Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old senior at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, was killed by Israeli soldiers in the Rafah Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip on March 16.
Corrie was run over — and run over again, when an army bulldozer backed up over her a second time — as she tried to prevent soldiers from demolishing a Palestinian home in the camp. She was in Palestine as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the most prominent of several nonviolent groups that in the last year have been bringing international activists — primarily Americans and Europeans — to work as peacekeepers: witnessing Israeli treatment of Palestinians, trying to provide assistance to Palestinian civilians, and afterward bringing the stories of what they see back home to their own countries.
The circumstances of her death were disputed by the Israeli military and government, which claim that the bulldozer’s driver was unaware of Corrie. This is flatly denied by other ISM volunteers who witnessed Corrie’s death; in their version, Corrie talked with the driver only a few minutes before the incident, and was wearing a bright, fluorescent orange jacket.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has largely disappeared from American news reports, but that’s not because the violence has ended. Quite the opposite: It has become routine, with daily violence and humiliation inflicted upon many Palestinians, deaths (often children) almost every day, and periodic cycles of suicide bombings — all, at least rhetorically, inflicted by each side either to retaliate against the other side or “prevent” future violence.
It hasn’t; the level of economic deprivation, house and crop demolitions, shoot-to-kill curfews, restrictions on employment and movement, random arrests, beatings, torture, and worse inflicted by the Israelis have all essentially become background noise for most Americans. A few, however, have been intentionally putting themselves in harm’s way.
The logic behind programs like ISM, which was launched by the Palestinian Center for Rapproachment in late 2001, is similar to that of “human shield” programs in the past. As in many conflicts where the protagonists are averse to publicity — especially in America — Israelis have often hesitated in inflicting their usual levels of violence when there are Western witnesses. Israel itself has tacitly acknowledged the effectiveness of such programs; in recent months, the IDF has begun arresting the volunteers, and both deportations and denial of entry into Israel (the only way to get into Palestine) have also increased.
Corrie’s death was the first among the international volunteers. However, ISM volunteers and other advocates for Palestinians argue that such volunteers have likely saved countless others, either by defusing confrontations or, by their mere presence, dissuading Israeli soldiers or “settler” vigilantes from attacks on individuals or families.
Repeatedly, over the last year, returning American volunteers have reported the same thing: Ordinary Palestinians and their families both thank the internationals for caring enough to come, and beg them to tell their countrymen — that’s us — what is being done in our name and with our tax money. The munitions scattered like confetti around Palestinian streets all have “made in USA” on them; likely, the bulldozer that killed Corrie was manufactured in her home country.
Had Corrie been killed by Saddam Hussein’s soldiers, of course, she’d be an instant national hero, and America would be enraged. Instead, with the war in Iraq now underway, it’s likely that the death of Rachel Corrie will be soon forgotten by most. But there are now hundreds of other Americans serving as nonviolent peacekeepers and witnesses in both Palestine and Iraq. It’s worth taking a moment to remember not only Rachel, but all of these brave activists. They’re putting their lives on the line for their beliefs, for the love of humanity, and because they feel a need to take responsibility for the actions of our elected government. We should all be so committed.
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