Twenty years ago, on March 16, 2003, an Israeli military bulldozer crushed American solidarity activist Rachel Corrie to death a few kilometers away from my home in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. She was one of several International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activists trying to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes there.
Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, had launched a campaign to destroy thousands of Palestinian homes to establish a buffer zone on the Palestinian-Egyptian border. ISM activists arrived in the area to express humanitarian solidarity with civilians facing Israel’s occupation machine. This machine was, and is, generously supported by the United States government, Rachel’s homeland.
At that early age, I was not interested in politics, but politics isn’t a choice for Palestinians.
Rachel was 23 when she was killed. She could have satisfied her conscience by protesting against global injustice in a demonstration in America or by calling for a boycott of the aggressors.
But her high sense of morality was not satisfied with these symbolic gestures. Her conscience would not rest without complete involvement, without standing side-by-side with us. That’s why she came to Palestine.
She lived in Palestinian homes threatened with demolition. She endured the same difficult days and nights to which Palestinian families were subjected and heard the same sounds of indiscriminate gunfire from Israeli tanks, yet she still risked her life so she could answer the call of her conscience.
Rachel did not pose any danger to Israeli soldiers that conducted their daily exercise of demolishing Palestinian homes. She was an unarmed woman, wearing a bright-colored vest and shouting through a megaphone in front of the bulldozer.
But the presence of Rachel and her colleagues posed an ethical challenge to the Israeli occupation because these solidarity activists exposed the false Israeli narrative that it was conducting security operations. The truth was that they were targeting civilian families.
The intentional killing of Rachel Corrie was a message of intimidation to solidarity activists, telling them to stop hindering Israeli soldiers during their daily ritual of house demolition and killing civilians.
Rachel’s parents sought justice in Israeli courts for the killing of their daughter. An Israeli judge at the Haifa District Court ruled that Corrie’s death was an accident for which the state of Israel was not responsible, and the Israeli Supreme Court agreed. Her family wrote that the court decision “amounts to judicial sanction of immunity for Israeli military forces when they commit injustices and human rights violations.”
As I grew older, my awareness of Rachel increased. I listened to one of her clips on YouTube. She was a child talking about her dream in life:
“I’m here for other children. I’m here because I care. I’m here because children everywhere are suffering and because 40000 people die each day from hunger. I’m here because those people are mostly children, we have got to understand that the poor are all around us, and we are ignoring them. We have got to understand that these deaths are preventable, we have got to understand that people in third world countries are us. We are them. My dream is to stop hunger by the year 2000. My dream is to give the poor a chance. My dream is to save the 40000 people who die each day. My dream can and will come true if we all look into the future and see the light that shines there.”
I listened to the clip repeatedly. As a child, Rachel told us the exact reason that led her to Palestine — a child’s dream of a world where justice prevails, and people don’t die because of oppression.
Rachel’s dreams have not been realized yet. Hunger in our world has not ended, and the homes she tried to preserve in Palestine are still being demolished.
But belief in that same dream has not ebbed. Rachel’s spirit inspired many believers who see the light of the future and continue to raise their voices against injustice and oppression.
These believers now make up the grassroots movements worldwide that are opposed to the forces of apartheid and colonialism and understand the fight for freedom and humanity as their unified global fight.
Rachel’s name is in my heart as a symbol of moral purity. Her most important message was that her country’s political leadership does not represent American citizens, many of whom believe in freedom, justice, and dignity for all people. Although the United States is normally synonymous with its total financial and military backing of Israel’s occupation, Rachel’s example removed many of the negative connotations about the U.S. from the hearts of many Palestinians.
When I got the chance to visit the U.S. in 2019 on a speaking tour, the first thing that came to mind was wanting to meet Rachel’s family. I asked the trip coordinator from the AFSC about the possibility, and the organizers were generous enough to make it happen. I met Craig and Cindy Corrie in Georgia. We spent the day together and visited the Martin Luther King Museum.
I told Rachel’s parents that their daughter was generous. She came to our town in solidarity and paid with her life for the values she believed in. I told them that they were generous to me in our meeting with their true feelings of love and solidarity.
Twenty years on, Rachel’s spirit still lives among all those who believe in freedom and justice worldwide. Sadly, the entry of activists into Gaza has become more complicated, let alone almost impossible, due to the tight restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation. Yet the spirit of solidarity with the rights of the Palestinian people can be seen everywhere.
Rachel’s spirit was present in the protests of May 2021 that took to the streets throughout the U.S.
These protests are a recent example that the official discrimination policies of the Israeli colonial state haven’t succeeded in killing the collective conscience of people and their belief in justice and freedom for all.
Rachel’s case was cast aside by Israel’s colonial courts. But Rachel won.
She became a worldwide symbol of freedom and a source of inspiration for everyone who dreams of a world of justice and peace.
Israel may have killed her, but Rachel Corrie lives on in all of us.