On Trip to Gaza, Parents of Slain Peace Activist Rachel Corrie Remember Their Daughter Six Years After Her Death
Today marks the sixth anniversary of the killing of American peace activist Rachel Corrie by an Israeli military bulldozer in Rafah. She had been trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home near the border with Egypt when she was killed. Democracy Now! producer Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films traveled to Gaza last week with a women’s peace delegation and Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie. They remember their daughter and talk about the plight of the Palestinian people. Cindy and Craig Corrie, parents of slain American activist, Rachel Corrie.
AMY GOODMAN: Today marks the sixth anniversary of the killing of the American peace activist Rachel Corrie. She was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer in Rafah on March 16, 2003, a few days before the United States attacked Iraq. The twenty-three-year-old student from Olympia, Washington went to Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement. She was crushed to death by a US Caterpillar bulldozer that was run by the Israeli military. She had been trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home near the border with Egypt when she was killed. Eyewitnesses say she was wearing a fluorescent orange vest and in full view of the bulldozer’s driver.
In June 2003, the Israeli Defense Forces concluded her death was, quote, “an accident.” Human rights groups criticized the Israeli military investigation as a, quote, “sham.” A year later, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, told Rachel Corrie’s parents he did not consider the Israeli investigation to be, quote, “credible, thorough, and transparent.”
Rachel’s parents initiated lawsuits against the State of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Caterpillar Corporation in 2005. A federal appeals court ruled in 2007 they can’t sue the Illinois-based company, because that would force the judiciary to rule on a foreign policy issue decided by the White House. In their ruling, the three-judge panel said the case can’t go to court without implicitly questioning, and even condemning, United States foreign policy towards Israel.
Well, Democracy Now! producer Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films traveled to Gaza last week with the CODEPINK delegation and Rachel’s parents. They visited some of the families Rachel had stayed with and whose homes she had tried to protect. Most of those homes were destroyed by Israeli bulldozers in 2004. Some of the new homes people had moved into were attacked during and since Israel’s latest twenty-two-day military operation.
Anjali and Jacquieasked Rachel’s friends Naima Shayer and Abu Jameel about their memories of Rachel.
NAIMA SHAYER: [translated] On that last day, she didn’t want to leave our house. She’d get to the door and then rush back to hold and kiss us goodbye again. I asked her, “What’s wrong? Do you think you’re going to die today?” She did this a few times, as if she didn’t want to leave us.
That evening, my niece told me that Rachel Corrie had been killed by an Israeli bulldozer and had watched it on television. I didn’t believe her at first and thought she must have been lying.
All of us in the house were crying. She had stayed with us for over twenty days. I remember, whenever she was late, she’d call and apologize. If she got later than 7:00, she’d let us know. Once she got stuck at a checkpoint and called so we wouldn’t worry. She was just like one of us, a member of our family. She was so good to us.
ABU JAMEEL: [translated] Very few people live up to Rachel’s example. Honestly, even today, I remember her. I can see her: slender, fair, beautiful, wearing a kafia. She was graceful and so courageous, never afraid.
My house was near an Israeli watchtower near the wall. She’d be there with her megaphone, shouting, “Please, don’t fire. There are children here.” She had an open spirit, a pure spirit. She was a great person, irreplaceable. Rachel’s life should be recorded in history.
AMY GOODMAN: Abu Jameel from Rafah, recounting his memories of Rachel Corrie.
Well, Anjali Kamat spoke with Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie, at the end of their trip last week, as they waited on the Rafah border for Egypt to open the crossing.
CINDY CORRIE: You asked about Rachel and how people respond to her here, and I—most everybody, at least if they—you know, they know her name when they hear it, most all of them. If somebody points out that we’re Rachel Corrie’s parents, you know, they’re very kind, and they want to talk to us.
I think I can only explain that because, you know, this—it is a prison here, and when someone comes from the outside, as Rachel did and as others do, other ISMers, other internationals come to Gaza and the West Bank, and then pay the ultimate price, which is what they feel Rachel has done, I think it gives them some hope. I think it probably strengthens their resolve, you know, to know that there are people on the outside that care as much as Rachel did. And I think that also it means a lot to them to see that we continue, in a way, continue some of her journey, not doing the same kinds of work, but that we haven’t forgotten them, that we’re back again, and that we’re doing what we can in the United States.
