Who killed Rachel Corrie?

Now that the trial is over, time to ask some important questions about the 2003 death of the American activist

The parents of Rachel Corrie deserve Israel’s condolences and sympathy for the loss of their daughter on March 16, 2003. But, like their daughter, they misdirected their anger and crusade for justice against Israel.

Their anger is now focused on Israel’s judicial system. But Israel’s courts are known as independent and liberal (to a fault, in my opinion), and the Israeli court found the Israeli army and government blameless for Corrie’s death.

Cindy and Craig Corrie, Rachel Corrie's parents, sit with their daughter Sarah in the courtroom, Tuesday (photo credit: Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)
Cindy and Craig Corrie, Rachel Corrie’s parents, sit with their daughter Sarah in the courtroom, Tuesday (photo credit: Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)

So who is to blame? Rachel Corrie herself, for her presence and carelessness on a volatile battlefield? Maybe, and maybe not. There may be other culprits lurking.

I’m troubled by several elements of the Corrie case:

  1. We’re all shocked by the horrifying pictures of Corrie lying on the ground, broken and bleeding. But has anyone ever asked what kind of ghoul would snap pictures rather than rush to her aid or run to get help?
  2. Numerous pictures of Corrie standing defiantly in front of an Israeli bulldozer appeared in the media, but upon investigation it transpired that not a single one was from the incident that killed her. Some were taken hours before the fatal incident with a different bulldozer; others were sloppy photoshopped forgeries. Why were there photos after she was injured and not before?
  3. Corrie was not the only member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) who was nearly crushed beneath the bulldozer’s maw that day. Indeed, at least two – “Will and Jenny” – were pulled away by their colleagues at the last second.
  4. Immediately after Corrie’s death, several leaders of ISM were interviewed. They didn’t express horror or even sorrow. They spoke of peace soldiers’ sacrifices in battle and the PR benefits of an American woman dying at hands of Israel’s army.

The ghoulish photographer was an ISM member who went by the name of “Joe Smith.” His real name: Joseph Carr, a self-proclaimed anarchist who apparently used aliases to travel in and out of Israel and anti-American hotspots like Fallujah, Iraq. His March 17 affidavit immediately after Corrie’s death suggests a narcissist who speaks more about his trauma than Corrie’s death, and an agitprop specialist who had all of the press contacts and numbers readily at hand to launch a press campaign just 30 minutes after her death. Here is an excerpt, as the affidavit appeared on Electronic Intifada:

I was doing interviews non-stop starting 30 min. after her death, all the way until midnight, and then starting again at 6am and continuing all day today. I literally would never hang up the phone, just switch to an incoming call on call waiting. When I did finally get a second to breathe, I’d have like 30 missed calls.


Anyway, it was a bit therapeutic I think, telling the story over and over, and interviews make me feel [as if I was doing something] important [in the aftermath]. All this thing is a media event now, so we must continue a campaign as hard as possible before the new and bigger tragedy, the Iraq war, begins. The few hours I had off last night between midnight and 4am, was spent organizing today’s events, press conferences, live TV/radio interviews, a demonstration and the beginnings of the traditional Palestinian 3-day ceremony…


(By the way, I took the pictures you may have seen of her, standing with the megaphone in front of the bulldozer, and the ones of her friends helping her.)

Was Corrie some cast member for an ISM production directed by Joe Smith/Carr (who incidentally also showed up several weeks later at the scene of the shooting death of another ISM pawn in Gaza)?

Rachel Corrie is portrayed as a brave fighter who defiantly stood in front of the Israeli destruction machine, and some of her colleagues testified to that fact subsequently. But the first accounts and affidavits after the accidental death state that Corrie was sitting or kneeling on the ground, not standing. Of course it was difficult for the tractor driver to see her; her profile was very low among the rubble, and the view from the armored tractor was limited.

“When the bulldozer approached a house today,” wrote The New York Times in its report of the accident, “Ms. Corrie, who was wearing a bright orange jacket, dropped to her knees.” Dale stated then that she was kneeling and “began to rise.”

