rachel corrie (1979 – 2003): internationalism in action

by Joe Thorne

Many people were inside the houses we demolished. They would come out of the houses we were working on. I didn’t see, with my own eyes, people dying under the blade of the D-9; and I didn’t see houses falling down on live people. But if there were any, I wouldn’t care at all. I am sure people died inside these houses, but it was difficult to see, there was lots of dust everywhere, and we worked a lot at night. I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew they didn’t mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people for generations…
Moshe “Kurdi Bear” Nissim, D-9 bulldozer operator during the 2002 Jenin invasion

Seven years ago today, roughly a year after the Jenin invasion described above, Rachel Corrie – an American volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement – was crushed to death by a 50 ton D9 military bulldozer in the Gaza strip.  Last week (10th March), Rachel’s parents had their first day in an Israeli court, in an effort to compel the state to accept culpability for Rachel’s killing.  At the time, in 2003, a witness described her killing like this.

We’d been monitoring and occasionally obstructing the 2 bulldozers for about 2 hours when 1 of them turned toward a house we knew to be threatened with demolition. Rachel knelt down in its way. She was 10-20 metres in front of the bulldozer, clearly visible, the only object for many metres, directly in its view. They were in radio contact with a tank that had a profile view of the situation. There is no way she could not have been seen by them in their elevated cabin. They knew where she was, there is no doubt.

The bulldozer drove toward Rachel slowly, gathering earth in its scoop as it went. She knelt there, she did not move. The bulldozer reached her and she began to stand up, climbing onto the mound of earth. She appeared to be looking into the cockpit. The bulldozer continued to push Rachel, so she slipped down the mound of earth, turning as she went. Her faced showed she was panicking and it was clear she was in danger of being overwhelmed.

All the activists were screaming at the bulldozer to stop and gesturing to the crew about Rachel’s presence. We were in clear view as Rachel had been, they continued. They pushed Rachel, first beneath the scoop, then beneath the blade, then continued till her body was beneath the cockpit. They waited over her for a few seconds, before reversing. They reversed with the blade pressed down, so it scraped over her body a second time. Every second I believed they would stop but they never did.

I ran for an ambulance, she was gasping and her face was covered in blood from a gash cutting her face from lip to cheek. She was showing signs of brain hemorrhaging. She died in the ambulance a few minutes later of massive internal injuries. She was a brilliant, bright and amazing person, immensely brave and committed. She is gone and I cannot believe it.

The group here in Rafah has decided that we will stay here and continue to oppose human rights abuses as best we can. I want to add that more than 10 Palestinians have died in the Gaza Strip since Rachel.   (Electronic Intifada)

One of those ten Palestinians was killed a few hours after Rachel.  A street cleaner, described by his family as “a simple man”, Salim an-Najar was sitting on his porch, smoking a pipe, when a sniper shot him through the head.  There were no warning shots, and no one ever expected his murder to be reported or explained, still less justified.  Few outside Rafah remember Salim’s story, yet if any death characterises the unaccountable, sporadic violence by Israel toward Palestinians, it is surely his.

The same eye witness quoted earlier continued:

If you’re wondering about Rafah: in the southern Gaza Strip, next to the Egyptian border. Apart from suffering in excess from the problems all over Palestine: Israeli manipulation of the water supply, economic strangulation, regular shootings and army operations, Rafah is afflicted by the building of an extra border wall. It has caused hundreds of homes to be destroyed.

The house in question, that of a doctor, like dozens of others in the area is not set to be demolished because of any supposed link to militants. Only because it lies within 100 metres of the new border wall, currently in construction. Families receive no compensation from Israel, and are frequently given just a few minutes warning in the form of live ammunition being shot through the walls of their house.

Now, large swathes of the Rafah of 2003 have gone, including the house of Dr. Samir’s family, which Rachel was defending.  Rachel embodied a thoroughgoing internationalism: an internationalism not just of principle or propaganda, but deep practice.

