer. They’ve also gone on interfaith peace missions to Israel, Gaza, the West Bank. Also with us in London is Tom Dale, a writer who’s worked in civilian protection, conflict analysis and journalism in the Middle East. His new piece for Jacobin is headlined “Rachel Corrie Gave Her Life for Palestine.” In 2002 and ’03, he, too, volunteered in Rafah with the International Solidarity Movement, alongside Rachel. On March 16th, 2003, a little after 5 p.m. in Rafah, he witnessed this U.S.-made bulldozer run over Rachel. He held her hand as she lay dying on a gurney in the ambulance taking her to the hospital.

Welcome to all of you. I want to begin with Tom. Describe that day. What motivated you both? And what motivated Rachel to stand there in front of this bulldozer with that fluorescent vest on as it came forward and crushed her?

TOM DALE: So, to give some context and background, the International Solidarity Movement group in Rafah at that time were mostly concerned to protest against the and oppose the demolition of homes that were being carried out on the border with Rafah and Egypt. And there was no allegation, in the overwhelming majority of cases, that these homes were being demolished due to anything that the people who lived in them had done. They were being demolished simply because Israel had decided that its soldiers based along that border strip wanted a tactical advantage, and that involved clearing a 300-meter strip full of family homes, the overwhelming majority of which were refugees.

Now, at the particular time Rachel was killed, a bulldozer turned toward one of those homes, the home of Dr. Samir Nasrallah. And Dr. Samir and his young family were friends of Rachel. She had stayed with them. She had lived with them. She knew them intimately. And she placed herself in between the bulldozer and the home, as we had done so many times before and, indeed, as we had done earlier in that day. And what we had learned, over the course of several months, is that the bulldozer drivers were able to see us, were able to recognize what would be too far, and they were able to stop or withdraw at an appropriate moment.

But on this case, the bulldozer driver just kept on going. Rachel was sort of forced to climb up a kind of roiling mound of earth in front of the bulldozer. I think you heard earlier Cindy quoted saying that her head was above the top of the bulldozer blade. That’s absolutely accurate. It’s almost as if the driver would have been able to look her in the eye. But as he kept going, ultimately, she lost her footing, and she was sucked down into the earth and terribly, horrifically died. At that point, I ran to call for an ambulance. I learned then that Dr. Samir himself had seen the incident, too, and had called the ambulance.

And we had been living with these families. As I say, Rachel had been living with the Nasrallahs. I had been living with other families along the border. And that was an expression of a really deep commitment to the principle of shared humanity. And Rachel took on the cause of those families as if that cause was her own, and she made that cause her own. And that’s what motivated us to take that stand.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote Rachel’s diary. It’s absolutely amazing. She wrote this, of course, before her death, and she said she had a dream. Do you have it in front of you? Or I’ll read it.

TOM DALE: Please do read it. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Rachel wrote she dreamed that she was falling — quote, “falling to my death off of something dusty and smooth and crumbling like the cliffs in Utah, but I kept holding on, and when each new foothold or handle of rock broke, I reached out as I fell and grabbed a new one. I didn’t have time to think about anything — just react … And I heard, 'I can't die, I can’t die,’ again and again in my head.” If you can talk about what it means to hear Mohammed right now talking about how Rachel is remembered, Tom, and what happened to you as — you went in the ambulance with her to the hospital?

TOM DALE: Yeah, that’s correct. So, I mean, regrettably, by the time we got to the hospital, Rachel was dead. As I say, like, on the way, I had been sort of just steadying her hands on her abdomen. You know, of course, it was, like, a terrible moment. We were all distraught. We knew Rachel. We cared for her greatly. She was one of us. And then, immediately, of course, we were pushed into the cycle of responding to the series of bizarre lies that were being told by the Israeli Defense Forces.

And in terms of what it means to hear Mohammed say that right now, well, of course, you know, I’m very grateful. It means a lot, given that, of course, the situation that Mohammed and his family and all of Rafah are in now is so terrible, that he even has a thought for someone who was standing there 20 years ago is really remarkable and speaks to sort of the power of Rachel’s message. And I really hope we can sort of repay that in the international community and use this just as an opportunity, as another spur to direct attention back to Rafah, direct our energies back toward putting the pressure on politically to protect Rafah, and Gaza, in general, from a future onslaught.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom, I want to bring in Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie, speaking from Olympia, Washington. That’s where Rachel went to college. In fact, I think I met both of you for the first time back in 2003. I just happened to be giving the graduation address at Evergreen College that year. It was the largest graduation class ever. But it was missing one student who was supposed to be graduating, and it was your daughter Rachel. And so, Cindy, you gave an address to the graduating class, as well. Twenty-one years later, I offer my condolences again to you. And I’m wondering your thoughts as you listen to Mohammed, on the ground in Rafah, talking about your daughter and what she has meant for the people of Rafah, Gaza and beyond?

CINDY CORRIE: Thank you, Amy.

I had a bit of difficulty hearing Mohammed, but what I know from our experience this past 21 years is that for Palestinians everywhere, Rachel’s story has been very important. They tell us over and over again how much it meant that someone from Olympia, Washington, that had no reason to be in Gaza, except that she had learned about the situation and knew that they were greatly in need, that she came to them, and that she stood to try to prevent the demolition of the — the many demolitions of Palestinian homes that were happening at the time.

