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Rachel Corrie wanted to ensure she could always return to Gaza, says her mother. 'In a way, she never left'

Cynthia Corrie (C) speaks next to her husband Craig Corrie (L) and US Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) (R), next to a picture of her daughter peace activist Rachel Corrie March 19, 2003 in Washington, DC [Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images]
Cynthia Corrie (C) speaks next to her husband Craig Corrie (L) and US Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) (R), next to a picture of her daughter peace activist Rachel Corrie March 19, 2003 in Washington, DC [Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images]

The murder of 23-year-old American Rachel Corrie on 16 March 2003 started a global conversation about how Israel gets away with its terrorism against civilians and human rights defenders in the occupied Palestinian territories. Nineteen years later, Israel is still denying Rachel's family justice and any sign of accountability for her killing. Her parents Cindy and Craig now find themselves following in their daughter's footsteps in trying to keep the Palestinian cause alive.

"We knew how strongly Rachel felt about what she was doing in Gaza," explained Cindy to me. "She had educated our entire family and local community in ways neither the media nor anyone elese had ever done before. And it was so important that the accounts she communicated through her writing and messages to us about what was really happening there were shared to teach others."

That's why Cindy and her husband, with help from their local community, launched the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice in 2003, a non-profit organisation supporting grassroots efforts in pursuit of human rights and social, economic and environmental justice. There is an emphasis on efforts to end Israeli apartheid.

"It was definitely a community effort to get the foundation underway and it was also inspired by the support we received from all around the world when Rachel was killed and those who sent donations to us," said Cindy.

Rachel was wearing a fluorescent orange jacket in full view of an Israeli armoured bulldozer trying to stop a Palestinian home from being destroyed when she was crushed by the vehicle and killed. This happened after Israeli soldiers in an armoured personnel carrier had thrown stun grenades, used tear gas and fired live ammunition to terrify solidarity activists like Rachel and get them to move away.

Palestine remembers Rachel Corrie - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Palestine remembers Rachel Corrie – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Amazingly, in 2012 a district court in Israel decided that the state was not responsible for Rachel Corrie's death. The decision was criticised immediately by international and Israeli human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B'Tselem and Yesh Din, as well as the former US Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro. He confirmed the US Department of State position that the investigation into Corrie's death "was not satisfactory, and wasn't as thorough, credible or transparent as it should have been."

Moreover, former US President Jimmy Carter described the killing of the American peace activist as unacceptable. "The court's decision confirms a climate of impunity, which facilitates Israeli human rights violations against Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territory."

Rachel had been volunteering for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) at the time that she was killed. The pro-Palestinian activists were engaged in direct action against Israel's military occupation of Palestine.

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"Some of Rachel's friends had gone to Gaza with ISM in the summer of 2002 which sparked an interest in her," Craig Corrie pointed out. "She was taking Arabic [lessons] at school from a Palestinian-American teacher originally from Nazareth, while also being mentored by others in the Olympia community with connections to the issue, including a Jewish Israeli woman. So she was getting multiple perspectives about what was going on there."

He noted that Rachel went to Palestine in part because she strongly opposed the US war against Iraq. She anticipated an acceleration in Israeli aggression against Gaza when the world's attention was on the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In one of her last emails to her family, sent on 7 February, 2003, she wrote: "I've been having trouble accessing news about the outside world here, but I hear an escalation of war on Iraq is inevitable. There is a great deal of concern here about the 'reoccupation of Gaza'. Gaza is reoccupied every day to various extents, but I think the fear is that the tanks will enter all the streets and remain here, instead of entering some of the streets and then withdrawing after some hours or days to observe and shoot from the edges of the communities. If people aren't already thinking about the consequences of this war for the people of the entire region, then I hope they will start."

The Iraq war would start four days after Rachel was killed.

"Rachel engaged very actively with the new peace groups that emerged here in Olympia [her home town] following the 9/11 attack, such as Olympians for Peace in the Middle East and the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace. She was very engaged with all of Olympia's peace groups and was deeply involved in trying to creatively engage the community," Cindy told me. "She also worked at a community crisis line through high school and took calls from people in crisis and helped direct them to support work she continued through college. When she was killed, some of those whom she supported came to public events and to our family and talked about their connections and bonds with Rachel, which was a beautiful thing."

For both parents, as for the rest of the family, Rachel always stood out as a child. From a young age, she indulged her creative writing, unique facts and philosophical questions. "From the time she was a small child," recalled her mother, "she had a way of startling us sometimes, surprising us with her intriguing thoughts. One time she asked me, 'Is brave part of growing up?' She was very young at the time."

At the age of 10, she was already aware of social issues when she delivered a speech at a press conference urging the international community to fight against poverty. It was part of a school activity aiming to raise awareness about world hunger. In her speech, she stated articulately: "They are us, we are them. They dream our dreams, we dream theirs."

This affirmation of a 10 year old was at the heart of what she did throughout the rest of her short life, ending overseas in Palestine.

Her writing took on added significance after her death. According to her father, it can provide ways of seeing and ordering the world and not just our world, but those worlds elsewhere that we know so little about.

"When she went to Gaza, we knew how important her words were to her, how careful she was with them and how deeply she observed everything that was happening around her which informed all of her writing," recalled Cindy. "It really challenged the US media narrative, since we had little in-depth awareness and understanding of the Palestine-Israel issue until our daughter began sharing all of her writing. Her words from Gaza had a profound impact before she died. I remember asking her brother who was in Washington DC at the time, 'What do you think about what you're hearing from Rachel about Gaza?' He replied, 'It's a perspective I never hear.'"

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Having released her emails from Gaza within days of her death, the Corrie family was contacted by the Royal Court Theatre in London. The now late actor Alan Rickman, well known for his role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, had contacted the theatre in March 2003 after reading Rachel's emails in the Guardian. Rickman and Co-Editor Katharine Viner brought Rachel's writings and life to the Royal Court stage as a play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, through which her words have subsequently spread across the world.

"Rachel felt a strong commitment to Gaza. She told us that she wanted to make sure, when it was time to leave, that she would do it in a way that she could always return. And of course, through her death, in a way, she has never left," Cindy concluded. "Rachel's commitment to Gaza has since been a guide for us to continue that responsibility as best as we can. Many people from all parts of the world and from many fields who believe in achieving peace with justice for all, have joined us in that. This is what Rachel would have wanted."

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