The Israeli dismissal of a civil lawsuit by the family of slain American activist Rachel Corrie against the Israel Defense Forces sends a chilling message to non-violent activists worldwide.
At the end of last month, an Israeli judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the family of Rachel Corrie, who was killed in 2003 by an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) bulldozer. The D9 armored vehicle was manufactured by Caterpillar, which is the target of boycott campaigns by US churches because of the role its equipment plays in maintaining the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
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Corrie had “put herself in a dangerous situation” and could have saved herself by moving out of the zone of danger, [the judge] said.
Since the day she died in 2003, millions of words have been written about what happened to her and who was responsible. We’ve heard from the eyewitnesses who were with her. We’ve heard from Cindy and Craig Corrie, Rachel’s parents. We’ve heard from partisans on both sides.
But we’ve heard little from or about the Israelis involved: the bulldozer driver, his commander, the IDF Gaza commander. Their government wanted to keep a tight lid on the investigation. It wanted to shield anyone who participated in any way from public scrutiny. Though they testified in court and that testimony is public record, their identities were shielded for “security reasons” and very little has been written about Israel’s defense of its actions on that day.
I will cite depositions taken from these individuals in which they explain and justify what they did. The perpetrators speak for themselves so that you may judge whether the verdict absolving the IDF of responsibility for her death this week was just.
Before we do, it’s important to set the stage by describing Rachel’s death from the vantage point of the eyewitnesses. They stood 60 feet from her and watched the entire incident unfold:
When Rachel was 20-30 meters from the bulldozer, she knelt down in front of it. The bulldozer advanced toward her with the blade-bucket in the dirt at a height of 1.5-2 feet, about half a meter…. The terrain was flat ground and Richard [Purssell] had an open view on a clear day, and the incident occurred at a distance of 20 meters from him.
When the bulldozer approached Rachel, she climbed onto a pile of dirt, not a large one [less than five feet high] … From the place where she stood, Rachel looked into the driver’s cabin (emphasis added). The bulldozer continued to move forward. Rachel turned around … to get down from the pile, but the dirt was moving as she climbed down [and she fell as] the bulldozer continued to move forward. [She] disappeared under the pile of moving dirt. The bulldozer moved forward a distance of at least 4 meters. Then all of her friends ran toward it, and it stopped.
In Richard’s words: ‘I heard lots of screams, a great many screams, people signaling to the bulldozer driver to stop, signaling him to stop. At that time, the bulldozer was still moving another 4 meters. It passed the spot where Rachel fell, stopped and backed up in reverse along the path it had traveled in a straight line along the path where Rachel lay on the ground.’
The government argues that the bulldozer driver didn’t see Rachel. But the above underlined testimony, and this passage from a separate eyewitness disprove to this claim:
… He [Gregory Schnabel] saw that Rachel was at the height of the window of the bulldozer driver’s cabin until she fell…. When the bulldozer came very close to Rachel, it started to push the dirt under her feet and around her ankles and she stood straight and struggled to remain on top of the pile. She climbed up so the driver could see her (emphasis added), and then she lost her balance and was pushed back. The deceased fell on her side and tried to get away but she was trapped and the bulldozer continued to advance.
In his own testimony, the bulldozer driver claims that on no account could he see Corrie in front of his vehicle. Yet note this contradictory testimony by him:
The pile that was between the bulldozer and the deceased, and onto which the deceased climbed …
In other words, when it was convenient to his story, she wasn’t there. But when his guard was down in another context, she magically reappeared in his field of vision. He later testified that he never told the state prosecutor he saw her on the pile of dirt, despite the fact that his earlier statement is in the record.
Another defense offered by the driver (known in the proceedings as YP, because his identity was concealed) was that he couldn’t see Rachel due to the D9’s “blind spot,” which prevented him from seeing what was immediately in front of the bulldozer. At first, he testified that the blind spot was about 9 feet. That would mean that he would’ve seen Corrie, who was dressed in a bright fluorescent vest, when she was 60 feet away from him. That is where the eyewitnesses say she was before his vehicle began bearing down on her. This would undermine his claim that he couldn’t see her at any point before running her over.
But later YP changed his testimony, and the blind spot became 90 feet; and still later it diminished to 60 feet. At any rate, it’s clear that the truth became elastic and was suited to whatever would best cover the killer’s rear-end.
In addition to the driver, his commander (EV) shared the cabin with him. The latter testified:
… They received a briefing and mission in the morning. The mission was to clear the area, and they warned them about bombs and that it was an open territory in a dangerous area. They also told them that there might be foreign citizens and that they needed be careful of them, to keep a distance from them in order to avoid harming them.
Other testimony by IDF soldiers described them variously as “tourists” or “terrorists” (quite a difference), who might be armed, or unarmed. This conflicting information attests to the lack of coordinated data provided to soldiers in the field. This sort of lackadaisical approach is what leads to deaths like Rachel’s.
