Rachel Corrie
Rachel Corrie, 23, was killed in 2003 while trying to block the bulldozer from demolishing Palestinian homes. Reuters

A court decision on Tuesday has exonerated the Israeli military in the case of Rachel Corrie, an American activist who died in Gaza nine years ago.

Corrie was 23 years old when she was crushed to death in 2003. She had been trying to block an Israeli army bulldozer from demolishing Palestinian homes.

The verdict is a defeat for her parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, who had brought the suit against the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

"I believe this was a bad day not only for our family, but a bad day for human rights, for humanity, for the rule of law and also for the country of Israel," said an emotional Cindy Corrie to reporters after the verdict, according to CNN. She and her husband are expected to appeal the case to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Israel's refusal to assume responsibility for Corrie's death indicates an awareness of what's really at stake -- public perception.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak once said that "the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is the most moral army in the world." Selling that idea is of integral importance to Israel in its struggle to end its decades-long conflict with Palestinians, and Tuesday's verdict is one more sign that Israel knows the importance of cultivating its image.

Crossing Over

Corrie was in Gaza during an uprising that Palestinians refer to as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, a five-year struggle that claimed the lives of at least 5,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis. Among Palestinians' demands was the end of Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Unrest grew as Palestinians watched the ongoing construction of Israeli checkpoints on disputed land, accompanied by the demolition of Palestinian homes.

When Corrie first decided to take up the Palestinians' cause, she was a senior at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Her trip was arranged as an independent study program; one of Corrie's aims was to set up a link -- including a pen-pal program -- between Olympia and Rafah, a city on in the Gaza strip just across the border from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

After landing in Israel in January of 2003, Corrie joined a Palestinian-led activist group called the International Solidarity Movement, or ISM. According to the organization's website, "ISM aims to support and strengthen the Palestinian popular resistance by providing the Palestinian people with two resources, international solidarity and an international voice with which to nonviolently resist an overwhelming military occupation force."

While there, Corrie sent home a series of emails; some were published by the Guardian in the days following her death.

"Love you. Really miss you," she said in an email to her mother in late February. "I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house and you and me inside. Sometimes the adrenaline acts as an anesthetic for weeks and then in the evening or at night it just hits me again -- a little bit of the reality of the situation. I am really scared for the people here."

Corrie died on March 16, when she and a group of ISM members went to demonstrate against the Israeli military's demolition of homes in Rafah. She had positioned herself in front of a custom-armored Caterpillar D9R Bulldozer, a stocky machine with small windows and a massive blade. She held her ground for too long, first squatting and then scrambling on top of the earth that began to pile up beneath her as the bulldozer advanced.

There are conflicting reports as to whether the vehicle's operator was able to see her or not. Witnesses report that she was waving her arms and dressed in a bright orange reflective jacket. On the other hand, the bulldozer's windows were small and high off the ground, which could have obstructed the driver's view.

Corrie was trapped, then buried, then crushed. When the tank moved away and her fellow activists ran to retrieve her, she was still breathing but fatally injured. Whether she died on site or at a nearby hospital remains a matter of contention.

Hit and Run

The Israeli court's ruling on Tuesday maintained that Corrie's death was an accident, and that the bulldozer's driver -- his identity remains a mystery to this day -- could not see the young activist.

"She chose to put herself in danger," said Judge Oded Gershon, according to the New York Times. "She could have easily distanced herself from the danger like any reasonable person would."

Cindy Corrie disagreed. "The diplomatic process between the United States and Israel failed us," she said to a gathering of reporters following the verdict. "Rachel's killing could have and should have been avoided."

Israel's decision to grant the military impunity in this trial -- even though the Corrie family was seeking damages of only $1, plus court expenses -- makes it very clear that this case had little to do with assigning blame or recouping costs of any kind. This was about accepting responsibility, a concept that is far more important than it seems.

Nine years after the tragedy, Israel is determined not to let Corrie's death become a symbol of military recklessness.

Many Palestinians, on the other hand, hope to keep to the young activist's name in headlines as a symbol of the nonviolent resistance efforts of so many residents of the occupied territories. The ISM, for example, posted a banner on the website in support of Corrie's family following Tuesday's verdict.

Taking Sides

When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the battle is taking place on two levels. Within the disputed borders of the state of Israel, it is about lives and land. Everywhere else, the struggle centers on public perception -- and this has become one of the most complicated and divisive disputes on earth.

Neither side can claim innocence. Many Palestinian officials -- especially those of Hamas, the administrative body in the Gaza Strip that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and several other Western countries -- have called for the destruction of Israel. Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israeli territory over the past ten years.

The Israeli army, on the other hand, is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom were civilians. On the very day of Corrie's death, reported the Guardian, nine Palestinians lost their lives in Gaza. One was a four-year-old girl; another was a 90-year old man.

That Rachel Corrie's is the name we remember today begs the question: why should a single American woman receive more attention than the thousands of Palestinians who died fighting for the very same cause?

The simple answer is that the Corrie family had the resources, the connections and the sense of efficacy necessary to pursue legal action against the Israeli military.

The complicated answer is that Corrie's status as an American made her death an international affair, and Israel's ongoing conflict with the Palestinian Territories takes place as much on the ground as in does in other, more removed forums: on global news outlets, at foreign embassies, and in conversations at bars, offices, and kitchen tables all around the world.

Israel's refusal to accept culpability for Corrie's death shows that public perception remains as important as ever.

Charged Words

The situation in the Palestinian territories has changed only slightly in the nine years since Corrie lost her life. Though Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, peace is still a long way off. And Israeli settlements continue to advance into the territories of the West Bank, threatening the prospect of a permanent Palestinian state there.

And while both sides attempt to stake their claim on land that each considers their own, the battle over public opinion rages on with just as much ferocity.

Corrie, too struggled with issues of perception and communication. She described the horrors of Rafah in an email to her mother, calling it genocide. But she followed it up with an acknowledgement of her own fallibility.

"I felt after talking to you that maybe you didn't completely believe me," she wrote in February.

"I think it's actually good if you don't, because I do believe pretty much above all else in the importance of independent critical thinking.... I'm going to get better at illustrating this, hopefully. I don't like to use those charged words. I think you know this about me. I really value words. I really try to illustrate and let people draw their own conclusions."

Rachel Corrie has also inadvertently become a "martyr" of sorts for some pro-Palestinian as well as anti-Semitic elements in the U.S. and Western Europe since her death. Jews in the US in particular are sensitive to any portrayal of Rachel as a 'victim of Zionism.'

That issue came to a head recently at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival which screened a documentary called "Rachel" that probed the death of the young Ms. Corrie and his highly critical of the Israeli government. Rachel's mother Cindy was even invited to the festival to deliver a speech.

Some local Jews called for a boycott of the film, suggesting it was an exercise in anti-Israeli propaganda.

"This has become a lightning rod for a tremendous controversy: Is it appropriate for a Jewish film festival to screen a movie critical of the Israeli government?" said festival director Peter Stein said during the introduction of the film on July 25, according to the Jewish Review.

"We're trying to be a model for civic discourse ... but what makes for acceptable discourse will not be solved with one movie or one speaker."