A 23-year-old American protesting the demolition of Palestinians' houses in the Gaza Strip was killed today by an Israeli military bulldozer that crushed her body as she crouched in its path, according to witnesses from her pro-Palestinian organization.
Rachel Corrie, a college student from Olympia, Wash., was the first international protester to be killed during the 30-month conflict between Israelis and Palestinians here, although numerous protesters have been injured, arrested or ordered out of the country by Israeli authorities.
"This was a very regrettable incident," said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli military spokesman. "We're dealing with a group of protesters acting very irresponsibly, putting everyone in danger -- the Palestinians, themselves and our forces."
Corrie, who had been in the Middle East for about six weeks as a volunteer for a U.S.-based Palestinian support group called the International Solidarity Movement, was kneeling in front of the bulldozer and tried to scramble out of its way, said Tom Dale, 18, a British protester who said he was standing several yards away.
"She thought they'd stop, but they kept going," Dale said. "She tried to stand up and fell over backwards. The bulldozer dragged her under its blade. About four of the internationals [protesters] gestured to the driver . . . but it kept going, and she was under the main body of the bulldozer.
"I couldn't believe it. I was sure the bulldozer would stop," he said, adding that "when we arrived she was still alive but had blood all over her face."
An official at the nearby hospital where she was taken said Corrie died of skull injuries and chest fractures.
Dale said eight representatives of the international group were near the bulldozer during its operations late this afternoon. But he said no other demonstrators were within several yards of Corrie as she knelt in the rubble between a Palestinian's house and a metal wall that Israel is erecting along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Dale said Corrie was wearing a bright orange vest.
The Israeli military forces were removing shrubbery in the border area and were approached by the protesters, according to a statement released by the military tonight. Troops ordered the demonstrators to move back, the statement said.
"An initial inquiry indicates that an Israeli bulldozer apparently accidentally ran over a protester," the statement continued, adding, "The windows of the bulletproof bulldozer are very small and the visibility is very limited, and the bulldozer operator did not see the woman." The military "expresses sorrow" and is investigating the incident, the statement said.
"It's possible they [the protesters] were not as disciplined as we would have liked," Thom Saffold, a founder and organizer of the International Solidarity Movement, said in a telephone interview from the group's base in Ann Arbor, Mich. "But we're like a peace army. Generals send young men and women off to operations, and some die."
Saffold said 30 to 50 volunteers from the group are in the Palestinian territories, many of them focused on protesting the Israeli military's destruction of Palestinians' houses in the Gaza Strip.
Ben Granby, who volunteers with the group in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, called Corrie "remarkably brave."
"She didn't seem too fazed by all the gunfire and the danger," said Granby, 27, who recently went home to Madison, Wis., after spending the first week of March with Corrie in Gaza.
In an interview with reporters on Friday, Corrie said: "I feel like what I'm witnessing here is a very systematic destruction of people's ability to survive."
Anne Fischel, a faculty member at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where Corrie was a student, said that many people had asked Corrie whether she had thought through her plan to go to Gaza "and what her support system would be there. But did we tell her not to go? No. If we had, she would have done it anyway. She was following her own convictions."
A U.S. Embassy spokesman declined to comment on the incident but said the State Department has warned Americans not to travel to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Two Palestinian men also died in separate incidents in the Gaza Strip late this evening. An 18-year-old man was shot to death in a clash involving Israeli soldiers, and a 43-year-old man was hit by Israeli gunfire as he stood in his doorway, according to Palestinian media reports.
Staff writer Blaine Harden in Seattle contributed to this report.