Israeli Documentary Probes Death of a Peace Activist

The 2003 death of young peace activist Rachel Corrie, crushed by an Israeli military bulldozer, inspired worldwide press coverage, demonstrations and debates – and eventually at least two plays and a number of songs.

Years later, however, mystery still surrounds the exact circumstances of Corrie’s death. Simone Bitton’s 2009 documentary Rachel, which premieres Friday night at Anthology Film Archive in New York for a week-long run, examines the contradictory versions of the tragedy. 

Corrie was a 23-year-old college student in the United States when she traveled to Rafah, in Gaza, to work with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Palestinian and Israeli activists had formed ISM in 2001 to protest conditions in Palestine through non-violent direct action. Corrie was attempting to act as a human shield in front of a Palestinian home when she was killed. 

Conflicting stories told by peace activists and Israeli officials hold that the bulldozers were either clearing debris or demolishing houses near the Egyptian border when Corrie and other protesters approached them. 

Activists and officials disagree, too, on whether the driver, unable to see the young woman in front of him, killed her accidentally. 

Official Israeli military investigations ruled the death an accident, but some of the eyewitnesses are certain it was not. Military video footage, which Bitton obtained for Rachel, focuses away from the bulldozers and the protesters during the minutes when Corrie was killed. 

After she was pronounced dead, her body was taken to Tel Aviv for an autopsy, and her parents requested that a U.S. official be present. The U.S. embassy declined to send one, and has never told the Corries why it did this. 

Though the subjects of her film take strong positions, Bitton herself does not express an opinion as to whether the death was accidental. 

"I think it’s not so important," she said in a question-and- answer session after Thursday’s film screening at the United Nations. 

There is no disputing the fact that protesters had been present for hours, she said, and the bulldozer drivers knew this. The larger point she wants to make with the film is that the army’s policies and behavior in the area show an indifference towards the lives of the people there, whether or not Corrie’s death itself was intentional. 

Rachel does not delve much into Corrie’s life or her motivations, but focuses instead on her death. Bitton wants to show the simple and undeniably tragic fact of a young woman killed, rather than the complexities that tend to shadow discussions of the region’s conflict. 

"There is a whole system," she said, "that turns obvious things in the Middle East obscure, complex, and more controversial than they should be." 

Bitton emphasizes the youth of those participating in actions like Corrie’s, asking the interview subjects how old they are, and how old they were when they went to Gaza. The answer is usually late teens or early twenties. She is clearly sympathetic to young activists, interviewing an Israeli anarchist about his motivations at length and allowing a U.S. performer who worked with Corrie to perform a rap he wrote in honor of his late friend. 

Bitton has made a number of films about Israel and Palestine. Her identity is complex: born in Morocco, she has Israeli and French citizenship and self-identifies as a Moroccan and an Arab Jew. 

Her Israeli citizenship, she said, puts her in a valuable position to examine Israel’s policies. Her intersecting nationalities may also be part of what drew her to investigate Corrie, who a friend in the film calls "an American citizen with Palestinian blood."

The activists like Corrie believed that, because of their nationalities, their presence would protect the Palestinians around them. "Nobody thought that the army would kill one of them," Bitton said. "That was the whole strategy." 

Of course, the sad ending of Corrie’s story showed that being a citizen of a powerful country was not enough to protect her. 

Her death has not stopped international protesters from coming to Gaza. The anger it caused, said Bitton, even seems to have inspired more activism, as did the Israeli flotilla raid earlier this year. 

What has changed, however, is that activists no longer stand in front of army vehicles. 

"Now they know the bulldozers won’t stop," Bitton told IPS.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Amanda Bransford

Amanda Bransford writes for Inter Press Service.