Little has changed in Gaza since peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed beneath an Israeli bulldozer 15 years ago

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 American peace activist Rachel Corrie tries to stop an Israeli bulldozer from destroying Palestinian homes on March 16, 2003, in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. (Getty Images)
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Updated 10 May 2018

Little has changed in Gaza since peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed beneath an Israeli bulldozer 15 years ago

  • Renewed violence in the Gaza Strip after the 15-year anniversary of Corrie's death has left at least 42 Palestinians dead and hundreds injured in the hands of Israeli forces
  • The first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza lasted from 1987 until 1991 and was followed by a second period of intensified violence from September 2000 to February 2005. 

LONDON: Palestinian homes were being demolished in waves when Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist, arrived in Rafah, Gaza, at the height of the second intifada in January 2003. 

Her mother, Cindy, recalled how affected Corrie was by the suffering she saw, pouring out her experiences in long journal entries and emails home that have since been published, turned into plays and quoted in documentaries. 

“Every time Palestinians did anything, the Israeli military would use it as an excuse to raze another row of houses — they just kept taking down row after row,” Cindy said. 

Three months later, Corrie stepped into the path of an Israeli military bulldozer, hoping the “international white person privilege” she had observed in Gaza would be enough to protect the Nasrallah family home, one of the few still standing in the area. 

Witness accounts detail the horrific scene that unfolded as the giant Caterpillar D9R bulldozer plowed over the slight figure clad in an orange fluorescent jacket before reversing back over her body and pulling away. Corrie died a short while later, her lungs crushed, ribs fractured and vital organs ruptured. 

Weeks after the 15-year anniversary of her death on March 16, 2003, renewed violence in the Gaza Strip is a reminder that little here has changed.

At least 42 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds injured by Israeli forces during demonstrations as thousands of Gazans demand the right to return to lands they were driven from by Israeli settlements.

The first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza lasted from 1987 until 1991 and was followed by a second period of intensified violence from September 2000 to February 2005. 

The current protests — scheduled to run for six weeks — are due to end on May 15, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe) this month when 750,000 Palestinians lost their homes on the day Israel was created in 1948. 

Reports of mounting casualties, including the killing of children and non-violent protesters, have revived international indignation, but for those living under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, the violence appears endless. In her emails, Corrie described the “chronic, insidious genocide” she was witnessing. “I’m questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop.” 

Tracing their daughter’s footsteps in Gaza after her death, the Corries visited the Nasrallah home. Their daughter had often stayed over, curled up on the floor with the children in their parents’ room at the back, far from the bullets Israeli soldiers sometimes sprayed at the walls from tanks passing at night.

She made her first call home from the house, trying to appear calm as the sounds of nearby shelling echoed down the line to her parents in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Her voice was trembling … I don’t think we said anything after we got off the phone that evening,” her mother recalled.

By then, little was left of the once-large neighborhood in southern Gaza, near the war-torn Egyptian border. “All the homes had already been destroyed by the Israeli military … they would go past and just fire the guns into the houses, trying to get people to move out,” her father, Craig Corrie, told Arab News. 

The Israeli military had been steadily demolishing houses to widen the “buffer zone” between Gaza and Egypt, ostensibly for security purposes. 

A Human Rights Watch report from 2004 said that almost 16,000 people, more than 10 percent of Rafah’s population, lost their homes in this way, making many refugees for a second or third time.

The day she died, Corrie received a call at 2 p.m. from a fellow activist telling her the Nasrallah house was about to be flattened. She had formed a close bond with many Palestinians in the community through her work with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which protests against the occupation using non-violent methods, including sit-ins at homes, wells and other sites earmarked for demolition. Leaping into a taxi, she raced to the site.

Just before 5 p.m., one of the bulldozers started rumbling toward a wall near the house and Corrie positioned herself in front of it. Before, the bulldozers had always stopped short of hitting the ISM activists, but this time the massive machine carried on, despite screams and waves from onlookers.

