The fates of two young American women, one killed in a terrorist bombing and the other under the tracks of an Israeli bulldozer, bring out deep-seated emotions about the Middle East conflict.
They were two American daughters who went to the Middle East believing their presence could make a difference, and instead became young casualties of a conflict that is much too old.
Marla Bennett was 24 when, on July 31, 2002, a terrorist’s bomb exploded in the cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem where she was working towards her master’s degree in Judaic studies.
Rachel Corrie was 23 when, on March 16, she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah. Rachel, who had gone as a pro-Palestinian peace activist, was trying to stop the bulldozer from demolishing a house.
Both were college students who liked political science and collected food for the needy. They were natives of the West Coast; Marla as from San Diego and Rachel grew up in Olympia, the capital of Washington. Both were raised in middle-class families by parents who loved them very much.
This could be a tale of these two families, the mothers and fathers who lost children in a place we call the Holy Land. A story of how the San Diego community will gather tomorrow night in commemoration of Marla’s life, to mourn her passing a year ago and collect money for a fund in her name. And a story of how another community mourns Rachel’s death, seeking justice from afar and creating memorials in her honor.
But’s not that simple. Comparing Marla and Rachel opens a Pandora’s box bursting with hostility and disagreement.
The violence is half a world away, but the tensions here are nearly as raw and complex as they are over there. And if their lives were similar, their deaths may be a symbol of the deep and complex divisions that continue in a region of the world that is as volatile as it is ancient.
Linking the two women, even in a story, “is outrageous,” says Yuval Rotem, Israel’s counsel general in Los Angeles.
Marla’s death was clearly the result of terrorism, but Rachel’s death remains a matter of debate. The Israeli government contends that it was a regrettable accident, while others argue that the act was deliberate – that she was a human shield who got in the way of that country’s controversial policy of demolishing homes linked to terrorism or to the families of terrorists.
“Marla Bennett came to Israel with no political agenda, came to be a student, and she was killed because there is a cult of death in the Middle East that wants to kill innocent civilians without any discrimination,” Rotem says. Rachel, he adds, was “someone who deliberately pursued a political agenda.”
After Rachel was killed, an Israeli representative telephoned her family to offer his condolences for what that government insists was a tragic accident. The man told the family that while he did not agree with Rachel’s politics, he admired her courage. Her father remembers how her older brother bridled.
“He said, ‘Sir, I don’t think you knew my sister and didn’t understand her politics,’” Craig Corrie recalls. ‘She was for all people.’”
At their apartment in Charlotte, N.C., Rachel’s mother brushes a hand over the emblem pinned to her jumper, a pair of Israeli and Palestinian flags unfurled side by side.
“I think we just have to work for understanding,” Cindy Corrie says softly, as if the words are a prayer.
“People ask me, ‘Why was she there?’” Craig Corrie says. “Why aren’t we all there?”
He says his daughter had slept as a guest in the house she was trying to defend, sharing a pool of blankets with the children. “She would have had to do everything she could to stop it.”
His voice breaks with a sob. His wife hugs herself tightly. “I think Rachel believed that the people would stop,” he says.
Rachel grew up in the family house overlooking Mud Bay, just outside Olympia. She remained there, working and going to Evergreen State College after her parents moved so her father could take a new job at another insurance company.
Her parents were shocked when she told them she was planning to take a break and leave for Gaza in January with a pro-Palestinian activist group called the International Solidarity Movement. But they knew better than to try to dissuade her.
“She was always searching for where to put her energy and where to find the most meaning in life, what work would be the most meaningful for her,” says Cindy Corrie, sitting next to her husband in their apartment. “I couldn’t discourage her from doing that kind of searching.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Rachel became active in the peace movement in Olympia. She began to focus on what she regarded as the injustices suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
“She was feeling compelled to try and repair some of the damage brought by the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East,” says Simona Sharoni, an Israeli who runs the Peace and Justice Studies Association, which has its headquarters on the Evergreen State campus.
Sharoni, who became a friend and mentor, shared Rachel’s conviction that the balance of power is too heavily weighted in Israel’s favor. To them, mainstream media reports are skewed, U.S. aid to Israel has gotten out of hand, and the Palestinians are being unfairly treated – despite the terrorist bombings.
“She wanted to be in Palestine to bear witness,” says Sharoni, invoking the politically charged name for the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories.
What exactly happened in Rafah late on the afternoon of March 16 is unclear. Accounts vary, but at some point Rachel apparently fell and the bulldozer rolled over her. After it stopped, it backed over her, witnesses say.
The Israeli government declared it an accident. An investigation exonerated the soldiers involved, concluding that neither the bulldozer driver nor those in the escort vehicle could have seen Rachel from their perches.
But Tom Dale, another International Solidarity Movement protester from Great Britain who was with Rachel, says in a written statement that “there is no way she could not have been seen by them in their elevated cabin. They knew where she was, there is no doubt.”
