Creating new perspectives since 2009

Civil court case into the death of peace activist crushed to death by Israeli bulldozer in 2003 finally begins

January 28, 2014 at 2:53 am

Rachel Corrie: A Case for Justice

On March 16th 2003, twenty-three year old American peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by a 65 tonne Israeli bulldozer in Gaza as she stood bravely in its path in a last-ditch attempt to stop it from destroying the family home of Dr Samir Nasrallah. Rachel was a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) which is a Palestinian-led organisation “committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles”.

This week, Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, sat through the first gruelling day of witness testimony in the civil case which they have filed against the Israeli government. Part of their reasoning for bringing about this civil lawsuit, they have said, is to force the Israeli authorities to launch a new investigation into their daughter’s killing as they believe that there has been an Israeli whitewash of the true nature of the events surrounding her death. “We remain hopeful that the truth about what happened to Rachel will be revealed, and that the people responsible for her killing will be held accountable” said Rachel’s mother outside the courthouse in Haifa. Mr Corrie “told the BBC that he believes that the driver of the bulldozer received new orders just before his daughter was killed, ‘something to the effect of not letting the internationals [peace activists] stop them’. He said: ‘Five minutes later, Rachel was killed. So with that order apparently something changed and Rachel didn’t know the change.’”

On the day that Rachael was killed she was one of nine ISM volunteers (including three Britons and four Americans) who were working together. The court heard from one of those activists, Richard Purssell, who was with Rachel at the time of her death, and was able to give an eyewitness account. Purssell described to the court how the bulldozer approached her at a “fast walking pace” with its blade down and pushing the soil into a mound in front of it. When the bulldozer was approximately 20 metres from the home of the local Gazan resident Dr Nasrallah, Rachel climbed onto the soil in front of it and stood “looking into the cab of the bulldozer”. She was clearly visible at this point and like the other ISM volunteers, and in accordance with what they had learned in their two day training course, was wearing a bright fluorescent top.

Corrie on the day of her death“The bulldozer continued to move forward,” Purssell said. “Rachel turned to come back down the slope. The earth is still moving and as she nears the bottom of the pile something happened which causes her to fall forward. The bulldozer continued to move forward and Rachel disappeared from view under the moving earth.” The bulldozer continued for another four metres or so as her friends and fellow activists ran towards the spot where she had stood moments before, shouting and waving at the driver. “It passed the point where Rachel fell, it stopped and reversed back along the track it first made. Rachel was lying on the earth,” Purssell said.

“She was still breathing.”
However, she died soon after.

An Israeli military investigation was carried out into Rachel’s death in June 2003. However, this was carried out by the Israel Defence Forces’ (IDF) Judge Advocate’s office who, not surprisingly, ruled that her death was an accident. The Israeli authorities have denied that she was targeted intentionally by the driver of the bulldozer and claim that he simply did not see or hear her. They also claim that “debris” pushed over her by the bulldozer is actually what killed her.

Furthermore, Israel accused Corrie and the ISM of behaviour that was “illegal, irresponsible and dangerous”.

An armoured Caterpillar D9R Bulldozer used by the IDFPut an end to the sale of US weapons and other tools of destruction to Israel

Rachel’s family maintains that the order to use bulldozers should never have been given while peace activists and other “non-combatants” were in the area.

At one stage, Rachel’s parents tried to sue the US Caterpillar Company who make the bulldozers used by the IDF. They were unsuccessful. However, Amnesty International (AI) has also called for an end of the US provision of such machines to Israel. As Christine Bustany, AI’s US Advocacy Director for the Middle East, has said “US-made bulldozers have been ‘weaponized’ and their transfer to Israel must be suspended.”

Israel’s ongoing illegal house demolitions

Rachel’s tragic death also highlights the issue of the illegal Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes. As Jeff Halper, co-founder and coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) said in March 2003, “Rachel was not the first person killed as a result of Israel’s cruel policy of house demolitions. Less than two weeks ago, Nuha Makadma Sweidan and her unborn child were also killed in Gaza when Israeli army sappers ‘accidentally’ demolished their home when they blew up another home nearby. A few weeks before that, an elderly woman and a disabled man died under the rubble of their Gazan homes when the soldiers ‘failed to notice’ them. These were no mere accidents. Israel routinely demolishes Palestinian houses on top of all the families’ possessions, and in their haste do not bother to follow prosaic ‘safety’ rules.”

The number of house demolitions has actually increased since Rachel’s killing. The ICAHD estimate that, since 1967, around 24,145 Palestinian houses have been destroyed by the Israeli authorities. Rachel felt strongly enough about protecting a Palestinian home that she risked her life to try and stop its destruction.

Wider implications for the Palestine Solidarity Movement

This case has serious implications for more than just Rachel’s family, friends and supporters. It also has wider implications for the Palestine Solidarity Movement as a whole, particularly for peace activists who belong to groups such as the ISM. Was a non-violent demonstrator really deliberately targeted and murdered by an Israeli so hell-bent on destroying a Palestinian home that he would literally let nothing and no-one stand in his way? What is the official Israeli policy for dealing with international peace activists who travel to areas of Occupied Palestine in order to show solidarity with the Palestinian people? 

Although it is certainly a sad state of affairs that the death of one young, white, American woman has made the headlines far more than the deaths of thousands of Palestinians, no one is bitter about it in this particular case. The Palestinian people and their supporters all appreciate Rachel’s noble sacrifice. She chose voluntarily to leave the comfort of her own home and the relative affluence and safety of her life in Washington in order to travel to an extremely dangerous region of the world, all in the name of peace and justice. She chose to protect the Palestinian victims of oppression and not just to sit back, watch events unfold on her television and shake her head sadly; unfortunately that bravery cost Rachel Corrie her life. She is considered to be a heroine among many members of the international community and justice must be sought for her and the oppressed Palestinians for whom she sacrificed her life if her sacrifice is not to have been in vain.

A ruling in Rachel’s case is not expected to be made for another year.

Rachel Corrie 1979-2003

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.