Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The truth (and lies) behind Rachel Corrie's death

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Yesterday, Israeli Judge Oded Gershon of the District Court of Haifa handed down his verdict in the civil case between the State of Israel and the parents of a young American woman killed in Gaza in 2003, acquitting the State on all counts. The circumstances surrounding the death of then 23-year-old Rachel Corrie are well known, however there has been a long-standing dispute regarding some key facts. 

Corrie's parents had claimed that the IDF either deliberately killed Corrie or was guilty of gross negligence. Judge Gershom dismissed the claim on the grounds that the IDF could not be liable for civil damages that occurred in a 'war zone' during the course of armed conflict.

Nevertheless, he went on to give his findings on the merits of the case, dismissing the bulk of the Corrie's narrative.

The case has been ongoing since 2005. There have been 15 hearings and testimony from 23 witnesses, including experts from both sides, and the IDF submitted surveillance footage taken of the incident.

Even this comprehensive and transparent trial has not satisfied Corrie's supporters, who would never have accepted any finding not showing Israel to be guilty of every crime imaginable.

This reaction, while unfortunate, is not unexpected. As Brendan O'Neill notes, Corrie has become somewhat of a martyr in certain circles:

The ruling will not please Corrie's supporters. Over the past decade they have elevated her to saintly status, turning her into a paragon of virtue who wanted merely to "protect Palestinians" from Israel's raging war machine. ...

Corrie is a "blessed and generous spirit", we are told. "She died for them"; she committed a "sublime sacrifice". ... Corrie is depicted as a blessed individual who gave herself up in order to save the less fortunate, the destitute and the downtrodden of "Over There", from the brutal forces of repression.

The transformation of Corrie's life and death into a black-and-white morality tale - featuring a well-off white American who was pure of heart, poor little brown people who have no hope, and a Zionist entity that is supremely evil - sums up the boneheadedness of modern-day Palestinian solidarity. ... It is a peculiar form of solidarity that reduces an entire foreign people to the level of child-like victims who need the likes of St Rachel to save them.

Examining the facts of the case, however, the ruling does not appear to be at all unreasonable.

The Case

At the time of her death, the young American was in Gaza on behalf of Palestinian activist organisation the International Solidarity Movement ('ISM') and had been volunteering as one of their 'human shields'. This was in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, when a vicious campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli civilian targets was being waged by Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli Defence Force ('IDF') was desperately attempting to curb terrorist activity.

Corrie was killed while attempting to prevent what she thought was the bulldozing of a Palestinian home in the border town of Rafah, the main crossing point between Gaza and Egypt. According to the Court's findings, the IDF's mission was not to demolish and structures, but to level the ground in order to eliminate hiding places from which IDF soldiers were being attacked. In fact, a hand grenade had been thrown at the IDF in that exact area an hour before Corrie's death.

The court also noted that Corrie had ignored several warnings to be in the area: the US State department had issued a travel warning against US citizens travelling to Gaza and, just before Corrie was killed, the IDF had instructed the ISM activists to leave what was a 'closed combat area' and even used stun grenades and fired warning shots in an effort to compel them to leave, all of which had been ignored by Corrie.

Regarding the actual circumstances of her death, the Court found that she had been kneeling in front of a bulldozer that had been driving very slowly towards her, pushing a mound of dirt in front of it which she was hidden behind. Instead of moving out of the way as it came towards her, Corrie determined to climb the mound and became trapped in the moving dirt, which led to the injuries that she suffered.

The Court also found that, the driver's view from inside the bulldozer was very limited and so he could not have seen Corrie in the position that she had taken.

This account does not conflict with the statements regarding the circumstances from eyewitnesses at the time and from the IDF, although Corrie's fellow ISM members have been adamant that the driver 'must have' seen her. For example, Tom Dale, a British ISM member who was at the scene, described the incident to Washington Post reporter Molly Moore shortly after it occurred:

Corrie ... was kneeling in front of the bulldozer and tried to scramble out of its way ... "She thought they'd stop, but they kept going," Dale said. "She tried to stand up and fell over backwards. The bulldozer dragged her under its blade.

The IDF's position can be summarised in the press release issued to announce the results of the investigation into her death:

"From the findings it is clear that Rachel Corrie was injured as a result of earth and building rubble falling on her as she tried to climb on a pile of earth during the field work that was being carried out by an armoured IDF bulldozer," the army said.

"The armoured bulldozer team that was involved in the incident did not see Ms. Corrie, who was standing behind the mound of earth, and it was not possible to see her or to hear her voice," it said.

"It is clear the death of Ms. Corrie was not caused as a result of a direct action by the bulldozer or by its running her over, but by the falling of earth and building materials that was pushed by the bulldozer."

The Court found that the IDF had not been negligent as Corrie had knowingly and wilfully placed herself in danger, and therefore was responsible for her own death.

