Death of a dreamer

In her green hometown, far from the squalid road in Gaza where she was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer, the young activist is remembered as an idealist who loved life.

Published March 21, 2003 8:19PM (EST)

Walking through Olympia, on the day American-led forces will begin their campaign against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, it is impossible not to feel the presence of Rachel Corrie. Hours before the first bombs fall on Baghdad, a small group of protesters braves the rain outside the state Capitol, with protesters holding signs that read "Peace for Rachel." On the campus of Evergreen College, from which the 23-year-old was scheduled to graduate this spring, the foyer outside the school library has been turned into a makeshift memorial. There are tables filled with burning candles, flowers, photographs of Corrie in a giant dove costume, articles both by her and about her death and dozens of white origami cranes -- a symbol of the peace that has slipped away.

But Corrie's death beneath the blade of an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to stop the Israeli military's demolition of a Palestinian home in the Gaza town of Rafah has left local activists here struggling to keep her memory alive as the nation prepares for war, and doing all they can to ensure that the Bush administration pushes Israel for a full investigation into her death. Wednesday, Corrie's parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie, flew to Washington to join Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., at a Capitol Hill press conference, where the parents called on the U.S. to reassess its support of Israel.

"We are asking members of Congress to bring the U.S. government's attention back to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and to recognize that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is an overwhelming and continuous act of collective violence against the Palestinian people," they said.

Baird stopped well short of the Corries' call to suspend aid to Israel, but did call on the Bush administration to push Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for answers. Baird introduced a resolution asking the State Department to conduct its own investigation of Corrie's death.

"It certainly appears that bulldozer operator had to know Rachel and other peaceful protesters were in his way," Baird said. "We should conduct our own investigation, and the Israelis should too."

The Israeli army maintains that Corrie's death was a "regrettable accident." Blaming her for recklessly interfering with a military operation, the IDF claimed she fell in front of the Israeli bulldozer, whose operator was not able to see her because of the bulldozer's small window. That version of events has been disputed by witnesses, including Joe Smith, an activist who was with Corrie in Rafah when she was killed, and has vowed to stay.

"[The driver of the bulldozer] clearly saw her, and continued to drive until she was forced onto the top of the dirt he was pushing, elevating her so much that she was at eye level with the bulldozer's cab, he could see right into her eyes," Smith wrote in an e-mail account of what he saw. "He continued forward, pulling her underneath the dirt, and out of his vision. He continued forward, crushing her underneath the weight of the blade. He continued forward, until she was well underneath the bulldozer. It was then quite clear that she was nowhere but underneath him, but he proceeded to back up, without lifting the blade, crushing her again."

A horrifying sequence of photographs also casts doubt on the Israeli version of events. One of the photographs shows Corrie, megaphone in hand, confronting the bulldozer; the perspective of the photograph seems to place her well within the operator's line of sight.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, the Palestinian director of Medical Relief Committees in the occupied territories, told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that he thought Corrie's death was no accident. "In his opinion, it was aimed at frightening the hundreds of young foreign citizens who are spread out throughout the Palestinian villages, refugee camps, and cities trying to serve as a buffer, or at least to report on what is going on," Ha'aretz reported.

Corrie had been engaged in various types of human shield work in the occupied territories, including walking with schoolchildren to protect them from Israeli fire, trying to save Palestinian wells from demolition, and the risky practice that resulted in her death, standing in front of massive bulldozers about to demolish Palestinian houses. (In an e-mail, she described an earlier close call with a bulldozer.)

House demolitions are one of the most controversial practices engaged in by the IDF in the occupied territories. Israeli authorities say the demolitions are necessary to remove Palestinian homes built without permits, for security reasons and to punish the families of militants. Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups, like B'Tselem, say Israeli housing policies make it impossible for Palestinians to get housing permits, and charge that demolishing houses owned by relatives of militants is an illegal form of collective punishment under international law.

