By Tom Wright and Therese Saliba
‘Parents can be awakened by their children.’ — Cindy Corrie, 2003 Commencement address
Ten years have now passed since we received the terrible phone call telling us our young friend Rachel Corrie was dead. We had gone to see her off the drizzly winter day she left Olympia to work in Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement. We couldn’t know that we were seeing her for the last time, nor foresee the legacy she would leave as she said goodbye to her hometown, and stepped into history.
Rachel would be killed on March 16, 2003, crushed beneath an armored Israeli bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Gazan border town of Rafah.
It seems likely that Rachel’s story would by now have faded from memory as just one more among the thousands of deaths in Gaza over the past decade, but for the efforts of her parents, Craig and Cindy. Having no prior involvement in the Israel-Palestine issue, they immersed themselves in a process of self-education and public activism so relentless and untiring that even now it leaves their friends slack-jawed in amazement.
Rachel’s family has witnessed an eventful decade—in the Middle East and at home. They’ve pursued legal struggles, led public campaigns, traveled the world, and kept Rachel’s story alive through books, plays, films and media outreach.
We sat down with them recently to talk about the changes they’ve seen.
Working Inside the System
As we detailed in an article five years ago, much of the Corries’ initial efforts focused on moving the three branches of the American government to deliver justice after Rachel’s killing. They pressed the Executive branch, through the State and Justice departments, for an investigation, they used the court system for a civil trial against the Caterpillar Corporation, and they sought a Congressional resolution calling for a U.S.-led investigation. As hardly needs saying, these efforts failed spectacularly in their primary goals. The Corries challenged—and for many newcomers, exposed–a powerful and deeply entrenched foreign policy apparatus that grants virtual impunity to Israel, even for the killing of an American peace activist.
But the Corries take a long view, and try to see the good. Cindy says, “Many people in government, particularly in the diplomatic corps, are there for good reasons– there are people with good hearts. I think their willingness to meet with us is partly because they know that Rachel’s story does have significance, around the world, and in the Arab world particularly. And certainly they know it has resonance in Gaza and with Palestinians.”
Craig and Cindy know that they carry an authority that few others can claim, and although it was unsought, they use it conscientiously.
“It’s been ten years for us now, and for our family,” added Craig. “That includes extended family like sisters and brother in laws, and it’s amazing how many people who are high up in government we’ve talked to. Either them or their assistants… all these people now have some understanding of the situation, and I think they have some respect, they can’t just write us off as crazy.”
“In the last attack on Gaza, in November, we were there. Israel started to drop bombs, and we woke up to a flash of light, then the concussion–it was that close to us. When we came back, we went to the State Dept. We spent about an hour talking to the head of the Israel-Palestine desk. They’ve never been to Gaza, none of these people knew anything about Gaza.” In a sense, the Corries have become civil society’s ambassadors to Gaza, a region abandoned by U.S. (and European) diplomatic isolation since the rise of the democratically elected Hamas government there.
Cindy said, “The State Department doesn’t have anybody in Gaza. I think many of them know that’s maybe not the most productive policy for them, it’s difficult when they don’t have people in places. We shared with them that we went to the funeral of a young boy killed playing soccer in front of his house in Khan Younis by the Israeli military. I went with his mother, and we talked to his friends who showed us where they had been playing soccer. You realize that for these children, that’s an experience they may carry with them forever. If you want to make progress, you have to stop these kinds of situations that have to fill people with so much hurt and rage. It shouldn’t happen.”
The Civil Trial in Israel
The Corries, at their own expense, have spent the last eight years pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit in Israeli courts, charging the State of Israel and its Defense Ministry with the intentional and unlawful killing of their daughter. If the effort to move the U.S. government was Herculean, the task of moving the Israeli government would prove Sisyphean. Personally attending all of the courtroom proceedings, the family logged some nine months in Israel for the trial. Seeking accountability, not money, they asked for $1 in symbolic damages.
Craig explained, “The courts are the way that we have agreed as a society to settle our disagreements nonviolently. That’s the official way to do it. And so I feel very strongly that you have to demand that they work. And so we did.”