In remembering in Rachel, there are at least two mistakes which do her a disservice.  One is to see her death as the product of an aberrant individual psychology (in terms of psychopathy or gross negligence), or even as a unique product of Israel’s Zionism.

Far from being a one off event, the unaccountable killing of civilians is a normal and inevitable consequence of the war.  To focus too much on the minds of particular perpetrators ignores the way in which psychopathic mental states are constituted by nationalism and war.  A recent documentary, Rachel by Simone Bitton, features an Israeli soldier describing how his unit routinely shot up civilian hot water tanks at night in Rafah.  Apparently it looks ‘cool’ through night vision goggles.  One month after Rachel, Tom Hurndall, another ISM volunteer, was shot through the head by an Israeli sniper while carrying children to safety – another case recorded in detail only due to the nationality of the victim.  Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in protests against the West Bank wall in the past few years.  For example, last year:

on the hillside at Bil’in, a Palestinian named Basem Abu Rahmeh, 31, was shot with a high-velocity Israeli teargas canister that sliced a hole into his chest, caused massive internal bleeding and quickly killed him. Video footage shot by another demonstrator shows he was unarmed, many metres from the barrier and posing no threat to the soldiers.  (The Guardian)

(Perfunctory and amateurish lies are the Israeli state’s default response.  In Rachel’s case, the initial state line was that she had been hit by falling rubble, despite the fact she was more than 10m from the nearest structure.  Tom was held to have been carrying a gun.  Video disproved this claim too; but these automatic responses tell us alot about how seriously to take other official incident reports.)

The soldiers who perform these acts are not psychological aberrations.  They are the necessary products of both an extremely nationalist society, and a modern military involved in repressing an overwhelmingly civilian population.  From what we know, analogous behaviour or far, far worse is present in Darfur, Congo, Afghanistan, Tamil Eelam, Iraq, Chechnya, and no doubt many other places besides: Rachel’s killing signified not only an Israeli problem, but an international, world-historical one.  Nor, in fact, can Rachel’s death be understood merely as a product of national conflict.  To isolate it in this way abstracts those conflicts, and the killing of activists such as Rachel, from the economic factors which produce the conflicts (particularly control of resources), but also from the political factors which allow them to continue unquestioned (such as the shallow, liberal democracy which has nowhere been superceded).  Thus, to understand Rachel’s death without understanding the global processes of which it was a product is not to understand it at all.

The second mistake is to place Rachel on a pedestal, to make of her an exotic hero in a foreign land, or some sort of super-activist.  This is the last thing we should do.  The writing that Rachel left behind (some of which is contained in the play My Name is Rachel Corrie) speaks of a strong and profound mind.  But they show that most of Rachel’s activism was not only expressed through grand human gestures such as that which eventually killed her, but in ways which are sometimes, wrongly considered ‘smaller’, such as at a community mental health program.  She later recalled 11 September 2001:

‘Someone bombed the World Trade Center?’


Colin and I sat on the sidewalk beneath the payphone.  We thought it might be World War III.  I called my dad.

I figured that if it was World War III, being ‘drop-ins coordinator’ was a damn fine situation to go out in.

Precisely because deaths such as that of Rachel are mandated by a total international system, the movement against such deaths must be equally total and international.  None of this is to say that participating in internationalist activism on the ground in occupied Palestine is impossible or undesirable: the opposite is the case.  There have been no fatalities, but two serious injuries, amongst international ISM activists in the West Bank.  (Two Palestinian ISMers have been killed in the West Bank; one in Nablus by the IDF, another in Jenin by Islamic Jihad.)  But overwhelmingly, ISM activists contribute unscathed to the most serious and rewarding project based on direct international solidarity anywhere in the world. ISM London runs regular training sessions for those considering joining the movement on the ground.