And Rachel connected with the community. That was important to her. She worked with women’s groups, with children’s groups. Not only were homes threatened, but wells were threatened. She slept at the wells with other activists. Rachel was there with Tom and with others from the U.K., from the U.S., and people from other countries during the early time that she spent in Gaza.

We’re also often approached by younger people who have heard the story, some when they were children that remember it, and tell us that it changed their lives, changed the course of the direction of their lives, that they then felt that there were meaningful things that they needed to look for, meaningful ways to contribute in this world.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Craig, your thoughts, as well, 21 years later, with Rafah once again in the news, with President Biden saying that an Israeli invasion of Rafah is a red line, but not saying there would be consequences if the Israeli military went over that line?

CRAIG CORRIE: Yes, when I was listening today, I was thinking that, for me — and it’s different for other members of the family, but we were using Rachel’s memory and what she was doing as a portal for people to understand — from the United States, to understand what was going on in Gaza, what was happening to her friends, and, partially, the horror that’s going on now. And I think at this point we have to be looking directly at the Palestinians and hearing their voices, as you allowed today.

There’s never been a red line that any American president has — well, that’s not quite true — but, recently, enforced against Israel. And to me, as long as Israel is coveting the lands and the homes of Palestinian people, there will not be peace in Israel and Palestine, and neither the Israeli people nor the Palestinian people will be safe.

So, I think, really, the difference between Rachel, Tom, the rest of the ISM, the difference between them and the rest of us, is that they refused to look away when all of this was going on, and the rest of the world did look away.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, one of the ways Rachel’s words have been preserved was because of Alan Rickman. And, Craig, I just read a piece you wrote after the actor and director Alan Rickman died. You wrote it in The Guardian. And you talked about what a difference he made in making those words into that play, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, based on her diaries and her emails. I’m looking at a piece — six weeks before opening night, the theater announced it was indefinitely postponing the production, the move that was widely criticized as an act of censorship, finally opened in October 2006. And if either of you could comment on the canceling of people in this country and around the world now who express concern about what’s happening in Gaza, and also talk about your trip to meet with the Nasrallahs, the Palestinian pharmacist’s family, whose home Rachel was protecting?

CRAIG CORRIE: That’s a lot to talk about.


CRAIG CORRIE: I’ll start with Alan and the play. And I guess in that article, what I thought of is that that play, what people won’t understand about it is that it’s actually funny. He managed to get Rachel’s sense of humor. And he edited those words along with Katharine Viner, and we’re grateful to both of them. But he managed to get Rachel’s humor into the play, and I think that brought her personality. It made her human. And I’m grateful forever for that.

The play has been seen on every continent in the world, except Antarctica. And we, Cindy and I, have seen that, I think, in maybe six countries, in seven different languages. So, it was delayed in opening in the United States, but it had two runs in Great Britain, in London, before that. And it did eventually open in New York City. And since then, it’s been also all over the United States. And actually, there’s going to be a reading in a few days in Seattle again. So, I’ll let Cindy talk, I think, more about the other.

CINDY CORRIE: We visited the Nasrallah family in September of 2003. It was our first trip to the region. It was very important for Craig and me to see the place where Rachel had stayed and where her life ended. We traveled to Rafah with the help of our Palestinian friends, who met us at Erez Crossing. And we were taken — the very first day that we were there, we were taken to the area where the Nasrallah home still stood. And it was the only home left in that entire area. What I remember saying and feeling at the time was that house was sitting in a sea of rubble, because the Israeli military was destroying homes wholesale. Later, Human Rights Watch said that happened in the absence of military necessity. And over 16,000 people, I think, from 2000 to 2004, lost their homes at the time.

That day, we sat on the floor in the Nasrallah family’s home and ate a wonderful lunch meal with Umm Kareem, with Abu Kareem and with their very young children at the time. We were taken to the spot by Abu Kareem, showing us exactly where Rachel had been when she was killed. It was a very emotional day. We hugged. We saw the rooms in the house where Rachel had spent time with the children and the family. They pulled off their Arabic-English dictionary from the shelf and had me read, try to pronounce the words in Arabic, and they told me how Rachel was so much better at it than I was. And we saw also the space at the foot of the Nasrallah parents’ bed, which was at the backside of the house, where Rachel would sleep, she said, in a puddle of blankets with the children, because military people and machines would drive through that border area at night, and they would shoot into the houses. And there were bullet holes marking the entire home.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, and I just wanted to get your final comment, either Cindy or Craig, on what is happening today.

CRAIG CORRIE: Amy, that family did everything they could to hold onto that house. They were eventually forced out of that house, and some of them went through seven other houses. Now we hear that they want out of Gaza. After 21 years of trying to hold onto their homes and their lives and their futures and their pasts in Gaza, like so many people, they want to survive, and they want out. I can’t imagine what drives them to do that, but that’s the situation in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, again, Craig and Cindy Corrie, speaking to us from Olympia, Washington, and Tom Dale — we’ll link to your piece in Jacobin, “Rachel Corrie Gave Her Life for Palestine” — joining us from London. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!Check out our website at democracynow.org.

( Source: Democracy Now!, Republished under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License )

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