Rachel Corrie: a victim of Israeli policy and US complicity

By Henry Michaels
19 March 2003

The more the circumstances surrounding the murder of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American student killed by an Israeli military bulldozer March 16, become known, the clearer it is that the Israeli government bears direct political and legal responsibility, and that the Bush administration is its political accomplice in her death.

Corrie, an extraordinary young woman, was deliberately crushed to death for trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes in the refugee town of Rafah, in southern Gaza.

She is a victim of the Sharon government’s violence in the Gaza Strip, which has gathered pace in tandem with Bush’s preparations to invade Iraq. Not only is the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians being carried out with the tacit sanction of the US government, the US Consulate in Tel Aviv explicitly refused to demand protection for US citizens and other international volunteers trying to halt the bulldozing of houses and killing of innocent civilians.

Two conclusions are inescapable from the evidence produced so far. The first is that Rachel Corrie’s killing was a premeditated act approved by the upper echelons of the Israeli regime—the culmination of a series of confrontations in recent months with International Solidarity Movement (ISM) “human shields.” The second is that the US government is complicit, having rejected repeated requests to intervene on behalf of the volunteers.

Eyewitnesses have refuted Israeli military claims that Corrie’s death was an accident caused by her own actions. Her fellow volunteers have confirmed that she was highly visible to the Israeli soldier who twice drove the giant US-supplied bulldozer over her body.

“She was wearing a fluorescent orange jacket and was plainly visible,” Greg Schnabel told journalists. “The bulldozer approached but she stood her ground. Then it pushed up a pile of dirt beneath her feet. She struggled to stay on top of the mound. At that point she was raised up to a level where she was probably looking the bulldozer driver in the eye.”

Based on the reports given by Schnabel and the six other activists who were with Corrie, the ISM media coordinator Michael Shaikh stated:

“The Israeli Army are attempting to dishonour her memory by claiming that Rachel was killed accidentally when she ran in front of the bulldozer. Eye-witnesses to the murder insist that this is totally untrue. Rachel was sitting in the path of the bulldozer as it advanced towards her. When the bulldozer refused to stop or turn aside she climbed up onto the mound of dirt and rubble being gathered in front of it wearing a fluorescent jacket to look directly at the driver who kept on advancing.

“The bulldozer continued to advance so that she was pulled under the pile of dirt and rubble. After she had disappeared from view the driver kept advancing until the bulldozer was completely on top of her. The driver did not lift the bulldozer blade and so she was crushed beneath it. Then the driver backed off and the seven other ISM activists taking part in the action rushed to dig out her body.”

It is inconceivable that an individual Israeli soldier would commit such a crime without prior discussion and approval at the highest official levels, military and civilian. Although Israeli army and settler paramilitary units have been responsible for the deaths of 2,181 Palestinians and the injuring of another 22,218 since September 2000, this is the first time that a US citizen has been killed.

Corrie’s murder was not an isolated incident. A month earlier, on February 14, the ISM reported an incident in which activists were nearly killed after the US Consulate refused to intervene. On that day, seven volunteers (three American, three British and one Dutch) came under Israeli rifle and machine gun fire when they approached bulldozers.

The ISM media office immediately made an emergency call to the US Consulate to request that it alert the Israeli military that international peace activists were coming under fire from Israeli troops and ask for restraint, a standard ISM procedure in such circumstances. The consular representative Ingrid Barzel refused to do so. “We do not accept any responsibility for anyone who ignores our travel advisories and illegally enters the Gaza Strip,” she replied. When a similar request was made to the British consulate, an official promised to phone back, but did not.

Soon after, a bulldozer trapped two activists in the corner of a building, but found its path blocked by rubble. Before it resumed its advance, the two escaped and stood on some barrels next to the building to photograph and film the destruction, but the bulldozer then began ramming the barrels.

Israeli policy

The house demolitions are part of Israel’s “Apartheid Wall” policy toward the Occupied Territories. Palestinian communities are being sealed from the outside world by a massive series of walls, complete with towers from which military sharpshooters can monitor their activities. The wall under construction near Rafah stretches along the entire length of Gaza’s border with Egypt. To give the snipers in the wall’s towers clear fields of fire, the Israeli occupation forces intend to demolish all the houses within 70-100 meters of the wall.

