Peace Activists in the Middle East: Out of Their Depth by Judy Lash Balint
April 3, 2003
The news that a senior Islamic Jihad terrorist, Shadi Sukiya, was captured by an elite anti-terror unit of the Israel Defense Forces while hiding out in the Jenin offices of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) did not make a ripple in the flood of coverage from the Iraqi front last week.
Just eleven days earlier, the ISM did make world headlines when Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old ISM member, was run over by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah and died of her injuries.
Maybe the fact that a peace organization was found defending terrorists twice in a two-week period will factor into the inquiry called by several Washington state congressional representatives into the circumstances of Rachel Corrie's death. But don't be surprised if the revelation that two Kalashnikovs and a handgun were found along with a terrorist in the Jenin ISM office will hardly feature in the search for the truth about Rachel Corrie.
Only one thing is certain about the circumstances surrounding the death of International Solidarity Movement (ISM) protestor Rachel Corrie: she died in Rafah, on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip.
But is Israel responsible for her death, or do the doctors at the Arab hospital where she was taken still alive after the accident bear any responsibility? What about the ISM that organizes protests in a closed military zone and harbors known terrorists in their field offices? How she died, exactly where she passed her last moments and who should take the blame for Rachel Corrie's death are questions that demand answers.
The congressional inquiry called for by Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) will have to sort it all out, but the inconsistencies in the eyewitness testimonies raise doubts about the simplistic conclusions already being drawn.
By all accounts, Rachel Corrie was one of a group of protestors attempting to disrupt the work of two IDF bulldozers leveling ground to detonate explosives in an area rife with terrorist activity. The bulldozers moved to a different area to avoid the protestors, and Corrie became separated from the group. Some of the agitators stood with a banner, while Corrie picked up a bullhorn and yelled slogans at the driver encased in the small cabin of the dozer. This went on for several hours on the afternoon of March 16. It's the kind of activity favored by the young pro-Palestinian types who make up the ISM.
There wasn't enough action for Corrie. According to a fellow Evergreen State College student, Joseph Smith, 21, who was at the site, Corrie dropped her bullhorn and sat down in front of one of the bulldozers. She fully expected that the driver would stop just in front of her. "We were horribly surprised," Smith told me by phone from Rafah the day after the incident. "They had been careful not to hurt us. They'd always stopped before," he said.
As the dozer plowed forward heaping up a pile of dirt and sand, Corrie scrambled up the pile to sit on the top. Smith says she lost her footing as the bulldozer made the earth move beneath her feet. She got pulled down, he says. "The driver lost sight of her and continued forward. Then, without lifting the blade he reversed and Rachel was underneath the mid-section of the dozer, she wasn't run over by the tread."
Capt. Jacob Dellal of the IDF spokespersons office confirms what Smith says about the driver: he lost sight of Rachel. Inside the cab some 6' off the ground, visibility is very restricted. The protestors should have known that and kept within the driver's line of sight to avoid getting hurt, Dellal asserts.
The strange thing about this part of the story is the discrepancy over the photos given to the press and posted on several pro-Arab websites.
As Smith describes to me his version of events, I ask about the series of photos printed in an Arab newspaper I picked up the morning after the incident, in Jerusalem's Old City. "They aren't of the actual incident," he states firmly. "We'd been there for three hours already, we were tired, we already had a lot of pictures."
Yet these are the pictures used on the ISM website,
www.palsolidarity.org to document the before and after of Rachel's interaction with the bulldozer. The same pictures are featured as a photo-essay on the site of Electronic Intifada, (http://electronicIntifada.net/v2/article1248.shtml) where they're even attributed to Joseph Smith.
There are several shots of the back of a woman with a blond ponytail facing a bulldozer. She's standing in an open field, wearing an orange fluorescent jacket, holding a megaphone.
Even Michael Shaik, the ISM media coordinator, won't confirm that these are pictures of Corrie taken the day she died. "I'm fairly sure they're of the incident," he tells me by phone from his Bethlehem office. In the same conversation, Shaikh asks me not to contact Joe, Greg or Tom, the Rafah ISM eyewitnesses again directly: "They're still in trauma."
The pictures should have raised all kinds of questions to photo editors, but all the major newspapers and wire services chose to run the photos regardless. If there are pictures of Rachel before and after, why didn't the same photographer consider it important to document the act of the bulldozer running her down?
Where is the mound of earth Rachel clambered up and was buried in? The woman shown lying bleeding from her nose and mouth is lying on a flat piece of ground, and she's not covered in sand.
So, Corrie was either knocked down by the dozer, or fell in front of it. ISM ers assume that she was intentionally run over, but there's no proof that was the driver's intent.
The real issue is was Rachel alive when she was taken by Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance to Martyr Mohammed Yousef An Najar Hospital? In other words, where did she die? Were adequate efforts made to save her in the hospital?
Again, there are conflicting stories. Joseph Smith tells me in a telephone interview the day after the tragedy, "She died in the hospital or on the way to the hospital." CNN also reported that Rachel died there. (Israeli bulldozer runs over 23-year-old woman. CNN, Monday, March 17, 2003)
In his account posted on www.arabia.com, ISMer Tom Dale has a slightly different story. On March 17 he writes: "I ran for an ambulance, she was gasping and her face was covered in blood from a gash cutting her face from lip to cheek. She was showing signs of brain hemorrhaging. She died in the ambulance a few minutes later of massive internal injuries."
