Judge absolves Israel of responsibility in Corrie death

The verdict by an Israeli court in the case of Rachel Corrie, an American activist killed in Gaza by an Israeli military bulldozer in 2003, has touched on a range of ethical issues at the center of Israel’s military operations.

But at its core, the Aug. 28 ruling absolving Israel of any wrongdoing in Corrie’s death hinged on one simple question: Did the bulldozer driver who ran over Corrie see her or not?

The judge in Haifa District Court ruled that he did not. Corrie’s family maintains that he did.

Activists demonstrate outside the Haifa District Court awaiting the Rachel Corrie verdict. photo/jta-ben sales

Larger issues were part of the proceedings: What are the responsibilities of civilian activists in an armed conflict? Does a civilian area with terrorist activity count as a war zone? What distinguishes an organization that peacefully opposes the Israeli presence in disputed territories from one that aids terrorists?

Those matters, however, took a back seat to the reasoning behind the legal ruling by Judge Oded Gershon.

Corrie was in a restricted military zone and “put herself in a dangerous situation opposite a bulldozer when he couldn’t see her,” Gershon said, reading the verdict. “She didn’t distance herself from the area, as any person would have done.”

On March 16, 2003, Corrie, a 23-year-old from Olympia, Wash., was protesting in the Gaza city of Rafah during the second intifada as an activist with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement. Her supporters allege that she was acting as a human shield for a house that was about to be demolished by the Israeli army when she became enveloped in a pile of dirt created by an armored bulldozer. Corrie died soon after in a nearby Palestinian hospital. The Israeli military maintains that no house demolition was taking place.

Her parents brought a lawsuit in Israel that accused the state of responsibility for their daughter’s death. But in clearing the state of all charges, Gershon said Corrie voluntarily risked her life by entering a place where there was daily live fire. Moreover, the Haifa judge said the bulldozer driver did not see Corrie as she was standing behind the pile of dirt, and that Corrie did not move out of the way when she saw the bulldozer moving toward her, but climbed on the pile instead.

Gershon also dismissed charges that the state tampered with the evidence in its investigation into Corrie’s death. He added that the operation by the Israel Defense Forces took place in an area that was a closed military zone.

The judge reserved some of his harshest words for Corrie’s organization, saying ISM was “mixed up in terror” and accusing the group of aiding terrorists behind a facade of human rights activism.

Corrie has become a symbol for many who oppose Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Her parents founded the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, which “supports grassroots efforts in pursuit of human rights and social, economic and environmental justice,” according to its website, and a play titled “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” opened in London in 2005.

Speaking at a news conference following the verdict, Corrie family members and their lawyer presented a narrative that contradicted the judge’s.

The lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, called Corrie and the other ISM volunteers “all peaceful activists. The army did not try to stop them. There was no command that it’s a closed military area. There was no threat to the lives of the soldiers. How could he say that?”

The Corrie family said it planned to appeal the verdict, which it must do within 45 days.

Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother, blamed the ruling on “a well-heeled system to protect the Israeli military and the soldiers who conduct actions in that military.

“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,” she said.

Craig Corrie, Rachel’s father, denied that bringing the lawsuit was “an attack against Israel.” Israeli activists, he said, have supported the Corries “from the first moment we’ve done this.”

The Corries rejected a statement from Israel’s state prosecutor’s office declaring that “the driver of the bulldozer and his commander had a very limited field of vision, such that they had no possibility of seeing Ms. Corrie.”

“I can say without a doubt that I believe my sister was seen as that bulldozer approached her,” said Sarah Corrie Simpson, Rachel Corrie’s sister. “I hope someday he will have the courage to sit down in front of me and tell me what he saw and what he feels.”

The U.S. State Department reacted to the verdict cautiously. “We understand the family’s disappointment with the outcome of the trial,” spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters, saying that U.S. authorities “reiterate our condolences” over the death.

The department declined to comment further, noting the family’s right to appeal.

contributed to this report.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

JTA reporter