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Accidental Activists

For Craig and Cindy Corrie, the death of their daughter in Israel was the start of a new mission in life: continuing her campaign for human rights in Palestine.
 
 
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Her name is Cindy, her child was killed in the Middle East, and she is on a relentless campaign to change U.S. and international policy. But she isn't Cindy Sheehan; she's Cindy Corrie.

Corrie is the mother of slain activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip two and a half years ago while trying to protect a home from demolition by the Israeli military. Since then, Cindy and her husband Craig have pushed for answers about their daughter's death, and have themselves become activists, touring the country in the cause of human rights for Palestinians.

"When Rachel was killed," says Cindy, "there was the sense that we needed to do something. It's my response to most things in life to take some action and not let something difficult defeat you."

Monday's suicide bombing of an Israeli shopping mall, in which at least five people were killed and more than 50 wounded, is a stark reminder of the violence that continues to wrack the country. Still the Corries remain convinced that support for Palestinian human rights is the only long-term solution.

"Of course we are against suicide bombing -- it's horrible and those are human rights abuses," Cindy says. "But there are a greater number of Palestinian civilians who have been killed by this occupation, and I don't think most Americans know what we are supporting with our tax dollars."

In shining a spotlight on U.S. foreign policy, the Corries join a growing contingent of "soccer-mom activists" who draw their moral authority from suffering one of the worst experiences imaginable--the death of their child. In another country they'd be Mothers of the Disappeared. Here they are Gold Star Families for Peace and Military Families Speak Out. Or they are individuals like Sheehan--who has galvanized the anti-war movement by confronting President Bush over the death of her son Casey in Iraq--or the family of pro footballer Pat Tillman, victim of a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan and subsequent cover-up by the US military. Unlike these families, however, the Corries' child wasn't killed doing her military duty; Rachel was an activist and a civilian casualty of conflict.

In the past two years, the Corries have created a foundation in their daughter's name to fund peace and justice work; given countless presentations on the issue of home demolition in Palestine; sued the Israeli government for the wrongful death of their daughter; and even launched a boycott and lawsuit against Caterpillar, Inc., the maker of the bulldozer involved in Rachel's death, accusing the company of complicity in "war crimes."

Yet, the Corries are anything but typical activists.

Political Inspiration

At a recent appearance in a church basement in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they were giving a slide presentation on the Israeli occupation, Cindy, 58, was dressed in a patterned red cardigan over a shapeless black dress and white mock-turtleneck, giving her the appearance of a second-grade teacher. And in his grey plaid coat, Craig Corrie, 59, looked the part of his former job as an insurance company executive.

Neither Craig nor Cindy was politically active before the run-up to the Iraq War. But a few months before Rachel's death, partially inspired by their daughter, they began to hold signs on street corners and even marched in Washington against the invasion. "I think I was more involved in the issue because of the work that Rachel was doing," says Cindy.

When Rachel originally told her parents she was going to Palestine to act as a human shield with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the Corries were concerned, but didn't try to talk her out of it. "I said I would have preferred she volunteer at a soup kitchen," Craig says, "but you can't ask your child to be less than they are going to be."

Besides, says Craig, he had served as squad leader of an engineering unit in Vietnam, and he believed that soldiers did not take a life lightly. "The people around me (in Vietnam) were humane, and if a protester was getting in our way, we could have arrested them."

Craig, however, was unaware of the state of tensions on the ground in Palestine. ISM was and continues to be a highly controversial group amongst both Israelis and mainstream American Jews. Some regard ISM as nonviolent protesters intent on drawing the eyes of the world to the oppression of the Palestinian people. To others, ISM members are seen as meddlers who interfere with the legitimate actions of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in combating terrorism--or are possibly terrorist sympathizers themselves.

It wasn't until Rachel arrived in Rafah, at the end of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, that her father began to worry. In Rachel's emails home, she described soldiers indiscriminately shooting at windows and houses. Two days before she arrived, an 8-year-old had been shot and killed. "When I actually started reading what she wrote, I realized what she was seeing was a military out of control," says Craig. "That just scared me to death."