Though a number of state witnesses claimed they were told in their operational briefing not to harm civilians, the bulldozer driver had an entirely different impression of his mission:
…It was a war zone, and they told us that civilians were forbidden to be there, and that we should keep a distance from the civilians ‘but under no circumstances to stop the work because it was war.’
YP had two choices when he saw Rachel. Either he could obey the directive not to harm civilians, or he could obey the directive not to stop work. He chose the latter – thus causing Corrie’s death.
Another aspect of the above passage that is important is the false notion that the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) protesters were in a “war zone.” The judge too, in his decision, noted that responsibility for her own death lay with Rachel for traveling into such a dangerous place. Yet when asked during trial, the state could come up with no official IDF document that declared the particular area in which the killing occurred a war zone.
In his decision, Judge Oded Gershon erroneously cited a State Department travel advisory warning US citizens not to travel to Gaza. He used the advisory to support his claim that Corrie’s actions flew in the face of common sense and self-preservation. But in truth, there was no such travel advisory in effect at the time of her death. That directive was only issued after she died and was directly attributed to her death.
The judge also managed to come up with a new concept in jurisprudence. Though the ISM activists were non-violent and unarmed, they somehow through alignment with the Palestinian cause, became “practically violent.” Yossi Gurvitz characterized this portion of the decision:
[The judge] ruled that ISM activists served as ‘human shields’ – a common claim, never substantiated, of the Hasbara system – and gave ‘financial, logistical and moral aid to the Palestinians, including terrorists and their family members, and disrupted the demolition or the sealing of the houses of terrorists who carried out suicide attacks, killing many.’ All of which, said the judge, shows that ‘the organization is misusing the language of human rights and morality, in order to obfuscate the severity of its actions, which are practically violent.’
In reality, Corrie was not protecting the home of a “suicide bomber.” She was protecting the home of a Gaza physician who had sheltered the activists for two weeks after their arrival there. There is no other way to describe the judge’s decision than blaming the victim for her own death. In the past, this was common in rape trials. In Israel, it’s common to cover-up crimes perpetrated by the IDF.
Returning to the testimony of the bulldozer driver, clearly he was following orders in endangering Corrie, as confirmed by this statement from the deputy battalion commander:
We must not, as an army, allow such incidents to disrupt the ongoing mission. The problem of the foreigners is known in this area, and as a policy we do not stop activity due to the presence of foreigners in this area, in order to avoid creating a dangerous precedent.
The “dangerous precedent” has nothing to do with real physical danger, but rather to the political “danger” of anti-occupation activists successfully impeding the work of the IDF.
The IDF commander sized up his own, and the army’s major concerns regarding the incident quite succinctly here. You’ll note absolutely no concern for ethics or human life in this appraisal:
The severity of the incident from a media perspective is clear, as well as the damage the incident causes to us as an army.
In the following passage, IDF brigade commander Pinky Zuaretz uttered some of the most chilling words in all the testimony I’ve read:
It should be noted that the rules of engagement vis-a-vis any adult on the route is to shoot to kill.
In another portion of his testimony, he reinforces the impression of total paranoia that characterizes Israel’s approach to legitimate non-violent protest against the occupation:
‘Reasonable people would not be there unless they had aims of attacking our forces … Corrie and her friends were ‘either negligent or naive, cynically sent to the front by terrorists,’ because anyone wandering around [that part of Gaza] was ‘doomed to death … because their intentions were not innocent…’
So despite the fact that the Gaza activists posed no security threat to the forces operating that day, they somehow became transformed into terrorists. It can be no accident that during Zuaretz’s tenure as Gaza commander, over 100 Palestinian civilians were killed by the IDF, almost half children, according to the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem.
Since 2002, eleven foreign peace activists have been killed or severely injured by the IDF while protesting non-violently against the occupation. Rachel was not the first, as UNWRA relief director Ian Hooks was killed by IDF fire the year before, in 2002.
On the one hand, IDF personnel claim they were given specific orders not to harm the foreign activists who were protesting the Gaza home demolitions. But on the other hand, the most senior officer on duty says that these same activists were in a “kill zone.” Given a choice between the high-minded words of subordinates and the chilling utterance of a commander, I know which I’d give more credit as operative for the entire mission and its personnel.
Zuaretz is currently living in the US where he is a fundraiser for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.
Corrie’s attorney also questioned the IDF engineering officer who wrote the manual governing use of the bulldozer during conflict situations. The booklet specifically says that no one should be within 60 feet of the vehicle. In other words, since the IDF personnel knew there were activists within that zone, he should have stopped work.
Yet magically, the engineer comes up with this explanation which causes the directives in his own manual to become irrelevant:
… In a war zone, there are no civilians. There are no civilians. If someone is present there, this indicates that he is hostile. There are no civilians by definition.
