A court in Israel has found that the State was not at fault for the death of 23 year old American activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003.
Corrie’s family had brought a civil case for negligence against the Israeli ministry of defence. In their “absolutely last resort” action, they accused Israel of intentionally and unlawfully killing their daughter, and failing to conduct a full and credible investigation. The case asked for a symbolic $1 in damages. The case was today dismissed as the judge declared that Corrie’s death was a “regrettable accident”, rejected claims that key video evidence had been destroyed, and found that there was no problem with the conduct of the original military investigation.
The verdict is unsurprising, given past precedent. After Corrie’s death, Benjamin Netanyahu promised the-then US president George W Bush a “thorough, credible and transparent investigation” into the incident. Yet within a month, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had completed an internal inquiry, concluding that its soldiers were not to blame, that the driver of the bulldozer had not seen Corrie, and that no charges should be brought. It was more whitewash than genuine investigation, and the case was closed. Last week, the US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, told the Corrie family that the US government was not satisfied with the way the inquiry had been conducted.
Let’s run through what we know. Corrie was part of a group of around eight international activists acting as human shields to prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes in Rafah, near Gaza’s border with Egypt. This was during the second intifada, when tensions were high and many home demolitions were taking place: between 2000 and 2004 Israel demolished around 1,700 homes in Rafah alone, leaving 17,000 Palestinians homeless. Israel claimed that they were destroying houses harbouring militants; human rights groups described it as collective punishment for suicide attacks in Israel. These opposing descriptions of the Israeli military action have also covered the case: Corrie’s supporters say she was trying to prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes. The judge said that she was protecting terrorists in a designated combat zone, and that the activists should not have been in the area in the first place.
Pictures taken of Corrie on the day that she was killed, 16 March 2003, show her wearing an orange high-visibility jacket, carrying a megaphone and blocking the path of an Israeli military bulldozer; moments later she was mown down by one such bulldozer. This much is undisputed fact. Yet the original Israeli army investigation claimed that she was actually killed by a piece of falling debris. The court upheld the IDF’s decision not to press any charges against the driver of the bulldozer, claiming that he did not see her as she was behind a mound of earth. Corrie’s supporters say that it is impossible that she was not seen by the driver, saying that the bulldozer drove straight at her before reversing back over her. Tom Dale, an activist who was protesting with Corrie when she died, described what he saw: “The bulldozer had a clear line across open ground while it drove towards her, relatively slowly, 20 or 30 metres or so.”
Corrie’s parents, Craig and Cindy, travelled to Israel from America to hear the court’s verdict with a group of around 50 friends and supporters. Saying that they wanted to see more accountability from the state of Israel, their lawyer announced that they plan to take the case to the Supreme Court. Cindy Corrie told a press conference: “From the beginning it was clear to us that there was… a well-heeled system to protect the Israeli military, the soldiers who conduct actions in that military, to provide them with impunity at the cost of all the civilians who are impacted by what they do.”
Whichever way you look at it, the verdict is problematic. Quite apart from the content of the case – in which defence witnesses were reportedly inconsistent and key evidence for the prosecution overlooked – the central claim on which the ruling is founded raises more questions than it answers. The court exonerated Israel on the grounds that the Israeli forces were conducting a “combat operation”. The notion that there should be no liability for killing civilians in a military operation contravenes the responsibility under international law to protect civilian lives during armed conflict.
If past example is anything to go by, it seems unlikely that the Corries will get any admission of liability from the Israeli government or army. Yet as this family continues its search for justice, Cindy Corrie’s words ring true: “I believe this is a bad day not only for our family, but also for human rights, for humanity, for the rule of law and for the country of Israel.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.