Rachel Corri (photo credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)
Rachel Corri (photo credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)

“The bulldozer drove toward Rachel slowly, gathering earth in its scoop as it went,” an ISM friend of Corrie’s stated in 2003. “She knelt there, she did not move.”

Another colleague related: “She did not ‘trip and fall’ in front of the bulldozer. She sat down in front of it, well in advance.‎“ He added: “Corrie dropped her bullhorn and sat down in front of one of the bulldozers.”

Corrie apparently couldn’t even be seen by Carr/Smith, the photographer who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — take her picture sitting on the ground in the bulldozer’s path.

Corrie’s colleagues gave affidavits and told Newsweek’s Joshua Hammer in a 2003 Mother Jones article that two of them, Jennie and Will, also found themselves under the 50-ton behemoth and were pulled out at the last second. These bulldozers crawled at a snail’s pace of one to five kilometers per hour, certainly enough time for someone to avoid the machine if they wanted to.

“For two hours we attempted at great risk to ourselves to obstruct and frustrate the bulldozers in their work,” said one.

“Our group began to stand in front of these bulldozers in an attempt to stop them,” said another. “Several times we had to dive away at the last moment in order to avoid being crushed. This continued for about two and a half hours.… At one point, Will from the United States was nearly crushed.”

Why would the “internationals” risk their lives in such a way? And was Corrie a partner to this treacherous game? Reporter Joshua Hammer explained that on that fateful day the ISM members decided to take their confrontation with the IDF up a notch. They needed to prove themselves to the local population:

An anonymous letter was circulating which referred to Corrie and the other expatriate women in Rafah as “nasty foreign bitches” whom “our Palestinian young men are following around.”


That morning [of Corrie’s death], the ISM team tried to devise a strategy to counteract the letter’s effects. “We all had a feeling that our role was too passive,” said one ISM member. “We talked about how to engage the Israeli military.” That morning, team members made a number of proposals that seemed designed only to aggravate the problem. …“The idea was to more directly challenge the Israeli military dominance using our international status,” said the ISMer.

One of the ISM founders, Thom Saffold, admitted to The Washington Post the day after Corrie’s death that “it’s possible they [the protesters] were not as disciplined as we would have liked.”

Saffold continued with astounding callousness: “But we’re like a peace army. Generals send young men and women off to operations, and some die.”

That wasn’t the only statement indicating that Corrie was cannon fodder for the ISM. Another of ISM’s founders, George Rishmawi, told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2004:

When Palestinians get shot by Israeli soldiers, no one is interested anymore. But if some of these foreign volunteers get shot or even killed, then the international media will sit up and take notice.

Another ISMer in Gaza committed to writing similar sentiments in a letter home in February 2003:

You just can’t imagine it unless you see it, and even then you are always well aware that your experience is not at all the reality: what with the difficulties the Israeli Army would face if they shot an unarmed US citizen.” (emphasis added)

The author was Rachel Corrie, one month before she died. Did she believe that she should be that unarmed US citizen? Did the Gaza ISM cadre believe that they had to prove to the Palestinian locals that they were as committed to the cause as the Palestinian shihads blowing themselves up on Israeli buses? In April, one month after her death, the ISM office in Gaza was visited by two British Muslims who went on to lay flowers at the site where Corrie died. Five days later they blew themselves up in a Tel Aviv bar, killing three and wounding dozens.

Did Corrie and her ISM colleagues decide to play Russian roulette with the bulldozer on that fateful day? Did she fail to escape death, while the others pulled away in time? Was Joseph Carr/Smith there to produce another blame-Israel production as powerful as the 2000 video of the shooting of Gaza boy Mohammed Dura — ostensibly by Israeli soldiers?

The Hollywood film “The Life of David Gale” tells the tale of fanatic anti-capital punishment advocate who commits suicide. But first she stages a crime scene to make her final act looks like murder, so that an innocent man is executed as her killer. After her death, a video is discovered and the terrible injustice of capital punishment is revealed. Her crusade against the death penalty finally receives national attention.

The movie came out in February 2003. Corrie died one month later.

So was it murder or suicide? And at whose hand?

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a public affairs consultant, writer, researcher, editor, and historian of early photographs. Ben-David is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs." He worked for AIPAC for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem.