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Israeli Bulldozer Crushes U.S. Activist to Death

March 17, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

While fellow protesters screamed in horror, a 23-year-old college student and activist from Washington state was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer Sunday as her group was trying to block the demolition of Palestinian homes in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, eyewitnesses said.

The Israeli army called her death a "regrettable accident" but blamed the protesters for deliberately placing themselves in harm's way -- part of what it said has been a pattern of reckless behavior by foreign activists in the West Bank and Gaza.

The young woman, Rachel Corrie, was one of a group of mainly Americans and Europeans who have staged weeks of demonstrations in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza, where the army has destroyed dozens of structures in a volatile border zone that is rocked by near-constant fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

Standing in the path of an approaching military bulldozer, Corrie lost her footing as it drew close and was first hit by a massive load of sand and debris being pushed ahead by its blade, then struck by the blade itself, witnesses said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Death in Gaza -- The A1 photo caption accompanying a March 17 article on the death of an American woman crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip incorrectly implied that the photo was taken moments before she was killed by the bulldozer in the photograph. In fact, Rachel Corrie was killed later by another bulldozer.

"I saw her in front of the bulldozer, and suddenly she disappeared from view," said Palestinian physician Samir Masri, whose family had been playing host to a group of protesters that included Corrie. "I ran out to her and saw her bleeding face, her crushed skull.... I tried to treat her, but everything was broken."

Corrie was dead of massive head and chest injuries by the time she arrived at nearby Najar hospital in Rafah, said the hospital's director, Dr. Ali Moussa.

Separately, at least six Palestinians, including a 2-year-old girl, died early today when Israeli tanks and armor pushed into the Nusseirat refugee camp in Gaza, Palestinian doctors said. Two other Palestinians were killed elsewhere in Gaza on Sunday.

Corrie grew up in Olympia, Wash., where she attended school and was frequently seen at peace demonstrations. A college spokesperson said she would have been a senior at Evergreen State College, a small public liberal arts school known for activism in social causes, and had been expected to resume her studies when she returned from the Middle East.

She had told friends and professors she was traveling to the region to be a "peace witness."

"She was very strong willed in her quiet way, but she wasn't at all self-aggrandizing," said Lin Nelson, a professor at Evergreen. "It meant a lot to her to be part of an effort to observe and witness and influence the world."

Nelson said that Corrie, who took an interest in domestic causes such as the plight of local timber towns that had fallen on harsh economic times, "seemed to have done her homework" about the situation in the Palestinian territories.

"When I heard what happened, I was appalled and sickened," she said. "I have such a sense of loss."

The Israeli army expressed regret at Corrie's death, but a military spokesman also denounced the protesters, saying that over a period of many months, some activists have consistently taken actions that endangered themselves along with Israeli troops and Palestinian civilians.

The group to which Corrie belonged, the International Solidarity Movement, has held protests at the scene of many trouble spots over the course of nearly 2 1/2 years of fighting, with its members frequently placing themselves between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers or Jewish settlers. Sunday marked the first time a member of the group has been killed.

"We are very, very sorry it ended this way," said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman. "But we really have to say this is an extremely dangerous and irresponsible form of protest -- it's unsafe for everyone. We're dealing with a combat zone. This is a place where troops are in heavy armor. There's shooting there all the time. This is not a place where a protest can be held in any kind of a safe way."

Dallal said bulletproof windows are relatively small and visibility is limited in the type of armored bulldozer that killed Corrie: a super-size model known as the D-9 often used to demolish homes. He said that the Israeli troops, who were clearing ground in search of explosives, had tried to move away from the protesters but that the group followed them.

Witnesses from Corrie's group, who included four Americans and four Europeans, said she was wearing a fluorescent-orange jacket and would have been clearly visible to the bulldozer's driver.

"She was standing directly in his path -- she just didn't back down," said Nick Burrie, of Dundee, Scotland. "Then she lost her footing, and he just kept right on driving forward."

Israeli troops temporarily halted the bulldozing after Corrie was hit but continued other operations in the area later Sunday, a military source said.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy, whose staff in Israel has been sharply reduced in advance of expected war in Iraq, could not be reached for comment.

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