19 years on, Palestinians remember Rachel Corrie

19 years on, Palestinians remember Rachel Corrie
For those who remember her days, she is 'a symbol'. Others, younger, couldn't recognize that she wasn't Palestinian.
7 min read
West Bank
16 March, 2022
Rachel Corrie died crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah in 2003 at the age of 23 [Getty]

Nineteen years ago, Palestinians everywhere learned the name of Rachel Corrie. The 23-year-old American solidarity activist was already known by the residents of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, with whom she had spent her last days.

But she became national news in the Palestinian territories, during the second year of the second Intifada.

Rachel Corrie died, crushed under the weight of an Israeli military bulldozer. She was trying to stop the 80,000-pound machine from demolishing Palestinian homes along the Egyptian border.

Her death was an unusual story for international media, who often reported the deaths of Palestinians, mostly without naming them. It was also an unusual story for Palestinians, who were not used to seeing a foreigner, even if a solidarity activist, meeting such a violent death in their country.

Today, nineteen years on, Palestinians still remember her in various ways.

"Rachel Corrie represents the beginning of global solidarity with Palestinians as we are seeing it grow and bear fruit today," Mohammad Hamayel, a Palestinian journalist based in Ramallah, told The New Arab.

Hamayel is in his thirties and belongs to the young generation who grew up through the second Intifada, when international solidarity was mainly represented by activists like Corrie, through their physical presence in Palestine. "Corrie was a pioneer in international solidarity with the Palestinian people," said Hamayel, "I feel like she also set a standard for activists around the world when it came to standing with the Palestinians."

According to Hamayel, Rachel Corrie's legacy "began to bear fruit" on an international level. "Looking at the number of non-Palestinians calling out western media for glorifying Ukraine for things the Palestinians have been doing for years shows us what Corrie's inspirations have caused in the international solidarity scene," he said.

Others in the same age group, like Emad Saleh, a young employee in a communications company in Ramallah, see Rachel Corrie as "a symbol of sacrifice"

"For a foreigner to come to Palestine and die like that it is a specially big sacrifice," he told The New Arab. "I personally see her as a symbol of Palestinian resistance," he stressed.

It was a similar sentiment shared by Haneen Hanna, a tourism worker based in Bethlehem, who said that "Rachel set an example much higher than that of some Arabs, who spoke a lot about Palestine, but never showed real commitment."

In a popular café in Ramallah, The New Arab met younger Palestinians who grew up after the second Intifada, and do not remember the days when Rachel Corrie was in Rafah.

"She was an American peace activist who was killed by the occupation," Ahmad Kheiri, a 21-year-old university student, told The New Arab. "I don’t know much more about her," he said.

Kheiri and his classmate, Basel Nasser, had never read any of the letters that Rachel Corrie wrote back home while staying in the Gaza Strip. In one of those letters, dated in February 7th 2003, a little more than a month before her death, Rachel Corrie wrote:

“But once you have seen the ocean and lived in a silent place, where water is taken for granted and not stolen in the night by bulldozers, and once you have spent an evening when you haven‚t wondered if the walls of your home might suddenly fall inward waking you from your sleep, and once you‚ve met people who have never lost anyone˜once you have experienced the reality of a world that isn‚t surrounded by murderous towers, tanks, armed “settlements” and now a giant metal wall, I wonder if you can forgive the world for all the years of your childhood spent existing—just existing—in resistance to the constant stranglehold of the world‚s fourth largest military—backed by the world’s only superpower—in it‚s attempt to erase you from your home.”

"This doesn't read like a foreigner," Kheiri exclaimed upon reading her words. 

"I would have thought this was Ghassan Kanafani or Hussein Barghouthi!" Nasser added.

In the same café, another Palestinian in his sixties, who asked not to be named, read Corrie's lines and mused, "That is someone who truly understood the cause." 

"It's someone with a great sense of humanity, I wish we had some Arab leaders like her," he added. 

In other places in Palestine, Rachel Corrie has been upheld as an icon for years.

At the Yasser Arafat Museum in Ramallah, where visitors can take a tour inside what was once Arafat's office, two portraits hang behind Arafat's desk. One of Tom Hurndall, the British photographer killed by an Israeli sniper in Gaza in 2004; the other, Rachel Corrie.

Visitors are told that Arafat had Corrie's portrait hung at his office after her death, where he saw it every day until his last illness, for which he left Ramallah for the last time in late 2004.

Another place where Rachel Corrie is present is at Al-Haq, the Palestinian human rights organization, labelled as 'terrorist' by Israel last October. In the corridor of the international advocacy unit at Al-Haq's offices in Ramallah, an old portrait of Rachel Corrie welcomes visitors.

"In 2015, Rachel's family visited Palestine and came to Al-Haq,'' Wesam Ahmad, a senior researcher at Al-Haq's international advocacy unit, told The New Arab. "We gave Rachel Corrie’s name to Al-Haq's international internship program, where many young interns come from all parts of the world to gain practical experience in the field of human rights in Palestine," he pointed out.

"Legal practice in human rights in Palestine is a form of solidarity," explained Ahmed. "Rachel Corrie gave the ultimate expression of solidarity and commitment to human rights values, and that's why she is an inspiration for us," he stressed.

Ahmad further thinks that Rachel Corrie's legacy is particularly important in the current moment, when several Arab governments have normalized relations with Israel, and when Palestinians feel "disappointed", according to him, by the "international double-standard", in reference to the widespread condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

"As Palestinians, we identify with Ukrainians who have to flee their homes due to a foreign invasion," Ahmad pointed out. "But it seems like the world has normalized seeing Palestinians go through the same experience."

"Rachel represents the individual human feeling that is often not represented by governments," said Ahmad. "The kind of human feeling that makes a person refuse to normalize unjust realities, even if it’s at the expense of personal interest or even one's life."

Rachel Corrie's family filed a suit against the Israeli government after her death. In 2012, an Israeli court ruled that Corrie’s death was "the result of an accident that she brought upon herself." The family appealed the ruling in 2014 before the Israeli supreme court, which rejected the appeal in 2015.