But Dr. Ali Mussa, director of Martyr Mohammed Yousef An Najar Hospital where Corrie was taken isn't so clear. On the day of the event, Dr. Mussa tells AP Gaza reporter Ibrahim Barzak that Rachel died in the hospital. (American Killed in Gaza. AP. March 16, 2003)
One week later, in a telephone interview with me, Dr. Mussa states definitively that Rachel died at the scene, "in the soil," as he puts it. The main cause of death was suffocation, Mussa asserts. There were no signs of life, no heartbeat or pulse when she arrived at the hospital, he says. Mussa states that Rachel's ribs were fractured, a fact determined by X-rays. (Is it normal procedure to X-ray a dead body?)
Doesn't quite jive with the photo essay on the pages of the Electronic Intifada website for March 16, 2003. (Photo story: Israeli bulldozer driver murders American peace activist by Nigel Parry and Arjan El Fassed, The Electronic Intifada, 16 March 2003.
A caption under one photo of doctors leaning over a female patient reads: Rachel arrived in the Emergency Room at 5:05 p.m and doctors scrambled to save her. By 5:20 p.m, she was gone. Ha'aretz newspaper reported that Dr. Ali Mussa, a doctor at Al Najar, stated that the cause of death was skull and chest fractures. Dr. Mussa told me he was one of the treating physicians, yet he alone maintains that Rachel was dead before she was put into the ambulance.
To further complicate matters, on that same website, a report from the Palestine Monitor is cited. Here, the writer says that Rachel fractured her arms, legs and skull. She was transferred to hospital, where she later died.
Just who is Dr. Ali Mussa? Clearly a man in favor with the Palestine Authority hierarchy. Dr. Mussa's views are aired on the official website of the PA's Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation: (January 27, 2003)
There, Dr. Mussa accuses Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "terrorist government" of deliberately killing Palestinian children in Rafah.
A few days after the incident, ISM Media Coordinator Shaik tells me by phone from Rafah that three ISMers, Tom, Alice and Greg were in the ambulance with Rachel. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, says Michael. But Greg Schnabel, 28, who is quoted in numerous wire service and newspaper stories, never says he witnessed the death of his comrade in the ambulance. In his account published a few days later on the ISM website, he carefully states that she died twenty minutes after arriving at the hospital.
What happened to Rachel's body after her death? Depends who you ask. Dr. Mussa says it was kept for 24 hours at the hospital before a Red Crescent ambulance transported it to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, via the border where an Israeli ambulance took over. l Shaik says "we lost track of it (her body) after she died." Three ISMers tried to escort the body, but only one was permitted on the ambulance on the Israeli side. According to his account, the ambulance drove straight to the Israeli Forensic Institute at Abu Kabir, where an autopsy was performed. The Israelis are trying to say she died from a blow to the head by a rock, Shaikh recounts.
Speaking about the autopsy, one of Rachel's ISM trainers, Iowa native LeAnne Clausen, a fieldworker for the Christian Peacemaker Team based in Beit Sahour, tells me: "The general sentiment within ISM is that the Israelis are trying to suggest perhaps Rachel was on drugs."
In reality, IDF spokesperson Dellal says that initial Israeli investigation results indicate that the cause of death was most likely a blow to the head and chest by a blunt object, possibly a chunk of cement dug up by the bulldozer.
In keeping with ISM sympathies, Rachel received a shaheed (martyr) procession in Rafah, the day after her death. But here again, there's confusion between reality and photo op. Some accounts noted that her coffin draped in an American flag was paraded through the streets. Yet a picture on the site of her college towns peace movement, the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace ( http://www.omjp.org/rachelphotos.html"
www.omjp.org/rachelphotos.html) shows Arab women holding a coffin covered by a Palestinian flag with the caption: Palestinian funeral for Rachel.
Confusion and obfuscation seem to be a trademark of the ISM. Last May, a number of ISMers raced past Israeli soldiers into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where dozens of Palestinian terrorists had holed up to evade capture by the IDF outside. After an agreement was reached, the ISM members refused to leave the church, holding up the solution. Then they charged that they were mistreated by clergy, who claimed the ISMers desecrated the church by smoking and drinking alcohol.
Another revealing ISM action took place shortly before the Bethlehem incident, when a number of protestors managed to make their way past IDF barricades into Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound to protect the terrorist leader.
Last week's Rafah activity falls into the same category of ISM defense of Arab terrorists. IDF efforts in Rafah are concentrated on preventing the flow of arms and explosives over the border from Egypt into the terrorist's dens that riddle the area. Less than a week after Rachel died defending terrorists, Israeli tanks moved into Rafah , surrounded several houses, and arrested two Hamas members. IDF spokesperson, Dellal calls Rafah "the most dangerous area in the West Bank and Gaza," and decries the provocative protests of ISM. "There's nothing wrong with civil disobedience, but these people crossed the line of what was safe for everyone," Dellal says.
So, while the memorial services laud and remember Rachel Corrie as a peace activist murdered by Israeli occupation forces, the truth lies elsewhere.
An Israeli bulldozer injured Corrie as she tried to prevent it doing its job of protecting Israeli civilians, but she was alive when she was taken to An Najar Hospital, according to at least three eyewitnesses. Only Dr. Mussa, a man intent on accusing Israel of child killing, claims otherwise. None of Rachel's comrades have stated they were with her in the hospital when she died.
The Corrie episode in Rafah may end up being ranked with the murder of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura by Israeli forces in a firefight at nearby Netzarim in September 2000. Months after the event, the official IDF inquiry and a German TV report revealed that there was little doubt that al-Dura was hit by Palestinian fire. An independent French journalist, Gerard Huber, claims that the entire incident was fabricated for press consumption. (Contre-expertise dune mise en scene, Editions Raphael, Paris).
And all the while, the ISM continues to encourage misguided young people from around the world ,like Rachel Corrie, to spend time in the Middle East providing cover for terrorists.