Israeli bulldozer crushes U.S. protester

American woman, 23, died trying to block home demolitions in Gaza Strip

March 17, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - An American activist protesting Israeli army demolitions in the Gaza Strip was crushed to death by an armored bulldozer yesterday when she stood in front of its blade and tried to force the driver to stop.

Rachel Corrie, 23, of Olympia, Wash., suffered a fractured skull and other injuries, and died at Najar Hospital in Rafah, a hospital administrator said. She and other activists had been in the sprawling city at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip for the past several weeks trying to prevent Israeli troops from destroying Palestinian homes and farmland.

"We were trying to frustrate them by getting in front of the bulldozers," said one of the activists, Nicholas Durie, 19, in a telephone interview. "Rachel didn't back down, and neither did the bulldozer. She was standing on a pile of sand and she slipped. The bulldozer continued to drive over her. It never lifted its blade."

Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman, said the driver of the bulldozer did not see Corrie. The bulldozers moved from place to place to try to avoid the group, he said, but the protesters followed.

"There is nothing wrong with legitimate protests," Dallal said last night. "But this was simply dangerous and irresponsible. This is a combat zone. We are really sorry about what happened. It's very regrettable."

The Israeli army has killed several Palestinians during the past two years by accidentally burying them in rubble of bulldozed homes. Yesterday's incident occurs days after soldiers in the West Bank killed two Israelis whom they mistook for Palestinian militants.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said in a statement that U.S. officials "deeply regret this tragic death of an American citizen," and urged an "immediate and full investigation."

"We again call on the Israeli defense forces to undertake all possible measures to avoid harm to civilians," the statement said.

Corrie, a senior at Evergreen State College in Washington, was a member of the International Solidarity Movement, a group whose members roam the West Bank and Gaza Strip protesting Israeli army activities.

It could not be determined yesterday whether any other pro-Palestinian American activists have been killed in the 29-month conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 725 Israelis and 1,900 Palestinians. Many protesters have been injured in clashes with Israeli police, soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And Palestinian suicide bombings have killed at least six Americans.

Israeli soldiers in Rafah, which contains a refugee camp crowded with 90,000 people, routinely demolish homes and vegetation along the fenced border with Egypt. It is one of the deadliest areas in the conflict.

The army says it routinely finds elaborate tunnel networks used to smuggle weapons from Egypt and that troops bulldoze homes hiding the entrances. Army posts along the border come under daily Palestinian fire, and soldiers clear brush and destroy buildings that they say gunmen use as cover.

An army statement said the bulldozers in yesterday's operation were ripping up shrubbery in a narrow border strip under Israeli control and that about 10 protesters confronted them during the afternoon.

The D9 armored bulldozer stands 13 feet tall. Its blade is 6 feet, 4 inches high and 14 feet long. Palestinians call the bulldozer "the beast" and say they fear it as much as Israel's other weapons of war - the Apache helicopter gunship, the F-16 fighter jet and the M-16 rifle.

Durie, who is from Scotland, disputed the army's version of events. He said the group had spent three hours in the area and that soldiers had fired warning shots and tear gas to get them to disperse.

"They were fully aware we were in the area," he said. "We had been yelling at them all day."

He said Corrie, wearing a bright orange jacket with silver stripes, was at eye level with the driver of the bulldozer when she stood atop the heap of sand in front of an olive grove.

"Rachel was shouting at the driver, but he continued to crush her," Durie said.

Besides Durie, the group of protesters consisted of three British citizens and three Americans, including one from Chicago and one from Kansas City, Mo., who attends Evergreen State College and was a classmate of Corrie's.

The surviving activists gathered in an apartment in Rafah last night to decide whether to continue the protests. They said Corrie's parents were flying to Israel to claim her body.

"I just hope this makes a few Americans think about what is happening here," Durie said. "She was an American killed by an American machine."

In other violence yesterday, Palestinians said an 18-year-old was killed by Israeli fire in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip and that a 43-year-old man was killed in Rafah, near where Corrie died.

More fighting was reported before daybreak today when about 30 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles entered the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, residents said. At least five Palestinians were killed, among them a four-year-old girl, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.

Also today, Israeli forces arrested a Palestinian legislator, Hussam Khader, in the Balata refugee camp next to Nablus, residents said.

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