It’s also instructive that at first, the state refused even to grant the Corries access to the IDF operational manual for the D9, claiming it came under state privilege as a security matter. Later, it released the manual. It became clear the reason it initially refused to provide it was that the instructions made clear that work should not be conducted with anyone within a safety zone around the vehicle.
The state, in arguing that it bore no guilt for the activist’s death, said:
… In light of the essentiality [sic] of the mission and the immediate and future danger to the lives of the soldiers in the area due to sniper fire had the clearing work been prevented.
It might be justifiably argued that demolishing one house, or even a small group of houses to prevent sniper fire, is permissible. But the IDF destroyed 1700 homes in Rafah, rendering 17,000 homeless in this overall operation, according to B’Tselem. This constitutes 10 percent of the neighborhood’s overall population. That is no longer an “essential mission” to protect soldiers from sniper fire, but rather an act of collective punishment against a civilian population because it is resisting an occupation considered illegal under international law.
The defense further argued on its behalf:
… The bulldozer operator and his commander immediately stopped when they saw the deceased’s friends, raised the bulldozer’s blade and pulled back.
This too is a half-truth, since a number of eyewitnesses say the bulldozer operator clearly saw Corrie, ran her down, then backed up over her body. It was only after others ran to her defense that the bulldozer did what the state claims above. By then, of course, she had been fatally injured and anything else the IDF did or didn’t do is irrelevant.
According to the “war zone” defense offered by the state, any civilian who violated the purported directive of the IDF lived or died at her own peril. It’s critical to note that if we accept this logic, then no army has any responsibility under international law to protect civilians in a war zone. Of course, no expert in this field would accept such an interpretation of decades of contrary jurisprudence on this subject.
In 2003, Israel was the occupying power. It was responsible for not harming unarmed civilians. Instead, when faced with international peace activists hindering its work, it played a game of one-upsmanship using a 56-ton armored bulldozer versus a woman’s 135-pound body. The bulldozer won that battle, but not the war.
As it did in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara massacre, Israel circled the wagons to protect its own. Despite protestations to the contrary, it never sought a “transparent,” fair investigation. It sought an investigation that would absolve anyone of any responsibility. The result satisfies no one and only raises the ire of the international community at state-sanctioned wrongdoing.
It becomes harder for liberal Zionists to argue that acts like the killing of Rachel Corrie and this deeply flawed judicial ruling are rare flaws in a system that otherwise respects the rule of law and democratic values. What becomes clearer with each passing massacre and killing is that the Pinky Zuaretzes of the world are the true representatives of the Israeli state. While there may be good individuals serving in the IDF, a nation that refuses to hold wrongdoers responsible for their bad acts is a nation that has lapsed into a chaotic, lawless netherworld.
If you examine the history of the IDF military justice system’s response in this case, you will see an endless series of shams. From the first, the Gaza commander, Doron Almog, refused to allow those under his command to be interrogated by military police. Only a day later did he rescind this ruling. Almog is the same officer who fled London rather than face an international arrest warrant seeking his detention to answer charges in the 2002 killings of Hamas leader, Salah Shehada, and 15 other civilians.
During testimony at the trial, one state witness noted at least ten different IDF investigations of Rachel’s death. What apparently happened was that each investigation was an attempt to silence objections to the inadequacy of the one that came before. This is similar to what Israel did in the case of the Mavi Marmara massacre.
Interesting to note that just as IDF senior officer Giora Eiland was appointed as liaison to the US embassy regarding the Corrie investigation, he was the chief “fixer” for the IDF in the Mavi Marmara affair. He performed an internal inquiry that also exonerated the IDF. When an IDF investigation of itself wasn’t found credible, the state then appointed an “independent” commission which found the IDF not responsible for the nine deaths.
None of those IDF investigations into the Corrie killing were made public. Though the IDF claims that every report cleared their personnel of wrongdoing, there’s no way of verifying whether this is true. In fact, in another case involving the murder of a Gaza child, the IDF similarly claimed its investigation absolved it of wrongdoing. Due to an inadvertent transfer of IDF documents to the victim’s family’s attorney, it was discovered that the chief military prosecutor, Einat Ron, had in fact found the IDF guilty of serious errors. But instead of reporting this, she actually coached the witnesses how to lie and present their evidence in the most convincing way possible.
The chief prosecutor in the Corrie case was the same Einat Ron. The latter’s other claim to fame is that she approved the gag order – this time as a judge (excellent work defending IDF wrongdoers is rewarded with a promotion!) – that turned IDF whistleblower Anat Kamm into a disappeared person. Despite the fact that she is a whistleblower, Kamm is now serving a prison term for leaking documents about IDF misdeeds.