Before Rachel joined up with ISM, the Corries say they were unconditionally sympathetic toward the Israelis, horrified by reports of suicide bombers on the nightly news. Rachel's emails began to show them a bigger picture--of a Palestinian people crowded into a tight space and traumatized by a military occupation.

Military Machine

During their appearance in Cambridge, Craig and Cindy Corrie show footage of a press conference held by human shields only two days before Rachel was killed. Standing on a rooftop, wearing a keffiyeh scarf with wisps of dirty-blonde hair escaping around her ears, Rachel strikes a desperate tone.

"I feel that what I am witnessing here is a systematic destruction of a people's ability to survive that is incredibly horrifying," she said. "Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and realize there is a massive military machine around them that is trying to kill these people I'm having dinner with."

Rafah's location next to Egypt made it a particular target of the Israeli military, which feared weapons smuggling through tunnels, and systematically demolished homes along the border. It was one of these homes--belonging to two brothers, a pharmacist and an insurance agent--that Rachel was standing in front of on March 16, 2003 when the D9R bulldozer approached.

The exact circumstances of her death are still under dispute. The Israeli report concluded that the two soldiers manning the equipment couldn't see the young woman over the bulldozer blade, and that her death resulted from a section of wall that accidentally fell on her. Seven ISM witnesses contend that the two soldiers on the bulldozer could see Rachel, and ran over her anyway.

The day they got the news, Craig remembers being so disoriented he threw pillowcases instead of shirts into his suitcase. But they knew that Rachel would have wanted them to get the word out about the urgency of the situation in Palestine, and within a few hours, they were on a flight to Washington. Cindy had been in the capital just the week before to participate in an anti-war march, and at the time had stopped by the office of Congressman Brian Baird (D-WA) to plead for his intervention with the US Embassy in Israel. Now, Baird helped the Corries arrange a press conference, which featured a blown-up picture of Rachel standing in front of a bulldozer.

Gradual Transformation

The Corries' transformation into activists didn't happen overnight. At first the couple focused on getting answers about their daughter's death. At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised a "thorough, credible, and transparent" investigation. A few days later, the US invaded Iraq and it was months before the Corries got a response. When the investigation was finally concluded, it exonerated the soldiers of wrongdoing.

Since the Israeli government never released the report to the U.S. government, it was impossible for the Corries to see the evidence it had considered. Last June, Colin Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, wrote the family that the State Department considered the report insufficient. The Corries say it was Wilkerson (the same colonel who recently blasted the Bush administration as being hijacked by a "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal") who broached the option of suing the Israeli government, a move they were originally reluctant to follow.

"Doing lawsuits is something we had a negative feeling about," says Craig, "but as we moved through this process, we had to pursue some accountability."

The suit, which accuses the Israeli government and Israel Defense Forces of wrongful death of their daughter, seeks approximately $324,000 in direct and punitive damages.

The Corries contend that it is not the money, but answers they seek.

"If somebody could convince us right now it truly was an accident," says Craig, "that would be a whole lot better than thinking that someone saw Rachel and kept going." The Corries may have to wait for their answers, however. A recent law passed by the Israeli parliament makes it virtually impossible for someone to sue the IDF for injury in a conflict area. "The law will be appealed, but that could take years and years," says Craig.

Journey to Palestine

At the same time the Corries were pursuing accountability for their daughter, they were learning more about Palestine. Soon after Rachel's death, they say, letters of support came pouring in from all over the world, including messages from Jewish groups all over the U.S.

On a trip to Israel to see the spot where Rachel died, they saw firsthand the misery of the residents of Gaza, and met the residents of the home that Rachel died protecting (and which was demolished seven months after her death). Last year, the Corries helped to bring one of the families, Khaled and Samah Nasrallah, on a tour of the U.S. in order to raise awareness of the home demolition issue.

"You'll read that this was the home of terrorists," says Craig. "Well, these 'terrorists' have been in the United States and done a speaking tour, and gotten visas from both the Israeli and US governments. They had nothing to do with terrorism."

Rather, the Corries say, the Nasrallahs' home was demolished to make room for a giant steel wall between Rafah and Egypt. While official Israeli policy was to destroy homes of suspected terrorists, a report by Human Rights Watch found that while 1,700 homes had been destroyed in Rafah, only 10 percent of the demolitions were punitive. (This spring, Israel ended its policy of destroying homes of suspected terrorists, deeming it ineffective.)

