In the Midst of Genocide in Gaza – The Legacy of Rachel Corrie Lives On

Rachel's parents during a protest in Palestine (Photo: ISM)

By Benay Blend

During her time in Gaza, Corrie stayed with a family in Rafah. In her letters home, she referred to the difference between there and here as a “virtual portal into luxury”.

In 1990-91, Corrie wrote in her journal: “I guess people are happier not caring…Gee, maybe I should try not caring sometime. Then I’d be unstoppable, untouchable. What a blast! Or would it be?” (Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie, 2008, pp. 12, 13).

On March 16, 2003, a 60-tonne D9 bulldozer built by Caterpillar Inc. ran over her while she was attempting to protect a home from demolition in Rafah. Murdered much too young, Corrie believed that a live well-lived involved living for a cause.

During her time in Gaza, Corrie stayed with a family in Rafah. In her letters home, she referred to the difference between there and here as a “virtual portal into luxury,” an awareness that she would always see the life her host family lived through a Western lens.

Written shortly before her death, Corrie experienced many things that shocked her. Yet she was not what activist/journalist Ramzy Baroud would term a “victim intellectual,” an individual who, within the space allowed by pro-Palestinian groups, spoke only of the Palestinian’s victimhood, thereby conveying narratives that lack appropriate historical context.

“The Palestinian struggle cannot be reduced to a conversation about poverty or the horrors of war,” Baroud writes, “but must be expanded to include the wider political contexts that led to the current tragedies in the first place.”

When Corrie describes the checkpoints that Palestinians must pass through on their way to work or university, when she calls attention to demolished homes, she is putting information into an historical, geopolitical context, one that includes the victimizer, too.

She also understood what Baroud  tweeted many years after her death: “For Palestinians, our joy and our grief always go hand in hand. Life has forced us to learn to extract fleeting moments of happiness from the deepest of wounds. This is where our power comes from, and this is how our culture survives the scourge of colonialism.”

After admitting in a letter home that she was in the “midst of genocide,” Corrie said that she would be forever changed after witnessing a “degree of evil” that she had previously thought impossible.

Nevertheless, she believed that Palestinians set a good example for “how to be in it for the long haul.” Through their “laughter, generosity, [and] family-time,” they maintain their humanity in the most challenging of times. “I think the word is dignity,” concluded Corrie, an ability to “remain human” while facing death.

What Corrie witnessed in 2003—the joy and pain that she saw in Gaza—remains until this day as Gazans are experiencing Ramadan during a time when Israelis are escalating their siege. Despite the sorrow of 31,184 dead as of today, 72,889 wounded, and 7000 missing under rubble, Mahmoud Ajjar writes from Gaza that shopkeepers are retrieving unsold items from Ramadan last year and putting the decorations and lanterns  on display to create a semblance of celebration for the children.

This year there are no dates, dried figs or spices, as families barely have enough to eat, but “the fighting spirit of the Palestinians remains undefeated,” at least as far as maintaining the humanity that Corrie much earlier observed.

Corrie might also understand the decision of musician Fares Anbar to remain in Gaza despite the hardships and the pain. “By God, what a strong people we are,” Anbar said. “We have been given the strength and patience to bear a burden that humanity is incapable of bearing. I thank God for the blessing that I am a Gazan.”

Because Corrie saw that the beauty of Palestine stands out amidst its grief, she most certainly would have appreciated Anbar’s assessment of Gazans under siege. “The people of Gaza love life more than the occupation fears death,” he declared, and vowed that, if not martyred, he would dedicate his music to every citizen of Gaza until his death.

Until 2023, Gazans honored Rachel Corrie with a biennial football tournament organized in her name. Sponsored by the Rachel Corrie Foundation, the event honors Rachel’s solidarity with Palestinians as well as the kindness that she received from families who took her in.

According to Adnan Abulsoud, the organizer of the tournament for several years, “teams are named after Palestinian towns occupied in 1948 to remind people of the right of return,” thereby reminding people of the Nakba during which these villages were ethnically cleansed.

Because Corrie travelled with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), she adhered to the group’s commitment to nonviolence in her actions and beliefs. But she understood that she could not impose that stance onto other people, in particular the oppressed, and she was beginning to have doubts about it, too.

In a letter dated February 27, 2003, Corrie responded to her mother’s contention that “Palestinian violence was not helping the situation.” After recounting economic hardships imposed by Israel through the occupation, she asked her mother: “What is left?”

“I really think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves as best they could,” concluded Corrie, thereby placing herself side-by-side with the oppressed. Always striving for accuracy in her assessment of life in Rafah, she told her mother that Gaza was undergoing genocide because all means of survival had been cut off.

In her brief time in Gaza, Rachel Corrie epitomized what it means to be in solidarity with another group of people. In his exploration of the term, Israeli anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappé explains that there is always a “tension between effort and tangible results” (“The International Struggle on Behalf of Palestine,” Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders Speak Out, edited by Ramzy Baroud, 2022, pp. 411-412).

Though she would not have known him, Corrie followed Pappé’s solution (p.412) by focusing less on her own achievements but instead asking herself if she had done enough. “I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my coworkers,” she conceded, “but I also want this to stop.” During her brief time in Gaza, Corrie did everything she could to fulfill the hope that she communicated in her letters.

“Learning about the true nature of solidarity is something you cannot learn theoretically or study in a university,” Pappé continued. “You need to experience it through your own activism” (p. 412). Corrie knew that too.

“No amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here,” Corrie wrote home to her parents. She had to see it for herself. That she did so will continue to educate and inspire activists for many years to come.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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