Different versions of the circumstances surrounding Corrie’s death emerged in the aftermath as the Israeli military sought to distance itself, later claiming a wall had collapsed and crushed her. Giving testimony from behind a screen in court, the driver of the bulldozer said he was unable to see Corrie from the cabin. Witnesses who worked alongside the activist said there is “no doubt” he knew where she was. 

Days after the incident, Tom Dale, a British activist who was nearby when she died, told the ISM: “The bulldozer continued to push Rachel, so she slipped down the mound of earth, turning as she went. Her face showed she was panicking and it was clear she was in danger of being overwhelmed.”

The Israeli government later described it as a “regrettable incident” and promised a “thorough, credible, and transparent investigation.” In 2015, after years of trials, the Corries’ case came to a close when a judge in Israel’s Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling absolving the Israeli state and army from responsibility. Nobody was ever convicted for her death.

Corrie had educated herself about Palestine in the aftermath of 9/11 and “very deliberately” made the decision to go to Gaza. “She said she was going to see what it was like to be on the other end of US foreign policy. I think she really wanted to go and learn about how to be in solidarity with people that are struggling,” her father said. 

At first, it was difficult for the ISM volunteers to gain the trust of the local community, but Corrie immersed herself in Gazan life, eating and sleeping in family homes, and embracing Palestinian customs and culture. “She loved them and they loved her,” recalls Abdul Raouf Rarbakh, who was in charge of a children’s organization in Rafah at the time.

On the day she died, Corrie had been playing football with local youths but had been “very sad,” he said. “She was killed on the same day that a Palestinian was killed. We organized a funeral for her with the Palestinian martyr.”

The Corries have often been asked to explain why the death of “a blonde American girl” has dwarfed the loss of Palestinian lives in the media. “I think Rachel would have agreed ... but if the death of a blonde American makes us pay attention to all those others then we’re OK with that,” her father said. “I would hope she would be, too.” 

Several other foreign civilians were killed by Israeli forces in the months after Corrie’s death, including another ISM volunteer, 21-year-old Tom Hurndall, who was shot in the head on April 5 while rescuing two Palestinian girls from gunfire. The following month, James Miller, a 35-year-old Briton, was shot in the neck while filming an HBO documentary along the Egyptian border.

Yet it is Corrie who has since become an icon of solidarity for Palestinians in Gaza.

“She will always be part of the history of that place,” her father said. “Here we are, 15 years later, and her story still resonates.”

Watching the latest round of protests, the Corries feel “an absolute responsibility” toward the people of Gaza as they try to rouse the world to action through the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice. “People only pay attention when they see particular violence, but the occupation is always violent,” Craig said.

Today, the Nasrallah house is long gone and the land it stood on has become a barren border zone. Entry is restricted to landowners and the families who lived here have become refugees.

Iyad Abu Louly, who remembers Corrie as one of the “prominent personalities” among the ISM volunteers, now heads up the Rachel Corrie Human Rights Center, which documents violations committed by the occupation against Palestinians. 

It is the same goal that Corrie had when she went to Gaza.

“Her memory will remain immortal in the hearts of the Palestinian people,” he said.

Decoder

What is the Nakba?

It is the exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 war.


Seth Rogen’s Israel comments highlight fraught diaspora ties

Palestinian firefighters try to extinguish a fire after an Israeli airstrike, on a floor in a building that also houses international media offices in Gaza City. (Reuters/File)
Updated 08 August 2020

Seth Rogen’s Israel comments highlight fraught diaspora ties

  • Jewish comedians’ conversation on Israel spark an uproar

TEL AVIV: It began as a lighthearted conversation between two Jewish comedians, riffing on a podcast about the idiosyncrasies of their shared heritage. But after talk turned to Israel, it didn’t take long for Marc Maron and Seth Rogen to spark an uproar.