In some ways, the situation in Israel is bleaker than it has ever been: the left is smaller and more marginalised, and the working class more nationalist, than ever.  But in one respect, the situation offers a glimmer of hope.  Groups such as Anarchists Against the Wall (which includes anyone willing to work in a non-hierarchical way taking joint direct action with Palestinians in the West Bank) have developed a practice in which Israelis and Palestinians take action side by side, just as the ISM allows international activists to join the movement on the basis of practical solidarity.  One member of AATW I spoke to tells me that there are now around 200 Israeli activists who regularly spend time in the West Bank, although the organising core is still much smaller.  “We have established joint struggle as the indispensable condition of the movement”.  In many ways, this is an advance on prior practice.

In occupied Palestine, the situation is analogous.  The second intifada, as a project based largely (but not entirely) on killing random Israeli civilians, ran out of steam long ago.  Fateh and the Palestinian Authority are now effectively jessous (collaborators): “The PA is finally doing the one thing that Arafat, whilst he was still alive, refused to do: turn itself into a colonial police force for the Israelis”  (SchNEWS).  Hamas, while not yet as corrupt as Fateh, have proved unable to take state power in Gaza and remain clean.  The talk now, and perhaps it is just talk, is of a third intifada.

“If the situation remains at this level, regardless of whether we take the decision or not, [a third intifada] is coming. If Israel continues these practices, it is coming.” (Jerusalem Post)
But the new intifada, [Fateh officials] said, would be different from the first two – this time it would be directed against the Palestinian Authority.  (Al Manar)

The strategy of armed struggle has failed; civil resistance isolated outside the Green Line has failed; terrorism has failed (and was always totally reactionary).  The talk is of resurrecting the civil resistance of the first intifada, with initiatives such as the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.  The added ingredient, this time, needs to be internationalism.  The strategy of “broken bones” will likely work again if it can be restricted to Palestinian citizens, or a very few Israelis.

Internationalists in Israel are few in number and, in no small part due to the pressures of anti-Zionist activity, isolated from the working class.  There are no recipes for success which can be written from outside, in abstraction from the real size of the present balance of forces.  But it is clear that the struggle against Zionist colonialism must not only be the property of Palestinians – in which case it is doomed – but also the property of internationals and Israelis of good conscience.

In this sense, the future belongs to the idea which Rachel stood for: internationalism; joint struggle; the expression in action of the principle she recognised, even at age ten: “they are us.  We are them.”

4 thoughts on “rachel corrie (1979 – 2003): internationalism in action

  1. Wow I just read this in the news today.

    VERY suprised.

    The conflict between the Israeli Army and peace activists and is really a dispute between the world’s strongest dynasty and Middle-eastern olive-tree growers????????

    Wow, I really feel sorry for the innocent people whose fault it is to be living on someone else’s land. This is ridiculous.

    Looking for leadership


    THE “BARONESS”?????????






  2. From the article:
    (Though the Rothschild family’s support of Zionism began before Israel was a state and the swamps of the Hula Valley had still not been drained, according to the baroness, support of the State of Israel remains a priority of the family even as it has reached a level of prosperity unthinkable in the early days.

    Though boycotts are spreading, such moves won’t deter the Rothschilds’ support of Israel, she said, describing how the family is too well-established and too assimilated in the countries of Europe where they live to fear the shifting sands of anti-Israel sentiment.

    “The Rothschilds are so well integrated in these countries, the Rothschilds of France are French, in America they’re American. The Rothschilds are very much part of European history. Our support of Israel has never affected us.

    One thing that hasn’t changed is the underlying desire to help Israel, to help build Israel. What has changed is that now Israeli life is much more complex. Then we were building a country, and today the country is built, is a mature country.”)


    Very sad. The olive-tree growers in the “Holy Land” don’t have a chance.

    Thank you for telling people about Rachel and the Palestinians. My heart goes out to them.

    All the best.


  3. Just a quick note: whilst expressions of empathy are always welcome, as the author of the article, I think it’s very innacurate to present the conflict as being between “the world’s strongest dynasty and Middle-eastern olive-tree growers”. There’s a risk that, in this formulation, Zionism is identified mainly with wealthy Jewish families in Europe and the US, which is not accurate. I’d recommend reading a good general history of the region, such as by Ilan Pappe or Rashid Khalidi.


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