The reasons for the demolition of the house in Rafah are disputed. According to Ha'aretz, the house was being destroyed to stop sabotage and/or smuggling along a road near the Egyptian border. Palestinians claim that Israeli forces were destroying the house to make room for a new security wall.

Some critics have tried to dismiss Corrie as a flaky protester embracing a flavor-of-the-month-cause. Evergreen College certainly fits the stereotype of an institution that would produce such activists. It is a small liberal arts college where teachers and students write written evaluations of one another's performance in class, and discuss those evaluations in one-on-one meetings. Many of the cars on campus are collages of bumper stickers, calling for everything from an end to meat-eating to freedom for Leonard Peltier. As if to drive the point home, the quad outside the campus library is called Red Square. The image of Evergreen's campus activists is not helped by people like Jody Mason, who spent hours chained to the wrong government building after President Bush delivered his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein.

But talking to the people who knew her makes it clear that Rachel Corrie was the real deal. Regardless of what one might think of her political views, she was a dedicated activist, passionately committed not just to the Palestinian cause but to a wide variety of human rights issues.

"She is seen by many as simply the first international [International Solidarity Movement] volunteer to be killed by the Israeli military," says Phan Nguyen, an Evergreen student who spent time in the West Bank last year with the ISM, which sponsors Palestinian and international human shields in Israel's occupied territories. "She was so much more than that. Without that added context, a lot of these news sources seem to be portraying her as a thrill seeker, which is totally not her."

Her friends say Corrie was an activist dedicated to her vision of social justice in a variety of different causes. In fact, Corrie's list of activities and causes read like the C.V. of a zealous high school student trying to pad her résuméfor her college entrance applications.

Evergreen professor Peter Bohmer, who had known Corrie since she attended elementary school with his children, says above all else "she loved life. She had a license to fight forest fires. She was very involved with labor in the living wage campaign. She went back to her elementary school and worked with kids on gardening -- just to give you a sense of the kinds of things she was involved in."

Corrie was also active in a variety of antiwar groups and environmental causes, and spent some of her time at Behavioral Health Resources, working with people who suffer from mental illness. Bohmer knew Corrie not just as a friend of his own children, but also as a fellow member of the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace,an antiwar and social-justice group that came into existence after Sept. 11.

Bohmer says Corrie's work organizing an OMJP event on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks underscored her dedication to the causes she believed in. "She was the heart and soul of the group; she was the doer," he says. "She wasn't the public spokesperson, she was the person who would make the fliers, get the materials together."

But now, Rachel Corrie will forever be identified with the Palestinian cause -- either as a martyr who gave her life fighting for the oppressed, or as a misguided young woman who was overwhelmed by political realities she didn't understand.

In an e-mail she sent home six weeks before she died, posted on the Web site ZNet, Corrie reflected on the difference between the reality known by children in Gaza and children in Olympia. "They [Palestinian children] know that children in the United States don't usually have their parents shot and they know they sometimes get to see the ocean. But once you have seen the ocean and lived in a silent place, where water is taken for granted and not stolen in the night by bulldozers, and once you have spent an evening when you haven't wondered if the walls of your home might suddenly fall inward waking you from your sleep, and once you've met people who have never lost anyone -- once you have experienced the reality of a world that isn't surrounded by murderous towers, tanks, armed 'settlements' and now a giant metal wall, I wonder if you can forgive the world for all the years of your childhood spent existing -- just existing -- in resistance to the constant stranglehold of the world's fourth largest military -- backed by the world's only superpower--in it's [sic] attempt to erase you from your home. That is something I wonder about these children. I wonder what would happen if they really knew."

Corrie's death is the latest chapter in a long history of American radicalism on both sides of the Middle East conflict. Many of the most radical Israeli settlers in the West Bank are, in fact, American. In 1994, Brooklyn-born doctor Baruch Goldstein walked into a Hebron mosque and gunned down dozens of Palestinians as they knelt in prayer, killing 29 people. And though Corrie was the first American member of the International Solidarity Movement to be killed in the Middle East, dozens of Americans are in the West Bank and Gaza acting as human shields. During the recent standoff in a Church of the Nativity, ISM volunteers ran into the church, defying the orders of the surrounding Israeli army.

