Gaza man remembers US peace activist Rachel Corrie, 20 years after her death

‘She was like an angel on Earth … Now the Israeli army can do anything’

American peace activist Rachel Corrie speaks during an interview in March 2003 in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Getty
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Kareem Nasrallah was 14 when American peace activist Rachel Corrie showed up at his family’s Gaza home.

There is a photograph of them together, Ms Corrie seated to the right. The teenage boy flashes a smile from the rear, hands protectively on the shoulders of Eman, one of his two sisters.

He had met other foreign activists and would come to admire their efforts to stop the Israeli military’s destruction of Palestinian properties.

Yet he instantly sensed something different about the 23-year-old Ms Corrie, who joked as she helped with his homework.

Rachel was like an angel on Earth. She had a pure heart
Kareem Nasrallah

“Rachel was like an angel on Earth,” said Mr Nasrallah, now 34, speaking from Gaza where he works for a non-profit organisation. “She had a pure heart.”

It has been 20 years since Ms Corrie was killed in Rafah, crushed under the tracks of a 60-tonne armoured Israeli bulldozer.

She died as activists tried to halt the destruction of properties by the Israel Defence Forces in what it claimed was an operation against insurgents.

The volunteers not only acted as human shields, placing themselves in front of encroaching machinery, they also lived with families, eating and sleeping in their homes, learning not only their names but their stories.

“I don’t know if many of the children here have ever existed without tank-shell holes in their walls and the towers of an occupying army surveying them constantly from the near horizons,” Ms Corrie said in an email to her parents weeks before her death.

For a while, the case of Rachel Corrie would be the focus of international outrage.

This outcry grew after her writings, some from Gaza, were posthumously published as Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie.

But activists had other causes to focus on. The invasion of Iraq would come to occupy the attention of many in the peace movement.

Rachel Corrie and the Nasrallah family. Photo: Corrie family

Some felt the conflicts were not unrelated. Palestinians believed Israeli forces would use the invasion of Iraq as cover for a wholesale, full-scale occupation of Gaza. As it was, Israel would formally “disengage” in 2005.

Ms Corrie’s family and friends knew that securing justice for her, just as the effort to secure peace for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, would be a huge challenge.

Her parents, Cindy and Craig, tried and failed to secure legal accountability. In 2012, an Israeli court ruled the bulldozer driver had not seen Ms Corrie, and judged her death an accident.

They also failed in their efforts against Caterpillar, the US manufacturer of the bulldozer.

In 2007, a US court said to even consider the legal merits of the case would improperly force it to consider whether it was appropriate for the US government to permit the sale of such equipment to Israel.

This month, Ms Corrie’s parents marked the 20th anniversary of her death with a series of events in Olympia, Washington state, where they established a foundation in her name to highlight the plight of Palestinians.

Craig and Cynthia Corrie. AFP

Mr Nasrallah said his family did not wait for a specific date to remember her.

On many days, he celebrates her memory casually, over meals, chatting to his wife or talking to his two young daughters.

“Two weeks ago, we were having lunch. We talked about Rachel and that she sacrificed herself,” he said. “And of course, when I got married, I talked to my wife about Rachel, and those memories I have of her.”

Some have suggested because Ms Corrie and others from the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led organisation, ultimately failed to stop Israeli destruction, that their efforts were in vain.

But Mr Nasrallah does not see it that way. He believes Ms Corrie and others played a crucial role in saving people’s homes, if only for a short time. Their presence also secured international attention.

The anniversary has forced others who knew Ms Corrie to reflect on their actions.

Britons Tom Dale and Richard Purssell were among four former members of the ISM who, at the request of Ms Corrie’s parents, gave evidence to the Israeli court about what they saw.

Mr Dale, 38, said he had been sceptical anyone would be held accountable but felt obliged to “go and tell the truth”.

Reflecting on their actions, he said in one sense, they failed.

“But there are broader, longer-term projects, which consist of making links of solidarity between people in the West and people in Palestine, and building greater awareness of the reality of life for Palestinians in Palestine,” he said.

“I have no doubt that our efforts, and Rachel’s efforts, contributed to that.”

Caterpillar, which has its headquarters in Irving, Texas, did not respond to requests for comment.

Kareem Nasrallah. Photo: Nasrallah family

An IDF representative told The National that an Israeli military police investigation found that Ms Corrie’s death was “an unfortunate accident, caused unintentionally” as a result of her climbing on to a pile of dirt in front of the bulldozer during an anti-terrorist operation.

“Corrie's voluntary risking of her life significantly contributed to the cause of her death,” the representative said.

Twenty years on, said Mr Nasrallah, Gaza’s violence continues unabated.

“The situation now is that the Israeli army can do anything,” he said.

“And they have the weapons to do that. We can't stop them. They can erase Gaza Strip, if they want — they want they can erase the strip totally in 10 minutes.”

The election last year of Israel’s most right-wing government to date, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has added to the pressures.

Mr Nasrallah said residents of Gaza live daily with the prospect of being killed.

“We feel the Israeli army can do anything now,” he says. He points out how Ramadan has often coincided with attacks by the Israeli military.

“So now we’re fearful all of the time. We just want to live in peace, like people in other countries,” he said.

“Why can’t we live like those in Saudi Arabia or the UAE or other Arab countries? Being under potential attack at any time makes me live in fear. I hope this can change in the future.”

Mr Nasrallah said he believes the world has not forgotten Gaza, despite other crises demanding attention, such as the war in Ukraine.

But anxiety is ever-present. His mother worries each time he leaves the house.

“She tells me not to go anywhere dangerous,” he said. “I say, ‘I am just going to work’.”

Updated: March 27, 2023, 6:13 AM