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21 years after her death in Gaza, Palestinians remember U.S. activist Rachel Corrie

AMMAN, Jordan — Twenty-one years ago this month, Rachel Corrie, a young American activist, was protesting the Israeli demolition of homes in the Gaza Strip. Bulldozers had already destroyed the surrounding houses in the neighborhood of Rafah where she was based; on March 16, 2003, they came for the Nasrallah family home where the college student was staying.

Corrie, wearing an orange fluorescent vest and speaking through a bullhorn, was determined to stop them. Standing alone on a mound of earth in the path of the armored vehicle, she expected the Israeli bulldozer approaching her to come to a halt, as other bulldozers had done when faced with international protesters.

But it kept going, and, as her fellow activists screamed and tried to stop it, the 23-year-old college student from Olympia, Washington, was crushed to death. The Nasrallah family's children watched in horror through a crack in their garden wall.

Since her death, Corrie's legacy has echoed through the years in Gaza and the region, where people name their children after her. It still resonates in the United States, where her journals were turned into books and a play. Her death two decades ago points to a continuing military occupation of Gaza and the destruction of Palestinian civil society in Gaza, where the World Bank estimates Israel has destroyed almost half of all homes since October, when the war with Hamas started.

While the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing war have galvanized the world, Gaza's isolation and deprivation amid ongoing attacks have lasted for as long as many Palestinians — including some of the Nasrallah children — have been alive.

Israel says about 1,200 Israelis and other citizens were killed in the Hamas attack. The Israeli military, saying it needs to destroy the militant group, has killed more than 32,000 Palestinian civilians, most of them women and children, since then, according to Gaza health authorities.

Israel seized Gaza from Egypt in the 1967 war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria. It disengaged from it in 2005 but because of the blockade it imposed on the Palestinian territory, the United Nations still considers it an occupying power.

With Israeli restrictions on aid entering Gaza that it says it needs to ensure weapons are not smuggled in, children are starving to death and widespread famine is almost a certainty, according to international aid officials.

"We are hoping for a million Rachel Corries to be our fearless lifeline," says Nour Nasrallah, one of the granddaughters in Corrie's Gaza host family, whose home Corrie was killed trying to save. "We really need that kind of support right now."

The Nasrallah family now fears losing their current home in Rafah to an Israeli invasion

Nasrallah, 22, was a toddler when Corrie was killed. She graduated from college in Gaza two months before the war started and has occupied her time since then writing and illustrating a children's book about Corrie titled I'd Rather Be Dancing!

"I was just two, but the memories and the stories about her have been passed down through my family from one generation to the next," Nasrallah tells NPR in voice messages from Gaza. "My dad always talks about her ... how she was this brave soul and fearlessly stood up for the truth."

The Nasrallah home was left standing on the day Corrie was killed, but eventually was demolished after Corrie's death — part of an operation in which Israel said it needed to clear the area of hiding places for militants. Now in a different home in Rafah, they are afraid their current home could be demolished in a threatened Israel ground invasion of the city.

"It's scary to think of about losing our home and everything we hold — the memories," says Nour Nasrallah.

In many ways, the Nasrallah family were typical of middle-class Gaza life. Samir Nasrallah, the patriarch, was a pharmacist. He and and his wife lived with their children in their home on the outskirts of Rafah, near the Israeli border.

Khaled Nasrallah, one of Samir's sons and Nour's father, works for a U.N. organization in Gaza, where most of the population is reliant on aid. Like other families, they now spend almost all their time trying to procure food, water and medication.

Nour says the family worries about the lack of medication for her father, who has chronic diseases, and a cousin who is eight months pregnant and unable to get adequate protein.

In many ways, the war has magnified and intensified the isolation, death and destruction already inflicted on Gaza for years.

In her final interview, in March 2003, Corrie spoke to the Middle East Broadcasting network, surrounded by the ruins of destroyed houses in Rafah. Shortly before she arrived, the Israeli military bulldozed the city's two largest water wells, knocking out over half of Rafah's water supply.

"In the time I've been here, children have been shot and killed," she said. "I feel like what I'm witnessing here is a very systematic destruction of people's ability to survive. And that is incredibly horrifying."

Two days later, Corrie was dead.

The Corrie family unsuccessfully sought justice from Israel's military

An Israeli army investigation concluded the soldiers in the bulldozer's armored cab hadn't seen or heard her — and that she was responsible for her own death by not moving out of its path.

Her parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie, who live in Olympia, Washington, spent years pursuing the case in Israel and the U.S. after accusing the military of either deliberately killing their daughter or gross negligence in her death.

They launched a civil suit in 2010, seeking a symbolic $1 compensation, after an internal military investigation cleared the bulldozer's driver and spotter of any blame. The case came to an Israeli court two years later, but the Corries said they were not allowed to hear the testimony of the soldiers involved or have surveillance video they say proved contradictions in the military account admitted as evidence.