Corrie's death set off a predictable set of reactions, even from those who didn't know her. Many on the left turned her into a martyr for the Palestinian cause. Among conservatives, she became another flaky rabble-rouser who died as she lived -- as a troublemaker or pawn of terrorists. Images of Corrie burning a picture of an American flag while in Gaza, and entries expressing apparent sympathy with Palestinian suicide bombers didn't help win her any sympathy outside of pro-Palestinian circles. As Olympia-area resident Leonard Garrett said, Corrie's death "should be a lesson for other students thinking about following her example -- If you mess with the bull, you get stuck with the horns." And there was this cartoon in a University of Maryland student newspaper, citing Corrie's support of "terrorists" as the very definition of stupidity.

But even among the members of the American left, and even those in Corrie's own community, her death has sparked mixed reactions. There is no issue within the left more divisive than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a fact that has been highlighted by the controversy over the tone and content of many antiwar rallies, which feature vituperative attacks on Israel. And in the hours following Rachel's death, some of that tension could be seen back in her hometown.

On Sunday, just hours after news of Corrie's death spread, a previously scheduled antiwar demonstration at Olympia's Percival Landing turned into a makeshift memorial for the fallen Corrie. Those who knew Rachel said that this was only fitting.

But others were unhappy with the change in focus of Sunday's rally. In a letter to the local daily paper, area residents Lisa Brodoff and Lynn Grotsky wrote: "We felt violated and tricked when the rally began to turn into an anti-Israel focus. How divisive ... It was disrespectful to the organizers and the attendees to change the rally's focus."

While Nguyen takes issue with the characterization of Sunday's rally as "anti-Israel," he says most antiwar activists he knows are also in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. "I think the majority of people there were in with it. But when you invite people for an antiwar vigil, I can understand why some people were upset, especially if they misinterpret what she was doing as some anti-Israel sentiment. It wasn't that at all. We want justice for Palestinians and Israelis."

Corrie's parents said that for their daughter, there was a link between the Palestinian cause and the war in Iraq. They say they came forward to share Rachel's fears that a war in Iraq would distract the world's attention, and lead to a harsh Israeli crackdown in the occupied territories without any scrutiny from the media, which would be preoccupied with the war in Iraq.

"We are speaking out today because of Rachel's fears about the impact of a war with Iraq on the people in the occupied territories," they said. "She reported to us that her Palestinian friends were afraid that with all eyes on Iraq, the Israeli Defense Forces would escalate activity in the occupied territories. Rachel wanted to be in Gaza if that happened."

Nguyen says many pro-Palestinian activists are worried that war in Iraq will amount to an invitation for an Israeli crackdown. "We're all afraid of that right now," he says. "But since Rachel's death, the people I've talked to who are there are more committed to staying, in part to honor her memory. The idea of abandoning them at this moment is unthinkable."

In Olympia, there is now much debate over how best to honor the memory of Rachel Corrie, both short- and long-term. There is some talk of starting a scholarship program to send future activists to the occupied territories. Others are dedicated to continuing Corrie's efforts to establish a sister city relationship between Olympia and Rafah.

"Because we live in Olympia, we need to make her case, and the whole issue of Palestine a part of what we do," Bohmer says. "We need to have the antiwar movement here really have two foci -- one is against the war in Iraq, and the second one is honoring her, calling for stopping U.S. aid to Israel, or something."

At the same time, Bohmer expressed some concern that Corrie's death might dwarf the cause she died fighting for. "I think she was a really great person, but I'm not into deifying her," he says. "Her death is really important, but it happens to Palestinians all the time. It's just that most of the Palestinians are invisible."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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