Reflections on the Murder of Rachel Corrie in Palestine

Originally published on the Electronic Intifada website on March 21, 2003

Those of us in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), and involved in Palestine solidarity work more generally, are deeply shocked and horrified by the recent murder of Rachel Corrie. On Sunday, March 16th, 2003, Rachel was attempting to prevent the demolition of a house in Rafah (a major town in Gaza), owned by a Palestinian doctor and his family. It was what might be called a “typical” ISM action, in which foreign internationals interpose their bodies between Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) and Palestinian civilians, farmers, olive trees, wells, houses, and other civilian infrastructure. Rachel had herself engaged in numerous similar actions since arriving in Palestine in late January, and had written passionate articles, moving letters home, as well as conducted public interviews about her experiences. This time, however, the Israeli army driver of the U.S.-made Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer made a conscious and deliberate choice to crush an unarmed woman, and then reverse over her body a second time to make sure the job was done. Rachel’s last words, while being cradled by friends and colleagues from her affinity group, were “I think my back is broken.”

It is evident from the Israeli army and government response to Rachel’s murder that no amount of shameful lying and slander is too much for Israel’s “public relations” machine. Contrary to Israeli army statements claiming that Rachel’s death was “accidental,” and that she and other internationals present acted “very irresponsibly, putting everyone in danger” (IDF spokesperson Captain Jacob Dallal), eyewitness testimony and photographs clearly show that Corrie was well marked, had a megaphone, was standing in clear view of the driver, and posed no threat to anyone. (See the photo essay and direct eyewitness testimony posted on the Electronic Intifada website) Israeli “damage control” efforts have led to simultaneous (and contradictory) claims that Rachel “jumped” in front of the bulldozer, that she lay down in front of it, that she “tripped and fell” and the driver could not stop in time, that the driver could not see her due to poor bulldozer windows and visibility, and so on. Systematic attempts have also been made to blame her (and the International Solidarity Movement more generally) for her own death, and to deflect criticism away from those responsible (from the driver to the Occupation itself) by saying, “What do you expect when you come to a combat zone?” or “What was she doing there anyway?”

It’s also clear that Rachel’s murder is not considered “newsworthy” by Western corporate media. A brief flash of stories, mostly buried deep within major newspapers, appeared the day after Rachel’s death – only to disappear completely a day later, everywhere, except in her home state of Washington, and within the pages of smaller, or more alternative newspapers. Canada’s leading national daily, The Globe and Mail, never ran a single story on the incident. On Monday, March 17th it printed a couple on-the-scene photographs on page A10, with a pathetic caption stating that Rachel “fell” (thereby making blame ambiguous), and there was no accompanying article. In addition to lack of coverage and prominence, most major newspapers picked up the Associated Press wire rendition of events, including the Israeli establishment apologetics outlined above. Many of these stories also attempted to cast doubt on Rachel’s role in the Occupied Territories, by repeatedly referring to the house she was defending from demolition as either an innocuous “building” or the home of a “suspected militant.” Most news articles failed to inform readers that Rachel and her ISM colleagues were defending the home of a respected Palestinian physician, with whom they had been staying and working with for weeks, and failed to inform readers about the basic facts of Israel’s illegal and brutal military occupation of lands annexed in 1967.

As usual, anyone wanting more critical and contextual coverage had to look elsewhere, such as the Olympian in Rachel’s home town, or the Guardian (UK), or various ISM and Palestine support websites. Various Arabic media sources with english-language websites (Al-Ahram Weekly, the Jordan Times, and others) have also been helpful, posting interviews with ISM activists, witnesses, friends and family members, posting the letters of Rachel herself, or talking to Palestinian community members in Gaza who had met Rachel. Where else would one learn that a thousand Palestinians marched in a funeral procession in Gaza — in honour of Rachel – and that they carried a symbolic coffin (stretcher) draped with an American flag? Where else would one see and hear the voices of Palestinians distinguishing between the American people who they believe are like Rachel and “want peace” — and the U.S. government which they know from direct experience is not interested in human rights, democracy, or eliminating the real roots of terrorism? “We fly a U.S. flag today to show our support to all American peace lovers, those like Rachel,” said Palestinian farmer Hassan Abu Toa’ma, 24, quoted in the Arab News (Saudi Arabia). Where else would one learn that Palestinians have already made martyr posters with Rachel’s photo on them, that she has joined the ranks of the shaheeda (the martyrs or “witnesses”), and that this has nothing to do with advocacy of violence or terror?

Such reports do not make “good copy” in the West. They’re not conducive to power. Nor are they conducive to the profits made by arms sales and military aid to Israel. Only images of Palestinians burning flags, only stereotypes, only de-contextualized rage, only flashes of “inexplicable” violence, only sound bytes by ignorant news anchors, are conducive to state-corporate “business as usual” in the Middle East. Only the constant repetition of lies and anti-Arab racism which are the mainstay of “respectable journalism” is conducive to keeping Western civilians in a state of exaggerated and perpetual fear. And only this fear and ignorance of Palestinians allows Israel — and those countries and corporations which support it — to continue the profiteering, dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and other war crimes which Zionist leaders have been pushing since the origins of the Israeli state. Only racism and ignorance has allowed a resurgence of open talk about “transfer” (forced expulsion or ethnic cleansing) in Israeli society – to finish what Israeli scholar Tanya Reinhart calls the “other half of 1948.”