They encountered double standards from the outset. Cindy told us,
“They didn’t want to hear anything about home demolitions. In some ways, Rachel’s lost in the trial. She’s just a dead person. And the reasons for why she was there, the home demolitions and all that was happening, oh they bristled so. When B’tselem gets brought up, the Israeli human rights organization that’s reporting what’s happening in the Occupied Territories, they just brush it away: ‘What’s B’tselem? We don’t trust their data!’ It’s so shocking because this is the Israeli state. That’s what we were seeing, the Israeli state, in the courtroom. And it’s very shocking, the lengths to which they will go to prevail.
“They had a woman who testified as an ‘expert’ on the International Solidarity Movement—she had never done any research on ISM. She was the military spokesperson when Rachel was killed and so that made her an expert on ISM. She submitted to the court a 100-page report demonizing ISM, demonizing Rachel.”
Craig broke in: “She submitted that two weeks before she was coming to testify, so it’s all in Hebrew. We said, ‘How are we going to get this translated? ….What are we gonna do with it?’” (The Corries had to pay for the English translation of thousands of pages of documents). “Then we learn that she just picked it up off the internet. She has no expertise on this. And it all goes in, and it’s just made-up garbage. When we have witnesses, it can’t be about what Israel is doing in Gaza, but when they have witnesses, it can be about what the ISM is doing in Jenin. “
They were struck early on by the casual trial preparation by the military, signaling its confidence in a friendly judge’s courtroom. Craig recalled with exasperation the testimony of the former Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade Commander, Colonel Pinhas (Pinky) Zuaretz, who was in charge when Rachel died. The colonel had testified in a sworn affidavit that an injury he had received had occurred in the area Rachel where was working, known as the Philadelphi Corridor, which was untrue. “So our attorney says, ‘So you’re telling me, you’re injured near the Philadelphi Corridor?’ And he said ‘No, I never said that’. ‘Well, here, you want to read this (affidavit)? ‘Oh, well, it’s wrong.’ ‘Wrong? Why is it wrong?’ He said it’s wrong because of ‘inattention’!”
“Then he said his troops had been fired at with rockets from the Nasrallah’s home (the family Rachel was defending). They’re putting in a public document that anybody can read, that the family are terrorists. He then says, well it was after the family had been forced to move out. So it was when the house was controlled by the Israeli military! And it completely escapes them that they were safer with the family living in the house than when it was under their control. These are experienced, good attorneys turning out this sort of (Expletive Deleted), and it’s an important trial, but they know going in that they’ve got it won, and they don’t have to do any better than that. “
Last August the Corries finally received a verdict in the trial. While not unexpected, it was stunning in the scope of its implications.
The judge, Oded Gershon, ruled that the military was blameless in Rachel’s death. He said that the military’s own investigation (which had exonerated itself) had been “properly conducted.” Even the U.S. government rejects that finding; the Bush State Dept. told the Corries in writing that Israel had never conducted the “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation it promised in 2003.
But the judge didn’t stop there. He went on to condemn the Gandhian tactics of the ISM as “de facto violence,” and– in words indistinguishable from a military press release–said that ISM protected Palestinian families “involved in terrorism;” specialized in “disrupting operational activities of the IDF”; and shielded “terror activists wanted by the Israeli security forces.” The group also provided “financial, logistic and moral support to the Palestinians, including terrorists and their families,” and was involved in “disrupting the demolition or sealing of homes of terrorists who carried out suicide attacks that caused many casualties.”
The notion that home demolitions were defensive actions taken in response to suicide bombings is ludicrous on its face: over 1,600 homes were demolished in Rafah alone, between 2000 and 2004. This was a policy of mass collective punishment, and deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, a war crime. But more galling than this is the sheer hypocrisy. To Palestinians and their supporters accustomed to decades of Israeli demands that Palestinians use only non-violent tactics of resistance, Judge Gershon’s opinion could have come from the pen of Kafka.
Moreover, the real locus of “terrorism” had indeed been available from court testimony.
The Southern Brigade Commander, Colonel Zuaretz, had testified that the rules of engagement were to “shoot to kill any adult person on the [Philadelphi] route.” Another Israeli colonel had testified, “There are no civilians in a war zone.” Even the judge himself said, “She consciously put herself in harm’s way.”
As the Corries’ attorney Hussein Abu Hussein put it, “By accepting the testimony of Zuaretz and others, Judge Gershon essentially accepted that the ‘shoot to kill’ order was acceptable, which violates the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law, mandating that soldiers distinguish between combatants and civilians.”