When the Corries finally sued and the case came to court, the state demanded not only that the witnesses’ identities be protected, but that they testify from behind screens so their faces would not be seen in public. This is reminiscent of the Cosa Nostra trials of the 1960s in which Mafia informers testified incognito. The difference of course is that the IDF witnesses weren’t “mobbed-up.”
Testifying in camera also gave undue deference to the state, its case, and its witnesses. It set a tone for the trial in which the defense always received the benefit of the doubt and the plaintiffs were the barely tolerated, troublesome provocateurs.
The quality of the evidence offered and experts used in establishing the state’s case were deeply suspect. For example, in his report in The Nation, Neve Gordon, a professor at Ben Gurion University, revealed that one of the “expert” sources the state used to prove the International Solidarity Movement (which brought Rachel to Gaza) was a terrorist organization was Lee Kaplan. Kaplan’s bona fides as an expert on the ISM are about as solid as those of David Horowitz or Pam Geller regarding “Islamofacism.” He founded the web site, Stop the ISM and contributes to Isracampus, whose hyperbolic rhetoric is dedicated to smearing Israeli academics who take a role in human rights and peace activism.
Gordon quotes this portion of the defense case which essentially argues that both Corrie and the ISM needed a martyr and brought about her suicide on behalf of the cause:
The members of the organization, including the deceased, were willing to risk their lives for the sake of advancing their agenda…. They lay down in front of weapons of war, entered fire zones where life-threatening live fire was deployed and served as ‘human shields’ for leading terrorists in a way that endangered their lives.
The deceased also knew that the death of an American citizen would create a pronounced media/political outcry around the world, far beyond the death of a local Palestinian, in ways that would advance the organization’s agenda. Therefore, although there was mortal danger in the Gaza … the deceased chose to risk her own life, and she prepared herself in advance for this risk.
This narrative portrays Corrie as a shahid for the cause of Palestinian rights. In reality, Corrie clearly was neither suicidal nor had she ever discussed with anyone the idea of giving her life to protect the homes being demolished. In fact, the state’s argument would be akin to saying that because Martin Luther King gave a speech in which he imagined giving his life on behalf of the civil rights movement, that he in fact became responsible for his own death.
The Obama administration should be speaking up on behalf of Rachel and her family and demanding justice. In fact, this is precisely what the Blair government did in the cases of Tom Hurndall and James Miller, British activists who were killed in Gaza shortly after Rachel. In their cases, after initial internal investigations exonerated IDF personnel, two separate UK attorneys general, one of whom was Jewish, threatened sanctions against Israel if it didn’t take action.
As a result, the Miller family won a $2.5 million settlement. Though no IDF soldier was prosecuted in the Miller case, Hurndall’s killer was brought to trial and convicted (though the initial army probe acquitted anyone of blame).
What can we expect from the US government? In fact, Ambassador Dan Shapiro did meet with the Corrie family and told them that the Israeli investigation had not been “transparent.” Of course, he wouldn’t say that publicly. It was leaked after a private meeting.
Amnesty International had no such qualms in labeling the Corrie ruling and the IDF investigation into her death as a sham:
Amnesty International condemns an Israeli court’s verdict that the government of Israel bears no responsibility in the death of Rachel Corrie, saying the verdict continues the pattern of impunity for Israeli military violations against civilians and human rights defenders in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
The verdict shields Israeli military personnel from accountability and ignores deep flaws in the Israeli military’s internal investigation of Corrie’s death.
Nobel-laureate Jimmy Carter too voiced his concern for the implications of the verdict:
“The killing of an American peace activist is unacceptable,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “The court’s decision confirms a climate of impunity, which facilitates Israeli human rights violations against Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territory.”
Human Rights Watch also was dismayed:
[It] said the ruling contravened international law, which is intended to protect non-combatants in war zones, and set ‘a dangerous precedent. The idea that there can be no fault for killing civilians in a combat operation flatly contradicts Israel’s international legal obligations to spare civilians from harm during armed conflict and to credibly investigate and punish violations by its forces,’ said Bill van Esveld, a senior Middle East researcher at HRW.
When questioned, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland would do little more than express condolences to the family for its loss. She promised no special effort on their behalf. Instead, she mentioned that the family could appeal the decision to the Israeli Supreme Court. In other words, she tossed the ball back into Israel’s court and hoped it would somehow absolve the US of any need to do anything at all.
In fact, Barack Obama has bigger fish to fry. He’s got an election to win in which he needs Jewish votes. If the Corries spoke for as many votes as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, then Rachel might get justice. Unfortunately for them, they only have justice and decency on their side. These are certainly fine qualities, but they don’t vote.
So the US may try to abandon Rachel and her family. It will allow justice to be denied. It will allow Israel to get away with a shabby investigation that proved nothing other than the IDF’s skill at sweeping its sins under the rug.