Their comments about Israel — especially Rogen saying the country “doesn’t make sense” — infuriated many Israel supporters and highlighted the country’s tenuous relationship with young, progressive Jewish critics in the diaspora.
Israel has long benefited from financial and political support from American Jews. But in recent years the country has faced a groundswell of opposition from young progressives, disillusioned by Israel’s aggressive West Bank settlement building, its perceived exclusion of liberal streams of Judaism and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cosy relationship with President Donald Trump.
“What Seth Rogen said is par for the course among our generation and the Israeli government has to wake up and see that their actions have consequences,” said Yonah Lieberman, spokesman for If Not Now, an American Jewish organization opposed to Israel’s entrenched occupation of the West Bank.
Rogen’s remarks follow a dramatic shift by an influential Jewish American commentator who recently endorsed the idea of a democratic entity of Jews and Palestinians living with equal rights on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Peter Beinart’s argument that a two-state solution — Israel and Palestine — is no longer possible sent shock waves through the Jewish establishment and Washington policymaking circles.
For many Jews, Israel is an integral part of their identity, on religious grounds or as an insurance policy in the wake of the Holocaust and in a modern age of resurgent anti-Semitism. But polls have shown that while most American Jews identify with Israel and feel a connection to the country, that support has waned over recent years, especially among millennials.
Some have even embraced the Palestinian-led movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel to protest what it says is Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Israel accuses the movement of waging a campaign to delegitimize its very existence.

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Their comments about Israel — especially Rogen saying the country ‘doesn’t make sense’ — highlighted the country’s tenuous relationship with young, progressive Jewish critics in the diaspora.

In the podcast, Rogen, who appeared in such smash comedies as “Superbad” and “Knocked Up,” talked about attending Jewish schools and Jewish summer camp while growing up in Vancouver. He said his parents met on an Israeli kibbutz.
As they continued to chat, Rogen appeared to question why Israel was established.
“You don’t keep all your Jews in one basket. I don’t understand why they did that. It makes no sense whatsoever,” Rogen said. “You don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place especially when that place has proven to be pretty volatile. I’m trying to keep all these things safe. I’m going to put them in my blender and hope that that’s the best place to, that’ll do it.”
Rogen then said he was “fed a huge amount of lies” about Israel during his youth. “They never tell you that ‘oh, by the way, there were people there.’ They make it seem like, ‘the (expletive) door’s open.’”
Maron and Rogen both joked about how frightened they were about the responses they would receive from Israel’s defenders. Their concerns were justified.
Rogen’s comments immediately lit up “Jewish Twitter.” They unleashed a flurry of critical op-eds in Jewish and Israeli media. And they prompted Rogen to call Isaac Herzog, the head of the Jewish Agency, a major nonprofit that works to foster relations between Israel and the Jewish world.
In a Facebook post, Herzog said he and Rogen had a frank and open conversation. He said Rogen “was misunderstood and apologized” for his comments.
“I told him that many Israelis and Jews around the world were personally hurt by his statement, which implies the denial of Israel’s right to exist,” Herzog wrote.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, Rogen said he called Herzog at the urging of his mother and he denied apologizing. He said the comments were made in jest and misconstrued.
“I don’t want Jews to think that I don’t think Israel should exist. And I understand how they could have been led to think that,” he said.
Rogen also said he is a “proud Jew.” He said his criticism was aimed at the education he received, and he believed he could have been given a deeper picture of a “complex” situation.
Ironically, Rogen was on the podcast to promote his new movie, “An American Pickle,” about a Jewish immigrant to the US at the start of the 20th century who falls into a vat of pickle brine and emerges 100 years later. He called the project a “very Jewish film.”
Lieberman, from If Not Now, said the uproar shows “how much the conversation has changed” about Israel among American Jews.
Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said Israel should not be expected to change its “security and foreign policies” based on growing estrangement from Jews overseas.
But he said it can take realistic steps to close the gap, such as establishing a pluralistic prayer site at the Western Wall, long a sticking point between Israel’s Orthodox establishment and more liberal Jews in the US
“It’s a challenge for Israel. It’s inconvenient. We want everyone to love us, especially other Jews,” he said. “Israel can do certain things to make it somewhat better.”