Indeed. And in addition, there is the unbounded irony of an Israeli judge dismissing the Fourth Geneva Convention. That convention, which mandates protection of civilians in wartime, was adopted by the U.N. in 1949 in response to the Nazi atrocities. In 1993, the Convention became a part of “Customary International Law,” binding even on non-signatory nations.
Following the verdict, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter of the Carter Center joined other distinguished critics in condemnation, saying that the “Court’s decision confirms a climate of impunity, which facilitates Israeli human rights violations against Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territory.”
Changes over 10 Years: Getting the Story Right
When Carter, a former U.S. president, can title a book Palestine: Peace or Apartheid, an undeniable shift has occurred in the public discourse on this issue. Countless activists working for decades have contributed to this slow change in perceptions. Palestinian civil society, religious activists, organizations such as ISM and the U.S. Campaign to end the Occupation, and prominent figures like Carter have all contributed.
Cindy particularly emphasizes “the Palestinian voices that have become so strong in this decade” and the importance of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement: “It was courageous of those who first stepped out to support BDS, but now more and more people understand that BDS developed because other things have not worked, that there’s injustice to address, and this is a way that people are doing it.” She further highlights groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Young, Jewish & Proud who confront Israeli political figures and lobbyists and pointedly challenge the Occupation. She gives special note to “the remarkable courage of human rights organizations in Palestine and Israel” for helping to change public attitudes.
And, we believe, some of this shift can be attributed to Rachel’s inspiring stand for justice, the global impact of her story, and her family’s unrelenting work.
Ten years ago, Rachel was an early international witness to the mounting human catastrophe in Gaza that continues to this day. She wrote of Israel’s demolition of water wells, greenhouse cooperatives, and family homes, describing “the systematic destruction of people’s ability to survive.” Today her father contrasts this to the vast Israeli construction in the occupied West Bank, of settlements, roads, the Separation Wall. “You see the construction and you think ‘maybe this is better,’” as there is at least some employment. “But the people living there see the last parts of apartheid being set up–maybe it does matter if you have a little bit better standard of living under apartheid, but apartheid is what they are seeing there.”
In recent years, the mainstream media has come closer to getting the story right. The Corries pointed out the novelty of a major U.S. network reporting live from Gaza, during Israel’s November 2012 attack (a.k.a. “Operation Pillar of Defense”). Anderson Cooper’s coverage for CNN was “a huge sea change,” Cindy said. “It’s a bellweather…people may not know much about the issue, but they now know there’s something wrong with what Israel is doing there.” But, Craig added, “The part you don’t see in the paper is the siege of Gaza, which is always there—the basic injustice. “
Yet Israel’s attempt to isolate Gaza from the world, and the unprecedented destruction of its 2008 attack (“Operation Cast Lead”, which killed over 1400 Palestinians), has only brought more attention to Gaza’s plight. The Corries found themselves at the center of public response. In March 2009, they joined a Code Pink delegation, which included such public figures as Alice Walker and Medea Benjamin, to bear witness to Gaza’s destruction. Cindy also recounts how Rachel’s own congressman, Brian Baird, visited Gaza in the wake of Cast Lead, then “stood on the floor of Congress with a photo of three dead Palestinian children… and tried to speak to his colleagues about why there was something very wrong with all of this. I don’t know if this ever happened before. . .” Baird’s shift in position grew from his relationship with the Corries and his own eye-witness encounter with the sordid realities of daily life in Gaza. As Cindy explains, “When he first started talking to us, he started almost every sentence with ‘I’m supportive of Israel, but . . . ‘ and I said to him at one point, ‘I’m tired of hearing that. Can’t you just be pro-people?’”
The growing violence also spurred international activism to new levels of commitment. The Gaza Freedom Flotillas (2010-11) sought to break the siege of Gaza by delivering much-needed humanitarian supplies to the coastal strip, using unarmed civilian ships reaching Gaza from its Mediterranean coast. Israel’s military assault on the relief ship Mavi Marmara, killing eight Turkish activists and one Turkish American, drew widespread condemnation and further contributed to Israel’s pariah status. Another aid ship, christened MV Rachel Corrie, was intercepted in international waters by Israeli commandos in May, 2010. The Corries would tour the Mavi Marmara on a visit to Turkey in 2011, giving their condolences to the families who had lost loved ones in circumstances so similar to their own daughter’s.
Craig believes such actions have only backfired. He points out, “When you look at who voted for recognition of Palestine at the United Nations (last year), “it’s the U.S. that’s being isolated. You got the U.S., Canada, Israel and a couple of islands in the Pacific–and the rest of the world either voted Yes or abstained.”