Those of us in the ISM who have engaged in actions similar to the ones Rachel was carrying out, and those of us who will carry out new ones tomorrow, are indeed shocked, saddened, and angered by Rachel’s brutal killing. Many of us have also been paralyzed by self-doubt, questioning our own motives, or asking ourselves “why?” Why the sudden concern and horror? Why the disparity in response — given that Palestinian community activists, resistance fighters, and ordinary civilians are being shot, tortured, rocketed, bulldozed, stoned, deported, imprisoned, humiliated, assassinated, and summarily executed on a routine basis by Israeli occupation forces and so-called “settlers?” Is it our own racism at work? Is it a natural inclination to empathize more with those closer to home, those most “like us”? Is it a product of our own de-sensitization to Palestinian deaths – a de-sensitization so insidious that it even affects those of us in the ISM, those of us who have worked closely with Palestinians inside the Occupied Territories as well as throughout the diaspora?

I think that such questions and self-criticism cannot be dismissed out of hand. In the past few weeks, hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed in Gaza alone. One day after Rachel was crushed beneath the IDF bulldozer, a four-year old baby girl was killed by Israeli soldiers in Gaza. But does anyone know this little girl’s name? Just a few weeks before Rachel’s murder, a young Palestinian woman named Nuha Sweidan was also crushed to death by an army bulldozer, along with her 18-month old daughter and her unborn child. How many of us knew her name? How many media outlets picked up this story? How many press releases about Nuha were sent out by those of us in the solidarity movement? How many vigils were held? I am not pointing fingers at anyone. I implicate myself by even asking the questions. Those of us in the Palestine solidarity movement often read the daily death toll, and memorize the snowballing statistics of dead and injured, with great dispassion. Maybe it’s a defence mechanism. But we need to ask ourselves why it took Rachel’s death to shake us … and we may not like the answer.

Having said this, I don’t think it serves anyone, not the memory of Rachel, not the Palestinians who founded and continue to lead the ISM, not the larger Palestinian community, to constantly second-guess ourselves, to let our doubts paralyze us, and to feel the need to qualify any reference to Rachel’s death, or any expression of sorrow and indignation, with a corresponding reference to Palestinians killed. Just as we can criticize the targeting of random Israeli civilians by suicide bombers without needing to point out – each and every time — that Israel targets and kills three times as many civilians, so too can we be shocked, and saddened, and angered by Rachel’s murder without feeling the need for a ritual qualification. Regardless of the reasons, Rachel’s death has spurred many people to re-think the meaning of the 2,200 dead Palestinians, the meaning of the lives lost, the impact of each and every one of those deaths on friends and family in Palestine, and the impact that Israeli state terror must have on the children and youth growing up under military occupation, witnessing such horrors and crimes on a daily basis. If it helps us do this, and helps focus our energies on the very things Rachel and others in the ISM have been trying to raise awareness about, then perhaps something good can come of this tragedy.

Since Rachel’s death a mere three days ago, a dozen more Palestinians have been killed in Gaza — only the latest of Israel’s 2,200 or so “regrettable accidents” since late-2000. But how many “accidents” make a policy? How many children need to be murdered in their own homes, shot while walking to school, or blown up by rockets from the sky, before the international community holds Israel accountable for war crimes? Rachel’s murder demonstrates that even the relative privilege of international passports and skin colour is no deterrent to a real rogue state like Israel — backed by the world’s only superpower, and hell-bent on stealing land and expelling the indigenous owners, in a process that can only be described as “ethnic cleansing.” Rachel joins British United Nations worker Ian Hook (shot in the back by an Israeli sniper on November 22nd), and a growing list of international civilians, killed by the Israeli military with complete and utter impunity. She takes her place in the swelling ranks of those martyred since the new intifada began two and a half years ago.

Rachel Corrie is the International Solidarity Movement’s first official international martyr. Her fate could have been shared by any one of us involved with ISM campaigns past and present. Indeed, two other ISM volunteers (both women) have already been shot by Israeli soldiers. Numerous ISM volunteers have also been savagely beaten by soldiers — and by the armed, fascistic colonists (many from New York) who we euphemistically call “settlers.” It seems clear that Israel has been emboldened by the absence of consequences arising from the prior IDF murder of Ian Hook. Rachel’s death may have been simply the result of a particularly vicious individual soldier, someone who has lost touch with the last vestiges of their own humanity. Or it may reflect a shift in Israeli policy towards those who stand in solidarity with Palestinian civilians. But either way, her murder, and ongoing U.S. military aid and diplomatic support, will no doubt add to Israel’s sense that it is “untouchable.” It’s clear that Israel views the ISM as an increasing nuisance, and that we can expect more internationals to be turned away at the border, more frequent deportations, and more violence directed at our people on the ground. But if Israel’s decision-making elite thinks that the killing of Rachel Corrie will “set an example” and deter others from joining future ISM campaigns, then they are mistaken. Many people have become interested in ISM work, due entirely to the publicity around Rachel’s death. About ten people are considering joining ISM campaigns this summer from Montréal alone. Our hearts, and tears, and condolences go out to Rachel’s family and friends — even while our resolve to continue her important work is strengthened.

Paul Burrows participated on the ISM’s “Olive Harvest” campaign in October and November of 2002, and is a member of the ISM-Montreal support committee (

Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.

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