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In Defense of Rachel Corrie

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A theatre near me is putting on a production of the play, My Name is Rachel Corrie. As elsewhere, the local production has drawn vigorous hassle from those who dedicate themselves to trying to punish any criticism in the U.S. of human rights abuses committed by the Israeli government.

Tonight there is a "talkback" after the performance. Some people are bringing handouts, and I was asked to write something.

In 1996, I was a volunteer for Christian Peacemaker Teams in the Palestinian city of Hebron. Shortly after I arrived in Hebron, 2 of us were arrested and threatened with deportation when members of the CPT sat on the roof of a Palestinian home that the Israeli army intended to demolish. In addition, friends of mine teach at Evergreen and had Rachel as a student. So when I was asked to write something, of course I said yes. Rachel's story is close to my heart, not just as a symbol of human rights abuses carried out by the Israeli government with the acquiescence of the United States, but as a symbol of Americans putting themselves on the line for international solidarity. John Reed is buried in Red Square; veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade have been granted Spanish citizenship. When the Palestinians regain sovereignty over Al-Aqsa, I hope they do something there for Rachel.

Rachel's Death
Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old student at Evergreen State College and volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, was killed in 2003 by a bulldozer operated by the Israeli army while attempting to prevent Israeli forces from demolishing the home of Palestinian pharmacist Samir Nasrallah in the Rafah area of Gaza near the border with Egypt.

On March 16, 2003, an IDF operation in the land between the Rafah refugee camp and the border with Egypt was demolishing Palestinian houses. Rachel was part of a group of seven US and British ISM activists attempting to disrupt the actions of Israeli bulldozers.

ISM eyewitnesses say the Israeli soldier driving the bulldozer deliberately ran over Rachel, who was wearing a fluorescent jacket and waving and shouting as the bulldozer approached. The driver of the bulldozer and an Israeli military report claimed that the driver did not see her.

Two years later, Human Rights Watch reported that Rachel:

... had undoubtedly placed herself in a dangerous situation, but the incident did not take place in the context of active hostilities, and did not threaten the safety of IDF personnel or other persons at the site. Under pressure from the U.S. government and the media, Israel conducted operational and Military Police investigations into Corrie's killing. But the investigations fell far short of the transparency, impartiality, and thoroughness required by international law.

Human Rights Watch also stated that:

Eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, other human rights organizations, and the media stated that the bulldozer crew could and did see Corrie. They noted that two other incidents had taken place on the same afternoon in which ISM members had been at the point of serious injury, but the bulldozer drivers had stopped at the last moment -- indicating they could see the activists even when in close proximity, balancing on the rising earth that the bulldozers pushed before them. They said that the activists had regularly had eye contact with the bulldozer driver in the last moments before jumping off the earth mound.

Demolitions of Palestinian Houses by the Israeli Military
Unfortunately, demolition of Palestinian homes has been a longstanding practice of the Israeli military going back to the 1948 war. In a 2004 report, Human Rights Watch noted:

While Israel's punitive and administrative house demolition policies have targeted individual homes, Israel has also in the past undertaken widespread destruction of neighborhoods, camps, and villages for putative security or military purposes. The apparent rationales for much of the destruction in Rafah since 2000 namely, the need for "clear" borders and, to a lesser extent, to facilitate maneuverability of forces in densely populated areas are not new. Such demolitions have also been linked to demographic changes.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Haganah (the pre-state Zionist military) issued orders to clear all Arab villages within five kilometers of the Lebanese border after a local cease-fire had begun. As part of this policy, the Haganah depopulated and later destroyed a dozen border villages in the north in late 1948 and early 1949, pushing the inhabitants either across the border or to other areas of what became Israel. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris: "the political desire to have as few Arabs as possible in the Jewish State and the need for empty villages to house new immigrants meshed with the strategic desire to achieve 'Arab-clear' frontiers and secure internal lines of communication.It was the IDF that set the policy in motion, with the civil and political authorities often giving approval after the fact."

Property Destruction Under International Law
Under international law, Israel was the Occupying Power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch noted in its 2004 report. As such, it was bound by agreements that deal specifically with occupation, codified primarily in two legal instruments: the 1907 Hague Regulations and the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention.

According to Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, "Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations". General security measures not connected to actual fighting are not included in this exception. For this reason, the ICRC [Red Cross] stated during the May incursions in Rafah that "the destruction of property as a general security measure is prohibited."

Palestinians Need an Independent State in the West Bank and Gaza
Rachel's death illustrates the lawless behavior by Israeli authorities experienced every day by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. While people in Gaza today are suffering from an Israeli blockade, the events that killed Rachel wouldn't happen in Gaza today, because the Israeli military is not there. The institutions of the Israeli government -- including its Supreme Court -- have refused to accept that the obligations of international law apply to Israel's occupation of the West Bank. To protect the human rights of Palestinians in the West Bank from the Israeli military authorities, the Israeli military must be removed from the West Bank. This is likely to happen only as a result of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and that's a key reason that achieving such an agreement is so urgent.

The Responsibility of Americans
The United States government is not an innocent bystander in this dispute. The United States gives the Israeli government billions of dollars in military and economic aid each year; it also protects the Israeli government politically and diplomatically, for example, by using its veto in the United Nations Security Council to block Security Council action in response to Israeli repression of Palestinian human rights. Determined efforts by the Obama Administration to help bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict and the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza are not an altruistic gesture, but the minimum necessary for the U.S. to comply with the responsibilities it incurs by its military, economic, and political backing of the Israeli government.