This is corroborated by an account given soon after her death by Greg Schnabel, another ISM activist present on the day, which describes the deadly game of 'chicken' that the ISM members had been playing with the Israeli bulldozer teams:

When Rachel and I arrived on the scene, two bulldozers were clearing the ground near to these homes. There was also a tank. Our group began to stand in front of these bulldozers in an attempt to stop them. Generally they did not stop when we stood in front of them, but continued to push the earth up from underneath our feet to push us away. Several times we had to dive away at the last moment in order to avoid being crushed.

This continued for about two and a half hours. All the time the bulldozers were approaching closer to the families homes. They made several attempts to evade us and outmaneuver us. At one point, Will from the United States was nearly crushed between the bulldozer and a pile of razor wire. The bulldozer stopped at the last minute in Will's case. If it had moved any closer he would have been impaled by the razor wire.

(via Lenny Ben-David)

In fact, a 2003 Mother Jones article by Newsweek's Joshua Hammer revealed that, just that morning, ISM had actually been planning to escalate their confrontations with the IDF in an effort to win more support from the local population:

An anonymous letter was circulating which referred to Corrie and the other expatriate women in Rafah as “nasty foreign bitches” whom “our Palestinian young men are following around.”
That morning, the ISM team tried to devise a strategy to counteract the letter's effects. "We all had a feeling that our role was too passive. We talked about how to engage the Israeli military," Richard "Fuzz" Purssell told me by phone from Great Britain. "We had teams working in the West Bank, going up to checkpoints, presenting a human face to soldiers. But in Rafah we'd only seen the Israelis at a distance." ... That morning, team members made a number of proposals that seemed designed only to aggravate the problem. Purssell, for instance, suggested marching on a checkpoint that had been the site of several suicide attacks. "The idea was to more directly challenge the Israeli military dominance using our international status," Purssell told me.

ISM

The role of an ISM human shield around that time was described in an October 2003 LA Times profile of Brian Avery, who unfortunately suffered a non-fatal gunshot wound in the course of carrying-out a similar role:

His group's main "actions," as he put it ... consisted of "being monitors and witnesses at military checkpoints" and "lodging in the homes of the families of individuals who chose suicide bombing as their method of resisting the occupation."

In other words, Avery, Corrie and other Western volunteers were in Gaza to put themselves in harm's way in an effort to obstruct Israeli military operations and provide support to terrorists, if not engaging in terrorist activities themselves.

In fact, there is a significant amount of evidence to indicate that the ISM organisers knew perfectly well the danger in which they were placing their volunteers. As Thom Saffold, a founder and organiser of the ISM, said to Moore:

"It's possible they [the protesters] were not as disciplined as we would have liked ... [b]ut we're like a peace army. Generals send young men and women off to operations, and some die."

ISM itself deserves a great deal of scrutiny. The organisation has often vocally supported Palestinian terrorism as a legitimate means of 'resistance' to Israel. For example, ISM founder Huwaida Arraf and her husband Adam Shapiro have written that:

[W]hat is needed is nonviolent direct action against the occupation. This includes roadblock removal, boycotts, refusing to obey curfew orders, blocking roads, refusing to show ID cards or even burning them. Yes, the Israeli army and settlers will use violence. Yes, people will get killed and injured. They are now also. Hamas claims it has many men ready to be suicide bombers - we advocate that these men offer themselves as martyrs by standing on a settler road and blocking it from traffic. This is no less of a jihad. This is no less noble than carrying out a suicide operation. And we are certain that if these men were killed during such an action, they would be consideredshaheed Allah [martyrs of God]. But an action like this cannot happen once and it cannot be the only type of action. ...

The Palestinian resistance must take on a variety of characteristics - both nonviolent and violent. But most importantly it must develop a strategy involving both aspects. No other successful nonviolent movement was able to achieve what it did without a concurrent violent movement - in India militants attacked British outposts and interests while Gandhi conducted his campaign, while the Black Panther Movement and its earlier incarnations existed side-by-side with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. (emphasis added)

Furthermore, the organisation has been implicated in the past for actively supporting terrorists.

For example, in 2003, senior Islamic Jihad operator Shadi Sukiya -- known to have organised several terror attacks -- was found hiding in an ISM office. Also, in 2008, an American ISM activist named Richard David Hupper was found guilty of providing material support to Hamas while working for ISM in Gaza.

Moreover, the ISM has been used by terrorists in order to conduct attacks. The most famous example is the 2003 bombing of Mike's Place, a popular tourist bar on Tel Aviv Beach. The attack, which killed three and injured fifty, was conducted by British citizens Asif Muhammad Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif.

Prior to the attacks, the two terrorists had been hiding amongst ISM activists in order to avoid suspicion.

Of course, none of these facts reduce the tragedy of Corrie's death or absolve the IDF from any responsibility, however they do provide very important context.

What is certain is that Corrie should never have been in front of that bulldozer in the first place. The naive activist was mislead by a highly-questionable group with a history of supporting the murder of civilians in Israel and which had determined that morning to be even more confrontational with the Israeli military, after being repeatedly warned that where they were and what they were doing was dangerous and illegal.

Hopefully, it is not only the IDF that will be taking lessons away from her tragic end. Other well-meaning activists should look at Corrie's case and think twice before putting themselves in harm's way for dubious reasons.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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