The award-winning play, My Name is Rachel Corrie (2006), produced by Alan Rickman and Kathryn Viner, has reached audiences in more than 20 countries and over a dozen languages—a fact that Craig thinks is “fairly astounding.” In addition, Rachel’s collected journal writings in Let Me Stand Alone (2008), published by WW Norton, convey Rachel’s gift as a young writer and poet, with an intense awareness and creatively quirky self-expression. Craig describes Rachel as a flawed, joyous, much more humorous person than the iconic figure of Rachel that has emerged, but he is glad that some of her humor comes through in both the play and the book. He explains, “When she went to Palestine, her voice changed and her writing changed dramatically.” Cindy, however, sees continuity in Rachel’s writing and her empathetic way of looking at the world: “She wrote a poem when she about 12 years old about lost souls. I think more than about anybody I know she made a conscious effort never to look away from somebody. And I think going to Gaza is a rational extension of that.”
Here in Olympia, the impact of Rachel’s story is manifest on the walls of our city and in the collective efforts that made the Olympia Food Coop the first grocery in the U.S. to successfully boycott Israeli products. In 2007 the Olympia City Council voted against official recognition of the Olympia-Rafah Sister City relationship initiated by Rachel, despite over 70% support in public testimony. Shortly thereafter, plans for the world’s largest Palestine solidarity mural emerged under the direction of Susan Greene, a Jewish American mural artist from San Francisco, whose work also appears on the Separation Wall in Palestine, as well as in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatilla. Olympia’s mural, in the heart of downtown, can be viewed at (http://olympiarafahmural.org/).
Local BDS activists also won a significant victory when the Olympia Food Co-Op board passed a boycott in July 2010. They compounded that victory when they defeated a lawsuit brought by plaintiffs backed by the pro-Israel group Stand with Us. The lawsuit was struck down in February, 2012 as an illegal attempt to make it prohibitively expensive for the Co-Op to exercise its right to free speech. Under the provisions of a new Washington State law, the plaintiffs were ordered to pay attorneys’ fees plus $160,000 in damages to the Co-0p board members. This victory establishes a precedent for other groups to embrace the boycott strategy free from legal harassment.
In their travels across the country and around the world, Cindy and Craig encounter young people who have been inspired to act by Rachel’s story. “That happens over and over again,” Cindy said. “People say that her example resonates with them, and makes them feel they have to do something more with their lives.” She told us of a young man who approached them at a recent talk in Washington, D.C. and said that Rachel was the reason he had become politically involved. Craig recalled an actress who had done two long runs of the play in Australia, then went and volunteered in Africa. “And she told us, ‘I didn’t do that, Rachel did that, that’s not anything that was in me before I played Rachel.’”
Cindy spoke of being approached by Palestinians from the beginning. At first, she said, she didn’t understand why it was so important for Palestinians, young and old, to come meet them. Many would cry. “It took me awhile to understand it, and all that they were carrying, and have been carrying for over sixty years. I think it’s that there was this American kid–and as they struggled to get their message out and struggled to challenge what’s happened to them—she came, and she did that. I know, because they tell me how much that means, and it’s very personal.”
In the weeks approaching this 10th anniversary, the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice has been coordinating with activists in Australia, Scotland, Israel and Palestine, as well as in the U.S. In the past week alone, Craig and Cindy have traveled to Edmonton, Calgary, San Diego and Portland, and will be home in Olympia for a March 16 commemoration titled Rachel Corrie, 10 Years: The Person and the Continuing Struggle.
Cindy and Craig couldn’t throw out even a wild guess as to how many places they’ve traveled to in the past decade. “Continents,” Craig said. “I could tell you how many continents. All but Australia and Antarctica.” Recalling one event in Mobile, Alabama, Cindy said, “To me it’s heartening that no matter where you go, the smallest places, there are people—it may not be Palestine exactly—but they’re really a part of the movement, they know that it needs to be changed, and they’re finding a way to respond to that. It’s really inspiring, it keeps us going.”
– Tom Wright directed the 1997 documentary, Checkpoint: The Palestinians After Oslo. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. And Therese Saliba is on the faculty of International Feminism and Middle East Studies at The Evergreen State College, Olympia. Contact them at email@example.com. (This article was first published in CounterPunch.org)