Rachel Corrie in an interview with Saudi Arabian television on 14 March 2003, two days before she was killed. Photograph: Lorenzo Scaraggi/Getty Images
Nine years after she was killed protesting in the Gaza Strip, the verdict in a lawsuit brought by her family is about to be heard
The young American’s intention was to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in Rafah refugee camp, close to the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Scores of homes had already been crushed; Corrie was one of eight American and British volunteers acting as human shields for local families.
“She was standing on top of a pile of earth,” said fellow activist and eyewitness Richard Purssell, from Brighton, at the time. “The driver cannot have failed to see her. As the blade pushed the pile, the earth rose up. Rachel slid down the pile. It looks as if her foot got caught. The driver didn’t slow down; he just ran over her. Then he reversed the bulldozer back over her again.”
The question of whether the driver of the Caterpillar D9R bulldozer saw the young woman in the orange jacket, and drove deliberately at and over her, has been at the centre of the Corrie family’s decade-long battle for accountability and justice.
On Tuesday that struggle is set to culminate when an Israeli court gives its verdict in a civil lawsuit that the family have brought against the state of Israel.
An Israeli Defence Forces investigation has already found that its forces were not to blame and that the bulldozer driver had not seen the activist. No charges were brought and the case was closed. The IDF report concluded: “Rachel Corrie was not run over by an engineering vehicle but rather was struck by a hard object, most probably a slab of concrete which was moved or slid down while the mound of earth which she was standing behind was moved.” Corrie and other International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activists were accused by the investigators of “illegal, irresponsible and dangerous” behaviour.
But witness accounts gathered in Rafah in the aftermath of Corrie’s death on 16 March 2003 suggest little doubt as to what happened. According to Tom Dale, from Lichfield in Staffordshire: “the bulldozer went towards her very slowly, she was fully in clear view, straight in front of them”.
Corrie tried to scramble on top of the earth being pushed into a mound by the bulldozer blades. “Unfortunately she couldn’t keep her grip there and she started to slip down. You could see she was in serious trouble, there was panic in her face as she was turning around. All the activists there were screaming, running towards the bulldozer, trying to get them to stop. But they just kept on going,” Dale said. The incident lasted around six or seven seconds.
Corrie was taken by a Red Crescent ambulance to the Najar hospital, arriving at the emergency room at 5.05pm. She was still alive – just. At 5.20pm she was declared dead. It was, the Israeli military said later that day, a “very regrettable accident”.
Rachel Corrie had arrived in the Holy Land on January 22, a young woman brimming with idealism, anger at injustice, and a determination to make a difference, however small.
She had volunteered for the ISM, an organisation of pro-Palestinian activists who engage in direct action against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
After two days of training workshops, Corrie headed for Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. In early 2003, Israeli troops, tanks and armoured vehicles were a daily presence in Rafah and other cities. Snipers were stationed in watchtowers; helicopters and military planes buzzed in the skies.
The second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, had begun more than two years before, and suicide bombers were being regularly despatched from Gaza and the West Bank to cause death and destruction in Israel.
Death and destruction was also a feature of life in Gaza. Corrie was shocked by what she saw. “No amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here. You just cannot imagine it unless you see it,” she wrote in one of her many emails to family and friends at home in Olympia, Washington state, on 7 February.
Three weeks later, she told her mother, Cindy, in an email: “I’m witnessing this chronic, insidious genocide and I’m really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it’s a good idea for all of us to drop everything and devote our lives to making it stop… Disbelief and horror is what I feel.”
Corrie and other ISM activists in Rafah were mainly engaged in trying to obstruct house demolitions being carried out by the IDF, which said the targeted homes were suspected of sheltering militants or concealing the entrances to tunnels dug under the border with Egypt to facilitate the smuggling of weapons and explosives. The activists said the demolitions were collective punishment for the actions of a minority of militants.
The presence of international activists was a nuisance for the IDF, but the military was not to be deterred. “During war there are no civilians,” an IDF training officer later told Haifa district court during a hearing into the Corrie family’s civil lawsuit, implying that militants, Palestinian civilians and international activists were all legitimate targets.
A Israeli military spokesman described ISM activists as “a group of protesters who were acting very irresponsibly, putting everyone in danger — the Palestinians, themselves and our forces — by intentionally placing themselves in a combat zone.”
But Corrie’s death caused an outcry far greater than that of any Palestinian. According to the Observer, nine Palestinians, including a girl, 4, and 90-year-old man, were killed on the same day. But inevitably the death of young American woman made headlines around the world and caused serious diplomatic reverberations.
The next day, Israel’s then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, promised US president George W Bush that Israel would conduct a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation into the incident.
Corrie’s body was taken by the Israeli authorities to the National Centre of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv, where an autopsy was conducted. No report was published but, according to Human Rights Watch, the conclusion was that death was caused by “pressure on the chest … with fractures of the ribs and vertebrae … and tear wounds in the right lung with haemorrhaging of the pleural cavities”.
The Corrie family was not satisfied with the IDF report. Seven years after their daughter’s death, in March 2010, they launched a civil case against the state of Israel, accusing its military of either unlawfully or intentionally killing Corrie or of gross negligence. It was, said the family, “absolutely our last resort”.
Sporadic hearings dragged on for 18 months. The court heard testimony from four ISM activists who witnessed the incident, but a Gaza doctor who examined Corrie’s wounds was refused an entry permit to Israel to give evidence.
The driver of the bulldozer, whose identity has not been made public, testified from behind a screen for “security reasons”. He repeatedly insisted that the first time he saw the activist was when she was already dying: “I didn’t see her before the incident. I saw people pulling the body out from under the earth.”
When the hearings ended in July last year, Corrie’s mother Cindy said the family was “at this moment in much the same place as we were when they began – up against a wall of Israeli officials determined to protect the state at all costs, including at the expense of truth.”
Last week, back in Israel for the verdict in the civil lawsuit, Cindy told the Guardian the ruling would be “a milestone” in the family’s long battle for justice and accountability. “The lawsuit is only one part of what we’ve done. There has still been no ‘thorough, credible and transparent’ investigation into Rachel’s death. Whatever happens, this is not the end.”