Marla was probably eating lunch when the bomb that killer her was detonated. She had gone to the university to take a final exam and was planning to come home for a vacation, attend a wedding, and spend the High Holy Days with her family. Instead, they held her funeral.
The militant Islamic group Hamas took credit for the bombing, which killed nine people, including Marla and four other Americans. Four Arab residents of east Jerusalem were charged in September with the murders.
Marla was a graduate of Patrick Henry High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of California Berkeley. She would have completed her master’s degree in May and planned to return to the United States and teach Jewish children.
“Marla wanted to be an educator. She was very altruistic. She saw good in everything and everybody,” says Norman Greene, a family friend.
She went to Israel out of a love for her faith and for her spiritual homeland. There was idealism in her writings and a commitment.
“This is undoubtedly an important historic moment for both Israel and for the Jewish people,” Marla wrote in an essay two months before her death. “I have the privilege of reporting to my friends and family in the U.S. about the realities of living in Israel at this time, and I also have the honor of being an American choosing to remain in Israel and assist, however minimally, in Israel’s triumph.”
She also wrote of the importance of being there to help both sides.
“I can volunteer in the homes of Israelis affected by terrorism,” she wrote in a column published in the San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, a weekly newspaper. “I can put food in collection baskets for Palestinian families.”
Marla knew there was risk. She acknowledged in the column that just deciding whether to turn left or right “may have life-threatening consequences.” But, she concluded, “I know that this struggle is worthwhile.”
Rachel also believed in her struggle. Her emails back home carried blistering accounts of fear and destruction.
In February, she was photographed in Gaza burning a drawing of a U.S. flag. Her parents say she was protesting the impending war in Iraq and was not trying to be anti-American.
“Protesting an injustice is at the core of what it means to be an American,” Cindy Corrie adds.
But that picture didn’t bode well for her legacy. “Rachel Corrie went to America’s enemies to burn her country’s flag,” is how one Internet message reads.
Since his daughter’s death, Craig Corrie has been on a leave of absence. He and his wife have been swept into a perpetual motion of mourning and activism.
They have been to Washington, D.C., to lobby for an independent inquiry into their daughter’s death. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who represents Rachel’s district, sponsored a resolution calling on the United States “to undertake a full, fair and expeditious investigation.” The bill remains before a House committee, its future uncertain.
Cindy Corrie spoke at Evergreen State College’s commencement, where she said her daughter “dreamed of a day when all Palestinians and Israelis could live in freedom with security and dignity.” She also spoke at a Mother’s Day gathering in a park in Olympia.
A couple who had paid little attention to that region of the world are now converts to their daughter’s cause. “We in America see the horror of the suicide bombings,” Cindy Corrie told the Mother’s Day audience. “We seem to see much less the ongoing violence against the Palestinian people.”
She knows that the mainstream sentiment is about the Middle East.
“But I have the words of Rachel about what it was like being there,” she says. “…I have her shoes. I stuck my hands in her shoes and thee sands from Gaza were still in her shoes. She was there and walked there.”
The Bennett family declined to be interviewed for this story. There is sadness in Linda Bennett’s voice when she says that it just wouldn’t be appropriate to write about her daughter and Rachel together. Their deaths, as some family friends put it, are not “morally equivalent.”
It’s a decision supported by Rabbi Martin Lawson of Temple Emmanu-El, the Bennett family synagogue in Del Cerro.
“Marla’s death was a result of a terrorist act meant to kill,” Lawson says. She was simply “an innocent graduate student trying to get an education.”
The other woman’s death was an accident, Lawson says. “Rachel Corrie’s death was a tragedy, but she knew what she was doing. It’s just not the same.”
Rachel wasn’t anti-Jewish or anti-Israel, say those who knew her.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Sharoni, who is Jewish. She says Rachel wanted separate Palestinian and Israeli states – with justice, equality and security for each. “If you looked Rachel in the eye, you knew that she was not there because she hated anyone.”
Rachel’s parents, who are Christians and who grew up in Iowa, say she was committed to nonviolence. She wanted a safer world for Israelis and Palestinians, as well as U.S. citizens, they say.
Marla probably would have agreed.
“She felt there should be peace and harmony, that the divisions were artificial and were whipped up politically, says Greene, the Bennett family friend who also is co-publisher of the Press-Heritage.
The grieving continues for Linda and Michael Bennett, Greene says. Linda Bennett has been to Israel to see where her daughter was killed; she also spoke at a national Anti-Defamation League dinner in Washington D.C.
Tomorrow, beginning at 7:30 PM, 1,500 to 2,000 people are expected at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center to celebrate Marla’s life. The event is free, though commemorative bracelets will be sold for $18, with proceeds to go toward a memorial fund.
Meanwhile, there is a fragile truth and a road map toward a possible peace in the Middle East. Someday, maybe, there will be no more dying daughters.