In memory of a 21st century hero
International activists commemorate the third anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie, reports Serene Assir
Rachel Corrie, American non-violent rights activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), was killed in Rafah, Gaza, on 16 March 2003 as she guarded the home of a Palestinian pharmacist and his family with nothing but her body. Images of the 23-year-old unarmed girl from Washington State, who stood waving her arms in protest as the driver of an Israeli Defence Force (IDF) Caterpillar bulldozer uprooted the Gazan home and then murdered her sent shock waves across the world at the time. Dressed in a fluorescent orange jacket, it appears highly unlikely, if not impossible, that her death was accidental, as the Israeli military later claimed.
New developments on the Rachel Corrie saga -- whose name and memory continue to epitomise the ongoing struggle for freedom in Palestine for many internationals and locals alike -- indicate that the gulf between justice and dominant policy remains, to this day, abominably wide. A play entitled My Name is Rachel Corrie, due to open in New York on 22 March following two years of resounding success in London's Royal Court Theatre, was indefinitely postponed. The New York Theatre Workshop, which was set to stage the one- woman show, said that there was a need to "contextualise" the play, and subsequent to reported pressure from unnamed American Zionist groups, it decided that it was not the right time.
In truth, it remains unclear exactly why the company decided not to stage the play. The mixed messages sent out, on the one hand, by company representatives and, on the other, by play authors journalist Katherine Viner and actor Alan Rickman and producers suggest the results of a campaign to ensure that the public never quite manages to understand why such a production hasn't made it across the Atlantic. All that has emerged for the moment is a collection of often conflicting reports. Viner condemned the theatre for practicing outright censorship. Meanwhile New York Theatre Workshop artistic director James Nicola said that the company carried out "our routine pre-production research that includes exploring the social, political, and cultural issues raised by the play," and found "many distorted accounts of the actual circumstances of Rachel's death that had resulted in a highly charged, vituperative, and passionate controversy". It was for this reason that the company postponed the play -- allegedly to research the relevant background further, while keeping "a public dialogue open and civil". Among the sources consulted during the company's research phase were "representatives of the Jewish community, because the play involved Israeli action".
But perhaps the actual source of the decision is too disturbing to be disclosed. "We believe that there were a combination of naiveté and insidious political forces that converged to scare the theatre into postponement," Tom Wallace, who works with Palestine Media Watch and became the ISM media coordinator shortly after Corrie's death, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Rights activists were also enraged that the New York Theatre Workshop, known for its usually progressive line, had fallen into such a trap.
But around 1,200 activists and sympathisers with both the Palestinian cause and human rights in general attended an alternative meeting to commemorate Corrie, reading excerpts of the play, which is based on her writings, on 22 March at a New York church, countering such pressure for silence. Hosting the event were Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now!" programme and James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. Mariam Said, widow of late Palestinian writer and activist Edward Said, and writer Howard Zinn were also expected to take part.
And on the anniversary of Corrie's death, worldwide events were held in her memory. In the US alone, 41 events were held, while 10 took place in Palestine and Israel, and 13 in other countries across the globe. In Cairo, activists were hosted by the Civil Monitor for Human Rights near Midan Al-Sayeda Zeinab, and heard testimonies from ISM members and comment by Palestinian and Egyptian pro-Palestinian activists. Among the ISM speakers were Patrick O'Connor and Valerie Edgar, who read out Arabic translations of some of Corrie's letters to family from Gaza prior to her death, alongside Abdel-Qader Yassin, Palestinian politician, and Abdel-Hamid El-Ghazali, Muslim Brotherhood member and Cairo University professor. Discussing a recent, yet significant drop in Arab support for Palestine, El-Ghazali stressed that "if Westerners are willing to risk their lives in defence of the Palestinian cause, then surely Egyptians and Arabs should be too."
In addition, Al-Hanager Theatre, one of Cairo's most prestigious, hosted a moving event which featured folk Egyptian and Palestinian music by the Workshop Group -- led by Intissar Abdel-Fattah -- as well as poetry and short story readings. Simultaneously, a demonstration that spanned across downtown Cairo condemning continued oppression in Palestine and the third year of the US occupation of Iraq saw protesters bearing photographs of Corrie, celebrating her memory. Asked about the significance of an American dying to protect a Palestinian home, demonstrator Samir told the Weekly : "But conscience knows no country or religion. Rachel is a symbol of humanity and all our consciences at their very best."
Established in 2001, shortly following the reinvasion of the West Bank and Gaza and the outbreak of the second Intifada, ISM advocates non-violent resistance and has been at the centre of spotlight campaigns including Stop the Wall. Emphasising the fact that ISM by no means views a Western life as more valuable than a Palestinian, one of the key successes of the group has been the humanisation of Palestinians' plight to a Western public opinion which has been geared, far too often, to perceive the Palestinians as terrorists and the Israelis as victims. "The average American reads, hears and sees only one side of this story," Wallace said.
Despite the fact that Palestinian suffering has by no means waned over recent years, ISM continues to believe that non- violent resistance can still bring an end to Israeli-perpetrated and US-sponsored injustices. "ISM believes that the occupation can end through popular, peaceful protests that comply with international law for the protection of civilians," O'Connor said.
Ever since the establishment of ISM, two activists have died consequent to their work. One was Corrie, the other was British Tom Hurndall, who died from his bullet wounds while in hospital in London. Following his death in January 2004, a wake held by the British parliament buildings was attended by Hurndall's mother and sister. "I am by no means braver than the Palestinian mothers, whose children die by the day," his mother said that night. An Israeli investigation, prompted by significant British pressure, into Hurndall's death found a soldier of Bedouin origin guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison. "However, no one higher up in the chain of command was ever investigated," O'Connor told the Weekly. "And one does wonder -- what would have happened if the soldier had been found to be Jewish?" In Corrie's case, a request by her family for an independent investigation, to counter the Israeli military's claims that her death was an accident, was ultimately voted down in US Congress.
"Deservedly, the invasion of Iraq on 18 March 2003 and increased Israeli measures to keep foreigners," and especially potential activists, "out of the Palestinian occupied territories," have signified a relative decline in the focus of international activists on pro-Palestine campaigns, O'Connor said. But according to Wallace, "The level of popular commitment to the Palestinian cause in the US is underestimated and under- reported. I believe that there is much more support than the media would ever allow to be exposed." As for the source of the silence? "There is virtually no political support (for pro- Palestine campaigns) as the Zionist lobby in the US has Congress pretty much neutered on the issue," Wallace added.