Rachel Corrie died trying to save the home of Dr. Samir Nasrallah, who had engaged in no hostile activities and had been charged with no offence. His house was demolished because, like 600 others that have been bulldozed in Rafah, it lay within Israel’s planned “security strip.” Nasrallah was offered no compensation or alternative housing and had no right of appeal to a court.

Despite Israeli government claims, the vast majority of demolitions have nothing to do with alleged terrorism. According to UN figures, less than 600 of the 10,000 houses demolished since the occupation began in 1967 involved security suspects. The policy, designed to leave families homeless, impoverished and traumatized, is illegal because international law forbids the demolition of houses by an occupying power.

During February, Israel forces nearly set a new record for killing Palestinians, mostly civilians, in a single month. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Israeli assaults killed 82 Palestinians, 50 in the Gaza Strip and 32 in the West Bank, and wounded another 616.

Just two days after Corrie’s death, Israeli troops killed 11 Palestinians, including a toddler and a 13-year-old boy, in raids on the Gaza Strip. In one raid, some 30 armored vehicles with bulldozers and infantry advanced several hundred meters into the Nusseirat refugee camp just south of Gaza City.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has stepped up the killing since his re-election in January, particularly in Gaza. The Israeli military has conducted unprecedented armored operations there, repeatedly attacking deep into refugee camps. Sharon appears to be preparing a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip to complement the reconquest of the West Bank last April.

Continuing Palestinian resistance in Gaza stands in the way of Sharon’s scheme to confine the Palestinians to small, disconnected apartheid-style Bantustans surrounded by hundreds of Israeli settlements. With the Bush administration poised to invade Iraq, Sharon has evidently calculated that the time is ripe to reoccupy Gaza, even if it provokes further suicide bombings, which his government can use as a pretext for even larger actions.

US complicity

Rachel Corrie went to Palestine, in part, because she strongly opposed the US war against Iraq and understood that Israeli aggression was likely to increase when the US attacked. In one of her last emails to her family, sent on February 7, she wrote:

“I’ve been having trouble accessing news about the outside world here, but I hear an escalation of war on Iraq is inevitable. There is a great deal of concern here about the ‘reoccupation of Gaza.’ Gaza is reoccupied every day to various extents, but I think the fear is that the tanks will enter all the streets and remain here, instead of entering some of the streets and then withdrawing after some hours or days to observe and shoot from the edges of the communities. If people aren’t already thinking about the consequences of this war for the people of the entire region, then I hope they will start.

“People here watch the media, and they told me again today that there have been large protests in the United States and ‘problems for the government’ in the UK. So thanks for allowing me to not feel like a complete Pollyanna when I tentatively tell people here that many people in the United States do not support the policies of our government, and that we are learning from global examples how to resist.”

Her message also expressed some of the horror and compassion that motivated her actions:

“I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now, and I still have very few words to describe what I see. It is most difficult for me to think about what’s going on here when I sit down to write back to the United States—something about the virtual portal into luxury. I don’t know if many of the children here have ever existed without tank-shell holes in their walls and the towers of an occupying army surveying them constantly from the near horizons.”

Corrie’s friends and colleagues have been joined by Amnesty International in demanding an independent investigation into her death. After initially shrugging off the killing, the US State Department has cynically called for an Israeli government inquiry, but refused to condemn the incident. Likewise, the Israeli military has now promised an investigation, while still declaring in advance that Corrie’s death was not intentional.

Any inquiry conducted by Israeli military or civilian authorities will be a sham, conducted with the Bush administration’s connivance. A United Nations investigation would be no better, as last year’s cancellation of its inquiry into the Jenin refugee camp massacre demonstrates. Every crime carried out by the Israeli government has been whitewashed with Washington’s assistance.

Amnesty International and other international, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have reported repeatedly on Israel’s use of lethal force without regard to civilian lives—its indiscriminate attacks on civilians, extrajudicial executions and unwarranted destruction of civilian property by bulldozers and other equipment, resulting in deaths of innocent bystanders. The US State Department’s own Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2002 confirmed many violations and cited US-supplied helicopters, fighter aircraft, anti-tank missiles and flechettes being used as weapons to commit human rights abuses.

The Sharon government’s atrocities can continue only because they have the backing, explicit or tacit, of the White House. Only a truly international tribunal, completely independent of Washington and other governments, can lay bare the truth of Rachel Corrie’s death and the Israeli regime’s record of war crimes.