On March 16, 2003 in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, a Caterpillar D9R Israeli bulldozer crushed the American human rights volunteer Rachel Corrie. While she stood to defend the home of the Nasrallah family and its five children, she did not anticipate that the vehicle in front of her would continue its path.
Khaled Nasrallah, who lived in the house Rachel safeguarded, recalls her impact: ‘Rachel really changed our fundamental ideas. Sometimes we believed that Western people were fully supporting the Israeli side and did not have feelings for us … [My family] didn’t do anything against any party, but the Israeli Defense Forces gave the innocent and the guilty the same treatment.”
Pressure from the United States forced the Israeli government to conduct a military investigation of Rachel’s death. Seven years later, Rachel Corrie’s family is seeking $300,000 in damages from the Israeli military for wrongful killing. However, the Israeli military report excludes photographs taken by other human rights activists who witnessed the incident. The Israeli government has prevented the Palestinian doctor who treated Rachel from leaving Gaza to testify. Israeli state attorneys also insist that Rachel incited violence against Israeli soldiers. These efforts to minimize case evidence are attempts to undermine what Rachel accomplished in the Gaza Strip and invalidate the nonviolent movement that she stood for.
Before her death, Rachel had been volunteering with the human rights organization International Solidarity Movement. ISM is a Palestinian-led organization that relies on international civilian presence to protect and empower Palestinians participating in nonviolent actions. Over the past decade ISM has decreased its presence in Gaza due to strict Israeli and Egyptian border control, but remains active in the occupied West Bank.
International human rights volunteers engage in direct actions such as challenging checkpoints, confronting tanks and safeguarding families whose homes are threatened with demolition. Rachel participated in these nonviolent acts of resistance to Israel’s military occupation with the hope of helping the Palestinian families she came to know. However, her death demonstrated the ruthlessness with which the Israeli military responds to civil disobedience.
While Rachel’s death conjours up emotions for those who knew her, she has become a symbolic figure in the non-violent Palestinian struggle. Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie, continue her mission to defend human rights and pursue social justice through the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice. Actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katherine Viner compiled a collection of Rachel’s journal entries into the one-woman play, ‘My Name is Rachel Corrie,” which has been performed throughout Europe and the United States. Simone Bitton’s documentary film ‘Rachel” (2008) weaves Rachel’s words with testaments from those who witnessed her death to tell her story.
Tributes to Rachel’s memory show that revering a white American woman is effective in providing a marginalized movement with media exposure. News briefings on Palestinian resistance satisfy popular associations between Palestine and terrorism by portraying masked militant characters manufacturing Qassam rockets. Palestinian civilians throwing rocks at Israeli tanks is yet another common media depiction, which communicates the hopelessness and anger produced by occupation.
Perhaps Palestinians are in need of a different kind of representation that will empower them and advocate for their struggle. Since the deaths of major Palestinian figures such as Yasser Arafat, whose political intentions are disputable, and public intellectual Edward Sad, whose critique of the conflict is limited to academic spheres, mainstream media manages to muffle Palestinian voices on the international stage.
However, independent Palestinian media might be a potential venue for Palestinian representation. Founded by international and Palestinian journalists in 2001, Electronic Intifada provides holistic coverage and analyses of activism, global policies and human rights in Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora. One blog, Diaries: Live from Palestine, is dedicated to reporting personal testimonies and pressing issues often overlooked by popular media directly affecting Palestinians. The title suggests a platform for local Palestinians, as well as intimate looks at their experiences.
While greater possibilities for Palestinian advocacy emerge, the debasement of occupation and embargo continue. Palestinians in Gaza experience the devastating effects of Israel’s grip on basic resources. Soldier harassment in the West Bank and East Jerusalem remain ignored by the powers that be.
Unlike many Palestinian victims of Israeli violence, Rachel Corrie’s family is able to bring those responsible for their daughter’s death to justice. As Rachel’s case proceeds, her mother hopes for a positive outcome: ‘We hope the trial will bring attention to the assault on non violent human rights activists (Palestinian, Israeli and international) and we hope it will underscore the fact that so many Palestinian families, harmed as deeply as ours or more, cannot access Israeli courts.”
Chinelli is a member of
the class of 2011.