20 Years After Her Death, the World Still Remembers Rachel Corrie's Sacrifice | Savoir Flair
20 Years After Her Death, the World Still Remembers Rachel Corrie's Sacrifice
by Grace Gordon 8-minute read October 25, 2023

In 2003, 23-year-old American activist Rachel Corrie went to Rafah, Palestine to be a human shield in order to protect innocent civilians. She lost her life for it. This is her story.


Now that I am older, I have come to accept some harsh realities about the world: there is no bottom to the pit of greed, those who already have more than others will always want more than they have, the world is filled with sorrow, hatred, corruption, and pain, and that there will always be injustice no matter how long good people fight against it. 

When I was younger, I didn’t think this way. I really and truly thought I could save the world. Call it a white savior complex or idealism – both are fair – but I had an unshakeable faith in my ability to help others and mete out justice. When I look back, I understand where my heart was at and, to some extent, still is. I had suffered greatly as a young person, more than many, less than many others. I wanted to do everything in my power to prevent anyone else from suffering, too. It all came from a good place, but it took some really traumatizing and humbling experiences to realize just how limited I was in my ability to effect any change. I wasn’t going to save the world. It was hubris to think otherwise.

And yet, I still burn with a passion for righteousness and for justice. I still rage. I still hurt for those who are hurting. So, when I am confronted by people like Rachel Corrie, who gave her life to stop the Israelis from razing homes in Rafah, Palestine, who stood in all her courage and conviction in the path of a bulldozer, and who died because of it, I understand deeply where she was coming from. I’d like to think I have an iota of her courage. I don’t know if I do.

Twenty-three-year-old Rachel Corrie was from Olympia, Washington, where she displayed an empathetic interest in social justice at a young age. This interest was further shaped by her participation in a project to create a community center for at-risk youth in Olympia. She also joined the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, which increased her passion for activism and connected her to a like-minded community. At Evergreen State College, she joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), where she hoped to act as a protective presence and bear witness to the experiences of the Palestinian people under occupation. She left for Rafah, Palestine, during her senior year (early 2003) to put this hope into action.

Although Rachel was aware of what she was walking into from reading the news and seeing video reports, the reality on the ground was far different. Three years prior to Rachel’s arrival in Rafah, the Second Intifada, a major Palestinian uprising, began. Israeli-Palestine peace talks stalled when Israel sent tanks into the West Bank, and then into Jericho. It then made a major incursion into the Gaza Strip. After pressure from Washington, Palestine and Israel reached a tenuous ceasefire. President George Bush broke with previous policy by announcing he was prepared to back the creation of a Palestinian state, after which American relations with Israel plunged to their lowest point after Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon compared the US’s efforts to build coalitions in the Arab world with British appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s. From there, fighting continued. Suicide bombs, car bombs, and bullets exploded all around Palestine as Hamas and Israel escalated attacks against one another, resulting in many civilian casualties. On March 8, 2002, one year before Rachel’s death, Israel launched an assault on Gaza and the West Bank, the deadliest day of fighting since the Second Intifada had begun 18 months earlier. It continued its assault as 20,000 Israeli troops invaded refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and effectively reoccupied the West Bank town of Ramallah.


Rachel had entered Rafah with other activists in the hopes to stop further bloodshed and demolition. They wore high-vis vests and carried megaphones and signs to announce that they were human rights observers and “internationals” and would place themselves in populated areas as human shields to try and prevent Israeli forces from opening fire on civilians. “I’ve been here for about a month and a half now, and this is definitely the most difficult situation that I’ve ever seen,” Rachel told a reporter. “In the time that I’ve been here, children have been shot and killed. On the 30th of January, the Israeli military bulldozed the two largest water wells, destroying over half of Rafah’s water supply. Every two days if not every day, houses are demolished here.” 

"No amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word-of-mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here," Rachel wrote in a letter to her family. "You just can't imagine it unless you see it."At first, it must have been unbelievable to see it all happen with her own eyes. And then it must have been unbelievable that the world was allowing such awful suffering and injustice to happen. It must have been painful, enraging, and devastating. 

It must have made her want to do what she did next.

On Sunday, March 16, 2003, Rachel Corrie confronted a bulldozer posed to raze another home to the ground. Alerted by a colleague in the ISM that the Israelis were “back” and “headed for Dr. Samir’s house,” Rachel raced to the home of Palestinian pharmacist Samir Nasrallah, where he, his wife, and three children were. She and other members of the ISM stood down the Israeli military amid warning shots, lobbed grenades, and tear gas. Finally, the bulldozer began advancing toward the Nasrallah home, and Rachel placed herself in its path. It pushed forward, shoving piles of earth against Rachel. She fell down. It continued its path and then dragged its blade along the ground, crushing Rachel’s body. The other activists rushed to her side. “I think my back is broken,” she said and then fell unconscious. By the time a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance reached her, she had no pulse.

She was announced dead on arrival at Abu Yusuf al-Najjar Hospital at 5:15 p.m.

You might think this changed things. You might think it turned the tide of military assault on Palestine, ended the asymmetrical war that had been raging in the territories, brought a two-state solution, and finally, peace in the Middle East. A young white woman died. Usually, that’s all it takes. But that’s not what happened. Israel vehemently denied responsibility. The United States was silent. The occupation continues.

What it did do was turn Rachel Corrie into a martyr. A wall in Rafah bears the graffitied words “Rachel who came to Rafah to stop the tanks, we remember her with love and honour as an inspiration.” A street in Tehran was named after her. She is regularly remembered and spoken about in classrooms around the world. Her family set up The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, which supports grassroots efforts globally. 


Maybe you think that I am intrigued by her story because she’s also a blonde-haired, blue-eyed idealistic white woman. But that’s not it at all. As we have seen during Israel’s violent assault on Gaza after the October 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas, you don’t have to be from Palestine to care about Palestine. Around the world – from Adelaide to Cotobato, from Athens to Baghdad, from Jakarta to Cape Town, from New York to London – millions of people from every nationality, religious group, and value system are marching in protest of the occupation of Palestine. You don’t have to be Palestinian. You have to be human.

This is the defining liberation movement of our time. The world has stood by and allowed a modern apartheid state, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and occupation to occur. But the world is waking up. The catalyst has been thousands of innocent people – mostly women and children – being slaughtered in retaliation for the October 7 attack. People are watching it happen in real-time on social media, where the old rules of media no longer apply. It has made people who, just a few weeks ago, couldn’t have pointed out Palestine on a map if their lives depended on it start to ask questions, research, and find the truth. 

Rachel Corrie’s story is galvanizing, but not because she was a white woman. She is significant because, out of the thousands of activists who have died for their causes, she is one of the very, very few who died for someone else’s cause. We’ve seen South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko die at the hands of South African state security officers. Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed by the Nigerian government. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in Moscow after criticizing the Russian government by what is believed to be state-backed assassins. They died for the rights of their countrymen. Rachel, a young woman from Olympia, Washington, died for Palestine. She went to Rafah to put her body in between innocent families and the Israeli military, and she lost her life for it. As Rachel demonstrated, the Palestinian cause unites anyone with a passion to see their fellow humans live free. Like I said, you don’t have to be from Palestine to care about Palestine. You have to be human.

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