SEEKING ANSWERS AND ACCOUNTABILITY FROM ISRAEL: THE RACHEL CORRIE CASE
This entry was written by Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney, Katherine Gallagher, who is currently in Haifa to observe proceedings in the civil case filed by the family of Rachel Corrie against the State of Israel. Tomorrow, October 21, 2010, the driver of the Caterpillar D9R military bulldozer that killed Rachel Corrie will testify, and a second report from Haifa will be posted. Katherine was part of the legal team in Corrie v. Caterpillar, in which CCR represented Rachel Corrie’s parents and Palestinian families in a case brought against Caterpillar for aiding and abetting war crimes by providing theD9 bulldozers to Israel knowing they were used to unlawfully demolish homes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Rachel Corrie, an American student activist and human rights defender from Olympia, Washington was crushed to death on March 16, 2003 by a Caterpillar D9R bulldozer while nonviolently protecting a Palestinian home from demolition by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Rafah, Gaza, as a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). At the time, the Israeli military was engaged in a widespread house demolition campaign along the border between Gaza and Egypt.
Seven and a half years after her death, her parents and sister will hear the testimony of the IDF bulldozer driver who killed her when he testifies tomorrow in Haifa as a witness in their case, Corrie v. State of Israel, a civil suit filed in March 2005. Due to what Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother, calls as a “deeply disappointing” court ruling earlier this month, the Corrie family will not be able to see the bulldozer driver during his testimony. Arguing that it was concerned about the security of the soldiers, the State of Israel requested that the bulldozer driver and certain other soldiers testify from behind a partition. The use of a partition blocks the Corrie family and the public from seeing the face and the body language of the bulldozer driver, and denies the Corrie family from seeing what Cindy describes as “the whole person” of the driver. The district court judge granted Israel’s request, and the Supreme Court denied the Corrie family’s appeal.
A request to modify the ruling to at least allow the Corrie family to see the witnesses was also denied, suggesting that the court felt it also had to protect the soldiers from the Corries. Cindy Corrie describes this ruling and the implications behind it as a “personal affront.” As the lawyer for the Corrie family in this case, Hussein abu Hussein, said, the ruling “shields the soldiers from the discomfort of telling the truth in open court.”
It is hoped, however, that this testimony will still provide some of the answers, if not the accountability, that the Corrie family has sought since Rachel was killed.
“When our daughter was killed, the Israeli government promised a thorough, credible and transparent investigation into her death, and neither our family nor our government believes that standard has been met,” said Cindy Corrie. Indeed, in response to inquiries from the Corrie family to the U.S. government regarding the Israeli Military Police investigation, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, stated in 2004, “Your ultimate question, however, is a valid one, i.e., whether or not we view that report to have reflected an investigation that was ‘thorough, credible, and transparent.’ I can answer your question without equivocation. No, we do not consider it so.” The testimony to date in the trial taking place in Haifa reinforces this conclusion.
The Corrie family filed the case in Israel at the suggestion of the U.S. State Department in order to get some of the answers that they have so far been denied. The case charges that Rachel’s killing was intentional, or, in the alternative, that the Israeli government is responsible for the negligence of the Israeli soldiers and commanders who acted recklessly using armored military bulldozers without due regard and due diligence to the presence of unarmed and nonviolent civilians. Among other arguments, Israel has claimed it is immune because the actions of the Israeli army in the Occupied Palestinian Territory constitute an “act of war” and that the killing of Rachel Corrie by a military bulldozer should be considered an “act of state.” Incredibly, Israel has also claimed that Rachel was responsible for her own death because she acted in reckless disregard of her own life.
The evidentiary stage of the case commenced in March 2010. The Corrie family presented four eyewitnesses, an Israeli military police investigator, the doctor who performed the autopsy, and an expert on conducting investigations. Rachel’s father, Craig Corrie, also testified. This phase of the trial revealed deeply disturbing testimony about the investigation into Rachel’s killing.
For example, an Israeli military police investigator who served as part of the team investigating Rachel’s killing testified that he never visited the site where the killing occurred, that the bulldozer that killed Rachel was removed from the scene directly after her killing, and that he never looked at the video footage from the camera posted near the scene. He also testified that the commander of the unit involved in killing Rachel interrupted the testimony of the bulldozer driver, telling him that the head of the IDF Southern Command, Doron Almog, ordered him to stop talking, not sign anything and not cooperate in the investigation. This witness also testified that despite receiving a court order requiring that an official from the U.S. embassy be present before an autopsy was conducted, he made no effort to ensure this condition was met before the autopsy was conducted, and in fact, the autopsy was conducted without an American Embassy official present.
During the presentation of the State of Israel’s evidence, which commenced in September, similar serious flaws in the investigation have been identified. Israel’s opening witness, a military polices investigator known as “Oded” who was 20 years old at the time of the investigation, corroborated prior testimony that Doron Almog interfered in the military investigation. Oded dismissed as unimportant an exchange between the two bulldozer drivers in Arabic in which one driver exclaimed “What, Did you kill him?!” Revealingly, Oded testified that he did not question Palestinian witnesses, including the medical personnel who examined Rachel immediately after the incident, because he did not think they could provide any useful information.
A disturbing insight into the views of the Israeli military towards people in Gaza was also revealed during the course of testimony by the State of Israel’s witnesses. An Israeli military colonel known only as “Yossi” made the comment that “there are no civilians in war zones.” In fact, this refrain was repeated not only throughout his testimony but was echoed by Shalom Michaeli, the head of the military police special investigate unit who said that the Israeli army was “at war” with everyone in the Rafah area, including ISM peace activists. Such statements clearly evidence a profound misunderstanding, if not contravention, of the teachings of international law and also Israeli law.
As lawyer abu Hussein, said, “This civil trial is an important step to hold accountable not only those who failed to protect Rachel’s life but also the flawed system of military investigations which is neither impartial nor thorough.”
Tomorrow’s testimony in this important case should prove significant in this regard.
 According to the Human Rights Watch report, Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip, between 2000 and 2004, the Israeli military demolished more than 2,500 Palestinian homes in Gaza, resulting in more than 16,000 people – over 10% of the population of Rafah – losing their homes. The house that Rachel Corrie was protecting, that of Dr. Samir Nasrallah, was in fact demolished by the IDF in October 2003.