One thing appears certain about an Israeli judge’s verdict Tuesday that Israel is not liable for the death of Rachel Corrie in Gaza nine years ago – it will change few minds.
Addressing a courtroom full of supporters of Corrie’s family, spectators and journalists, Judge Oded Gershon ruled that Corrie’s death was “the result of an accident she brought upon herself.”
Corrie – hero, terrorist, or fool – has long since ceased to be just a 23-year-old from Olympia, Washington, and the circumstances of her death on March 16, 2003, the best efforts of the Haifa District Court notwithstanding, are no longer simply events to be debated logically. Opinions on Corrie and her fate have long since hardened and have moved out of the realm of fact and into the realm of symbol.
The death of a young, pretty, idealistic American woman at the hands of Israeli troops driving an armored bulldozer provided Israel’s opponents in the West with a martyr – proof of what they see as Israel’s inherently murderous nature. Corrie would posthumously become the subject of a theatrical polemic against Israel, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” as well as countless articles and documentary films. One of the activist ships that tried to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip was dubbed the “Rachel Corrie.”
For some Israelis and supporters of Israel, Corrie came to represent a new kind of sophisticated enemy – the embodiment of an aggressive, hostile naiveté on the part of foreign activists who arrive in the country to interfere with operations Israelis believe to be vital to their security, and who are fully aware that any harm that befalls them will cause Israel precisely the kind of damage that Corrie’s death did.
Both versions could be seen in the “Comments” section of the Times of Israel’s news piece on Tuesday’s verdict.
“What else is new…!” wrote one reader. “Israel will never admit to its own crimes.”
“She physically participated with our enemies on the battlefield against our troops,” wrote another. “That makes her an enemy fighter.”
Another noted that she “died for something she believed in.” A fourth wrote, “She came to Israel for only one reason, to show her hatred for the Jews and to interfere as much as possible with the IDF and its carrying out of its duties. She entered a war zone and expected she would be protected from her own stupidity.”
Corrie’s death made her a focal point in the high-volume debate about Israel and its conflicts, one in which Israel is either a heartless killer of innocents or a beacon of unadulterated goodness beset on all sides by the wicked.
At a press conference after Tuesday’s ruling, the activist’s mother, Cindy Corrie, went out of her way to praise Israeli human rights groups and the family’s Israeli supporters. The family has repeatedly said it simply wants the truth about Corrie’s death.
But the family’s Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice advocates a boycott of Israel and Israeli products, a campaign that has been accused of flirting with anti-Semitism, and many of the family’s supporters are drawn from vehement opponents of Israel. Corrie’s organization, the International Solidarity Movement, supports violence against Israelis and the dissolution of the state of Israel. The family’s statements mix calls for an investigation into Corrie’s death with broader moralistic criticisms of Israeli policy.
This is why many Israelis observing the case see the family’s campaign less as a simple quest for truth than as part of a successful attempt to harness Corrie’s death in pursuit of a political cause – causing maximum damage to the country that she traveled across the world a decade ago to confront.
Had Corrie’s family presented themselves simply as bereaved parents and their daughter as an individual, they would likely have received a more sympathetic hearing in Israel. Rachel Corrie, said Cindy at the press conference, was a “rich thinker and a beautiful person.” That personal sentiment of a mother for her lost daughter stood out.
But the family’s lawsuit suggested that Corrie bore no individual responsibility for deciding to place herself in the path of a bulldozer in a combat zone — facing soldiers who believed themselves to be in deadly danger — ignored warnings to leave, and did not move away as the vehicle slowly advanced. Israel, the suit asserted, bears sole responsibility for the consequences of her actions.
Israeli courts have ruled against the army in the past and have awarded damages to civilians. But because the court rejected the family’s claim that Corrie bore no responsibility for her fate, the Israeli legal system was, in Cindy Corrie’s words on Tuesday, “a well-heeled system to protect the Israeli military and the soldiers who take action in that military and provide them with impunity.”
In this version, Rachel Corrie is a symbol of all that is good, and Israel, its military and courts, are a symbol of all that is evil. A 23-year-old woman and her senseless death in a rubble pile in the Gaza Strip nine years ago have thus been reduced to another round in a poisonous and endless screaming match among the deaf.