Who remembers the name Rachel Corrie? In Israel, hardly anyone. But to many a pro-Palestinian American or Briton - and to many of their pro-Israeli antagonists - the mere mention of the name is enough to make the blood boil.
It was three years ago this week that the 23-year-old native of Olympia, Washington, who had come to the Gaza Strip to protest against Israel Defense Forces' demolitions of Palestinian houses, was crushed to death as she tried to block the path of a mammoth IDF armored bulldozer. Of all of the tragedies and casualties of the intifada, in which more than 4,000 people were killed over five years, the case of Rachel Corrie still stands apart, the subject of intense world interest and fierce debate.
So passionate are many of her admirers, that one commentary, entitled "Heroine of the Palestinian Struggle" in Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper, likened her to Anne Frank. So bitter are many of those who speak in rebuttal, that some have been known to suggest that either in provocation or in recklessness, "she had it coming to her." So divisive is the debate, and so disputed the circumstances of her death, that the case has become a kind of unflattering magic mirror by which we can see sides of ourselves that we would rather avoid.
Forget, for the moment, the contentions of her fellow members of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who maintain that the driver of the Caterpillar D9 behemoth intentionally drove over Rachel Corrie, twice. Consider, instead - accept, for the moment - only the conclusions of the IDF probe, which found that the D9 driver could not have seen Rachel Corrie in front of him, and that the local commander, fearing Palestinian sniper fire, ruled out the standard procedure of posting spotters to make sure that no bystanders were hurt as the bulldozer advanced.
Was the Israeli army, then, to blame for the death of an unarmed protester? The answer is yes. But not for the reasons the ISM so vigorously maintains.
Anyone who has been inside the cab of an IDF D9, fitted as it is with double-glazed, bulletproof, slit window ports obscured by giant piston lifters and, often as not, a coating of silt, has good reason to believe the testimony of the bulldozer driver when he said he couldn't see Rachel Corrie.
And there is no reason to doubt the word of the IDF commander who said the risk of Palestinian sniper fire was appreciable at the time and thus ordered his spotters to stay inside armored vehicles. Nonetheless, this, for us as Israelis, is the fundamental lesson of Rachel Corrie's death: Incidental killing is no less tragic than intentional killing.
True, the Palestinian suicide bombers and drive-by submachine gunners and ambush snipers did target noncombatants by design, killing infants, pregnant women, the elderly. And true, some Palestinians celebrated the intentional killings, and many if not most justified them, not least by telling themselves and the world that there were no Israeli noncombatants. The elderly and the pregnant, after all, had once been in the army and the infant would, one day, go in as well. But if the intifada corrupted Palestinians into excusing or extolling the killing of noncombatants, it corrupted us as well.
For years we stood by and bit our lips as large numbers of Palestinians - children, the pregnant, and the elderly among them - were incidentally killed along with, or mistakenly killed instead of, the terror warlords we had wait-listed for assassination. A turning point of sorts came in July, 2002, when a one-ton bomb that dropped from an air force warplane turned a Gaza City residential block into a crater, killing senior Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, but also causing the deaths of 13 other people. The shock wave of the attack was such that more than two dozen reserve pilots would later sign a letter of refusal, and the army as a whole undertook a reexamination of the doctrine of overwhelming force.
To be sure, the efforts to reduce civilian casualties were sincere. In the first two years of the uprising, noncombatants made up roughly half of all the deaths from Israeli assassination air raids, air force chief Eliezer Shkedi said this month. Last year, civilian casualties represented only 3.5 percent. Be that as it may, incidental deaths still occur with frequency, a result, in no small part, of the nature of combat in West Bank refugee camps, villages and urban areas. This month, an assassination raid against two senior Islamic Jihad men also claimed the lives of an eight-year-old boy, a teenager, and a young adult, all noncombatants.
Incidental death. It's what we've learned to live with, the price of our security. We know we can't root it out altogether. But we have to look at it differently, honestly, in order to limit it as best we can. Part of it starts with us. "They had no business being there" is no excuse for what the Pentagon long ago christened collateral damage.
We've learned much. But we're still not there. We should have saved Rachel Corrie's life that day, either by sending out a spotter or delaying the bulldozer's work. Right now, somewhere in the West Bank, there's an eight-year-old whose life could be saved next week, if we've managed to learn the lesson and are resourceful enough to know how to apply it.
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