Rachel brought us to the issue. We, certainly—if we had an allegiance before that, it was really to the Jewish Israeli story and narrative. That’s what we knew about. And we learned—she was very good about bringing us material, pointing us to websites and so forth, and she really tried to bring us along, even before she came here. She didn’t just abruptly one day get up and go. She did some planning and preparation for it, and she tried to include us in that process. But, of course, we learned much more as she was there, particularly when she wrote the emails to us. It was eye-opening, because we knew about her as a writer and as an observer. So, it’s one thing to read about things on a website or in a newspaper article or a book, not knowing the people who are doing that; it’s another thing to hear about it from someone that you know and trust. And so, immediately we started to learn things, and so did our entire extended family and Rachel’s friends, because the things that she was writing about were being shared.
When we came here after she was killed, you know, our knowledge, you know, just developed more and more. And there really is no better way to learn about a situation than to come and see it for yourself.
But I guess a few weeks after Rachel was killed, we met someone named Linda Biehl, whose daughter was killed in South Africa when she was registering voters for the first election in which everyone could vote. And her family has carried on her work in different ways, Amy’s work, Amy Biehl’s work. And I remember looking at Linda Biehl and saying, “Were you ever able to retrieve any part of your previous life?” And she thought for a moment and she said, “Not really.” My daughter, Sarah, said she knew that that was “game over,” that we were—you know, we had work to do. So, a good part of what we do is trying to educate people within government. And we’ve found that most of those people haven’t ever been to Gaza, so we have something to offer in the way of information.
Certainly, in the last couple months, with the support of many people in Washington state, we’ve been really bringing a lot of—as much information as we can to our members, our entire congressional delegation, people meeting with the different congressional offices throughout the state. And it’s a difficult process, but I feel like we’re having some impact. And Rachel’s congressman came to Gaza, Brian Baird, our congressman, as well. We didn’t know before he made the trip that he was going to do it, but we were so thrilled when we heard that he was here. And we’re really happy to hear, I think, very honest, heartfelt statements from him about what he witnessed here, as well.
CRAIG CORRIE: You know, the people here are just folks. And you’ve got to understand people as people. And that’s the sort of first thing. And this one person here says, “We’re certainly not animals to be kept in a zoo, and somebody throws food over the wall to us every time.” But trying to bring the humanity of the issue to people, I think, is an important message.
The first thing people here need is hope, probably. Anybody, to survive, you need hope. And the second thing is respect, respect for their humanity. And I have vast respect for these people. And then we have to get to work, of course, on some humanitarian aid and rebuilding aid, but again, that has to come in a political context which gives them a hope for a real future.
You look at the children here that we’ve seen throughout this day and the previous days and, of course, on other trips, and they’re beautiful. They’re just beautiful, smiling. Somehow they manage still to smile. How can you be shaking for twenty-five minutes and then—children are resilient in a lot ways and run around smiling later, but they deserve a future, just like our kids have. And we won’t have the kind of future that we want unless these children have that, a chance at that future. You know, they need to be able to get that way.
So I think that’s part of it: trying to tie what is a real connection that we see between people of Palestine and our own existence in the United States. We’re wedded together, whether we like it or not. And so, we need to figure out how to make that, I guess, a happy marriage. And it can be. The people here will somehow have the capacity to, first of all, make a distinction between Americans coming here and our foreign policy, which for them is atrocious.
This—you know, United States largely paid to build some of these factories here, to build—for instance, you look at the electrical plant that was destroyed or partially destroyed a few years ago, and the United States built it, the United States insured it, and the United States bombed it. And with this—it’s largely true for the whole Strip, that through US aid money and some other of things—a lot of this was built with US money. It was certainly bombed with US ammunition. The United States paid and actually transported the fuel for this somewhat during the summer. While we were paying $4 a gallon for gas, we were also shipping gas to Israel for use here. And now we’re talking about rebuilding it again with US dollars. You know, enough is enough. I absolutely think we need to rebuild the Gaza Strip, but it has to be rebuilt with the standards of—political standards that need to go around that, so that it’s not going to be bombed apart again.