The money for the Nasrallahs' visit came from a foundation the Corries set up soon after Rachel's death on the advice of another mother, Linda Biehl, whose daughter Amy had been killed in South Africa during apartheid. Gradually, the Corries found other ways to honor Rachel's memory, setting up a scholarship at her alma mater, Evergreen State College in Olympia, and offering grants through the foundation for peace and justice work.

Another project they are pushing is a sister-city project between Rafah and Olympia. While the status has not been officially recognized, the Corries did take a letter of introduction from Olympia's mayor on a recent trip to Palestine, and have helped non-profit groups in both cities forge connections and share information. Cindy notes that in a speech last August even Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice gave tacit approval to their efforts. "She said there needed to be responses other than military responses to terrorism, and said we needed things like sister-city relationships."

The Corries' obvious sincerity helps defuse some of the heat that usually accompanies discussion about the Middle East. Craig even declares his compassion for the IDF. "I have an affinity for the Israeli military," says Craig. "I know how much that militarization and being out of control takes away your humanity."

But the Corries' effectiveness has also made them the subject of increasing attack by pro-Israeli groups critical of the ISM's hard-line tactics. Outside of the appearance in Cambridge, counter-protestors handed out flyers with the title "Rachels," which show heart-wrenching photographs of six Israeli women, all named Rachel, who were killed by suicide bombers. Alongside those photos is a snapshot of an angry Rachel Corrie burning a mock American flag at a protest, a contrast to the smiling photo of Rachel at her brother's wedding that the Corries are fond of using.

"As a parent, the death of Rachel Corrie is meant to illicit my sympathies for a girl who perished so young," writes the flyer's author, Jon Haber. "But as a parent, I must also reflect on what adults must have filled this young girl's head with to turn her from a happy child to a furious flag burner, and what kind of people would put such a girl in harm's way, then capitalize on her death by turning her into a martyr."

Bulldozing Caterpillar

Also controversial is the Corrie's recently announced boycott campaign and lawsuit against Caterpillar, the company that made the bulldozer that killed their daughter. The lawsuit was filed this spring by the Center for Constitutional Rights under a US law called the Alien Torts Claims Act, which allows US companies to be sued for human rights violations abroad. It seeks $75,000 for complicity in crimes including "war crimes" and "wrongful death."

The Corries argue that the company has continued to sell equipment to the Israeli military despite evidence they have been used for illegal activity. In a recent statement, Caterpillar denied any responsibility for harm caused to Palestinians, saying, "we have neither the legal right nor the means to police individual use of [our] equipment."

In addition to seeking damages, the Corries say they hope the lawsuit will help raise awareness about the home demolition issue. This past May, the Center for Constitutional Rights added to the suit the names of five Palestinians who have allegedly had family members killed in demolitions involving Caterpillar equipment. "We had always known about the massive number of people killed in demolitions and all of the people who had lost homes," says Cindy. "We were always hopeful that Palestinians could be involved."

The Corries are guardedly optimistic about the recent pullout from the Gaza Strip, and the opening last week of the border in Rafah.

"Rafah is a place that you didn't hear about," says Cindy. "I think Rachel would be glad to see any improvement in the ability for people in Gaza to be able to step out into the world, but I think she would also be cautious."

The Corries point out many reasons for worry--including the monitoring of the border by Israelis, the lack of seaport or airport in Gaza, and the construction of the wall in the West Bank--not to mention that homes are still being demolished in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In at least one sense, their work has borne fruit. Last week, ground was broken on a new home for the Nasrallahs, in a suburb of Rafah away from the border. The Corries hope to raise money through their foundation for the reconstruction of more homes for Palestinians displaced by demolitions.

Like the military families who have become increasingly critical of US policy in Iraq, the Corries have gone from looking for answers to explain their daughter's death to helping to continue her work--and in the process gaining them some peace. "Through ourselves we can bring Rachel to life," says Craig, "and through Rachel we can bring the people she knew and what she saw to life."

Michael Blanding is a freelance writer living in Boston. Read more of his writing at MichaelBlanding.com.