"I came away feeling that at least one person in that bulldozer knew that Rachel was in front of it," says Cindy Corrie. "I mean, the most obvious thing to do is say, 'Oh my God, we didn't see her and we're so sorry.' They never said that."

When the Israeli district court ruled against them in 2012, the Corries appealed to Israel's Supreme Court, which dismissed the case in 2015.

"Then it was dismissed because, for one thing, the high court said that international law does not apply to Gaza and Israel," Cindy Corrie says.

Under the Israeli law to which she referred, which has been upheld by the country's Supreme Court, Israel cannot be held liable for its actions in war – and Israel says its own law overrides international law in such cases.

More than 70 members of the U.S. Congress signed onto a resolution calling for an American investigation into Corrie's death, but none was undertaken.

To honor their daughter's memory, the Corrie family established a foundation in Rachel's name which sponsors soccer tournaments and a children's center in Rafah. In the Arab world, people name their daughters Rachel to this day. There's a Rachel Corrie Street in Ramallah in the West Bank. The activist vessel MV Rachel Corrie, owned by the Free Gaza Movement, in 2010 set out to disrupt Israel's sea blockade of Gaza.

The vessel was part of a flotilla attacked by the Israeli military in an operation which killed nine civilians from different countries.

But Corrie's own words have perhaps had the widest reach. Her journals and emails home were turned into books, including My Name is Rachel Corrie, and a play by the same name.

At age 10, Corrie was passionate about ending child hunger around the world

Corrie wrote stories almost as soon as she learned how to write, her mother tells NPR. Her creativity and a passion for social justice were nurtured by an alternative public school, founded by parents including hers, that she attended in Olympia.

At age 10, Corrie wrote a statement and delivered it at the Washington state capitol, saying her dream was to stop children around the world from dying of hunger.

"We have got to understand that the poor are all around us and we're ignoring them," she read, a pony-tailed girl delivering the message with the passion and determination of a seasoned politician.

"We have got to understand that people in third-world countries think and care and smile and cry just like us. We have got to understand that they dream our dreams and we dream theirs. We have got to understand that they are us. We are them."

After arriving in Gaza as a college student with the activist group the International Solidarity Movement, Corrie told her parents she was confronted with a reality she could never have imagined.

"It's hard to hold in your mind what's happening here – living lives that no child should have to live," she wrote them. She wrote of bullet holes in the walls, of the children sleeping in their parents' room in the back because there was less risk of being shot there.

Staying with the Nasrallah family in Rafah, Corrie would tell the young children stories to distract them from explosions before they went to sleep, recalls Khaled Nasrallah.

"She was a child who slept peacefully at the end of the day among our children, telling them sweet stories to help them sleep safely without fear from the sound of tank shootings," he wrote from Gaza via WhatsApp in response to NPR's questions about Corrie.

"She was a leader when she chose to use her pen and words to fight for leading change, to educate the world about the lost human rights and the urgent need for peace and justice in this area," he wrote.

Nasrallah said Corrie used to join maintenance teams from the Rafah municipality to try to deter the Israeli army from attacking them when they were fixing broken water lines or repairing the electricity grid after Israeli attacks.

The Corrie family says Rachel's legacy is bringing people together to work for peace

Since their daughter was killed, Cindy and Craig Corrie have traveled to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel several times. On their first visit to Rafah, in the fall of 2003, they peered through the same crack in the garden wall where the Nasrallah children had watched Rachel being crushed to death. When they sat down to lunch with the family, armored Israeli vehicles surrounded the house to intimidate them, Craig Corrie recalls.

"After a little while," he says, "you realize we've met many Palestinians and Israelis that feel the same way, have suffered the same sort of loss and want no one else to suffer that."

Rachel Corrie did not expect to die, her mother says.

"It's every parent's worst nightmare," said Cindy Corrie. "If people had told me before Rachel was killed that something like this would happen and that somehow we'd find a way to carry on, I would have said, 'No, you're wrong. I won't draw another breath.'"

"Somehow, you know, you just take, with a lot of help, the next step. And that's all we did. I feel like that's all we did for years."

She said her daughter's legacy is creating a community of people working toward peace and justice. "I think Rachel ... knowing what a really critical observer she was, just transformed our understanding of what was happening 21 years ago in Gaza and throughout that region," she says. "So I think that legacy is about more people engaging with this, learning, understanding and knowing what a huge, enormous responsibility we have to try to impact it."

Corrie's father, a Vietnam War veteran, says when he is asked if he taught his daughter his values, he answers that she taught him hers.

"Some of that just continually goes in my mind, talking about the others," he says. "'They are us. We are them. They dream our dreams. We dream theirs.' That, to me, is totally true, and it needs to be repeated." [Copyright 2024 NPR]

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