CINDY CORRIE: I think we need to insist on accountability for what has happened here. I know that there have been calls for investigation into specific incidents. I don’t know exactly the form that that’s going to take. I was really happy to hear before we left the United States that Senator Leahy, I believe, had called for investigation of one incident where two young men were killed when they were traveling with their father. We visited the father, heard his story. It was during—they were out traveling during the time when there was a three-hour kind of ceasefire each day, when people could go out into their neighborhoods and so forth.
I’m glad that Senator Leahy called for that, but I noted that he called for an Israeli investigation. And I am here as witness to the fact that I think it’s impossible for the Israelis to investigate themselves properly in this situation. It didn’t happen—it hasn’t happened yet in Rachel’s case. That’s according to the US government. The position of the US government is that her case has not been thoroughly, credibly and transparently investigated. I have no confidence that that can happen with all that has happened here in the Gaza Strip. So, somehow, through other resources, through the international community, but also in the US, by finding some way that we make determinations about how our weapons were used here—Craig and I saw the evidence of white phosphorus yesterday.
CRAIG CORRIE: We saw the white phosphorus.
CINDY CORRIE: We saw the white phosphorus yesterday in homes that were destroyed. And so, we need to find ways to document, to have an adequate investigation about what’s happened, and then have accountability according to our own laws, the Arms Export Control Act, our financing of foreign military aid and so forth, the Leahy amendment. There are different avenues for doing that. But I hope that as American citizens, we’ll start to say, “No matter what Israel does, we draw the line,” because there are supposed to be consequences if our weapons are misused. And I think most Americans, if they saw this, they would want those laws enforced. They would not want to see the continuation of our spending on this kind of activity.
CRAIG CORRIE: I’m a Vietnam vet, and so I lived under threat for over eleven months of the year. And you grow close to the people around you. You survive because of the people around you, and you become incredibly attached to the people around you. And I know I worried so much when Rachel was here, not just about her health while she was here and surviving being here, but then what it would be like to go home, because I knew she was staying with family, she was staying with children, she was staying with people that won’t be able to leave when she was able to leave. And I feel a little, you know, more than a little bit of that now. We’re able to leave. And as Rachel wrote, “You can’t really understand this place until you come, and even then you don’t really understand it.” She said, “I don’t understand it, because I had the money to buy water, and I have food and can leave. These people don’t.”
CINDY CORRIE: I think this trip I was able to take in, in some ways, more. The other—we’ve been here twice before, and, for different reasons, those were both really emotional and kind of traumatic visits, at times. Pieces, parts of it, were.
But I was struck again, struck, kind of surprised, even as we were coming in from the crossing in Rafah, about the land, the farmland, how much farmland I was seeing, and the sheep. And there’s a way of life here. People live here, even though they are under just unbelievable pressures and such terrible things happening day to day to day, people killed every day, nearly every day. But people live here, and I was struck by that much more—the women out taking care of the fields, the people herding the sheep and the goats. And there’s, in the rural areas, the families who are—family life is very important, and people get together, and they enjoy each other, and they sustain each other. So, through the hardship, there’s a great deal of life happening here.
And I think I heard John Ging say, “This is a civilized people.” And I don’t remember the end of his comment, but something about “in a prison,” I believe “in a prison.” And for me, this is a civilized people with tremendous forces working against them to really, as Rachel said, to erase them. And I believe that if we can shift that so that there are more forces working to—in solidarity with the people of Palestine to build the lives that they want, there’s all the potential for that to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Cindy and Craig Corrie, speaking on the Rafah border with Democracy Now! producer Anjali Kamat. Their daughter, Rachel Corrie, was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer that was manufactured by the Illinois-based company Caterpillar. Rachel was killed on March 16, 2003, six years ago today.
Special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films. We’ll be bringing you more of their coverage in the coming days.
Also, last month, Israel paid around $2 million in damages to the family of a British cameraman who was shot by an Israeli soldier a few weeks after Rachel in 2003. The family of James Miller accepted the payment, saying it was as close to admission of guilt from Israel as they were ever likely to get. Miller was in Gaza working on a documentary about Palestinian children caught up in the conflict. The documentary, Death in Gaza, later aired on HBO and won three Emmys.