JERUSALEM — The death of an American peace protester in the Gaza Strip Sunday is raising questions about the Israeli army's use of force and highlighting the risks international activists take to slow the steady violence that characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rachel Corrie, a student at Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash., died trying to prevent an Israeli army bulldozer from demolishing a house in Rafah, where Gaza abuts the Egyptian border.
"We were expecting something to happen, especially down at Rafah," says Marlous, a Dutch woman who occasionally participated in protests with Ms. Corrie. Marlous, who works for a Palestinian organization in the West Bank, said protesters had been increasingly wary of Israeli army tactics. "This is the first death. It's hard to understand."
James Delano, a documentary filmmaker from Honolulu who had participated in missions with Corrie, said she wasn't prone to take unnecessary risks. "I wouldn't describe her as a zealot," he says. "Rachel was passionate about her work. She was an intelligent, caring human being. I'm sure she was doing what she saw as a reasonable action."
Rafah is the scene of frequent unrest. Israelis say weapons are smuggled across the border from Egypt and that Palestinians use houses in the area to fire on its troops.
Corrie, who was a member of the Palestinian-backed International Solidarity Movement, was standing in front of a house wearing a brightly colored top and shouting as a bulldozer approached her, witnesses said. "Rachel was alone in front of the house as we were trying to get them to stop," Greg Schnabel, a fellow protester from Chicago, told wire services. "She waved for the bulldozer to stop. She fell down and the bulldozer kept going. We yelled 'Stop, stop,' and the bulldozer didn't stop at all. It had completely run over her and then it reversed and ran back over her."
In an initial statement, the Israeli army laid the blame on Corrie and her colleagues. "This is a very regrettable accident," a spokesman said. "We're dealing with a group of protesters who are acting irresponsibly, putting the Palestinians themselves and our forces in danger by intentionally placing themselves in a combat zone."
But activists say the army is to blame, arguing that it often reacted to their presence with extreme aggression. Mr. Delano took part in a few ISM "actions" with Corrie in Rafah and says he felt a real sense of threat from the army bulldozers.
"The situation was always fluid and the army doesn't live by regular rules," he says of his experiences in Rafah. "The bulldozer [driver's] tactic is just to keep coming and hope that people get out of the way. One situation I was in was very dangerous - the bulldozer just kept coming and it was three or four feet away and there was a wall behind us. I was completely shocked that the driver would act the way he did. It was insane."
The actions the army describes as irresponsible - deliberately inserting themselves in conflict situations - are a core part of the International Solidarity Movement's (ISM) mission.
Founded in August 2001, the ISM aims to raise awareness of the situation in the occupied territories through the media, divestment drives, and the use of international volunteers who come for limited periods of time. When ISM activists first arrive, they go through an orientation, receive nonviolence training, join a group, and get an assignment. Volunteers are encouraged to do whatever feels comfortable to them. "The training (she received) was adequate for the risk," says Mr. Delano.
The group says it borrows its tactics of nonviolent resistance from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among others. Working in groups of five to 25, the activists insert themselves in volatile situations in order to protect Palestinian civilians and activists with their presence. The activists say that if Palestinian activists acted on their own, they would face beatings, long-term arrests, injury, and even death at the hands of Israeli troops.
But the assumption that their foreignness will provide ISM activists with protection has proved to be sorely mistaken. In the past year, foreign ISM activists have been beaten, detained, arrested, deemed "security risks" by the army, and deported. Corrie's death marks the first activist fatality in 29 months of conflict.