Israel’s Rachel Corrie Verdict: Court Rebuffs Case of Slain U.S. Activist

An Israeli court rejects a suit filed by the family of an American activist slain by the Israel Defense Forces in 2003

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Lorenzo Scaraggi / Getty Images

American peace activist Rachel Corrie speaks during an interview with MBC Saudi Arabia television on March 14, 2003 in the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza Strip

Coming almost a decade after her death beneath the tracks of an armored Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, the verdict in the Rachel Corrie case was the furthest thing from a surprise. By the time Israeli judge Oded Gershon gathered his robes about him and took his seat in an airy Haifa courtroom Tuesday morning, the trajectory of the proceedings had emerged across 15 court sessions stretched over 2½ years. On the day of judgment, as during the trial, his honor stood with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Israelis overwhelmingly do.

“I reject the suit,” Gershon said. “There is no justification the state pay any damages.”

What followed in the hallway outside moments later was more illuminating than most of what transpired in almost all of the testimony. As camera operators jostled for position, attorneys for the state spoke first — but only in Hebrew. The Corries’ lawyer followed in English, then Arabic, and finally in Hebrew. Everyone knew their audience and where they could get a hearing.

The wonder is that the Corries sought theirs in Israel. The family began with Israel’s promise to Washington to conduct a “thorough, credible and transparent investigation,” something U.S. diplomats say has not occurred. But filing suit in Israel in hopes of producing firm facts meant squaring off against the IDF, the most admired institution in the country, routinely ranked far above any elected official or organ. Among Israel’s Jewish majority, identification with the military is almost total and not only because young Jewish men are obligated to three years’ service in it (two years for women). The force operates under a motto that translates roughly as “purity of arms” and is often put as “the most moral army in the world.” Others may note the challenge of squaring the motto with the coarsening that inevitably flows from 45 years as an army of occupation in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, which were afire with the second intifadeh at the time of Corrie’s death. But the ideal remains so firmly fixed in the Israeli mind that when an unambiguous instance of brutality emerges — like the video of a lieutenant colonel rifle-butting a Danish activist — shocked dismay occupied the public discourse for most of a week.

The Corrie lawsuit, however, challenged no one’s preconceptions. Rather it extended Rachel Corrie’s mission in life — using the privileges afforded the holder of a U.S. passport to assert rights into the courts where Palestinians rarely have standing (and from which a proposed regulation would bar them altogether). The case took more than six years to complete and with Gershon’s verdict, appeared to end about where it began: the district court judge articulated the widespread Israeli assumption that a misguided young foreigner flirted with death, and lost. “The state did not risk the defendant,” he said. “The defendant risked herself.” Gershon described the group Corrie was with, the International Solidarity Movement, as proterrorist — also a common view in Israel — and insisted that “under no circumstances” were the IDF bulldozers that day aiming to demolish the Palestinian homes the nonviolent activists were aiming to protect.

The Corries (whom, for the record, my wife volunteered to assist) replied at a news conference as they had in court — with specifics that the state had called beside the point. Cindy Corrie quoted a Human Rights Watch tally of 16,000 Palestinians whose 2,500 homes were destroyed between 2000 and 2004, most of them in the area near the Egyptian border where her daughter would die. Israeli officials argued that the properties provided cover for attacks. The Corries held aloft a photo of the family whose house stood in the area behind where Rachel Corrie stood facing the bulldozer, in a fluorescent orange vest.

“We believe that Rachel was seen,” Cindy Corrie said. The heavily armored Caterpillar bulldozer may have had limited sight lines, the Corries acknowledge, but in addition to a driver, a second soldier was also in the cab, and conflicts in their assorted statements have never been reconciled. In fact, a pair of IDF investigations produced strikingly inconsistent accounts of the incident. The first was cursory at best: investigators failed to interview any eyewitnesses except Israeli soldiers and appeared to misidentify which of two bulldozers on the scene that day was involved. A second investigation, reached into by senior officers, strained to avoid contradicting the first, producing a muddle that the trial did little to sort through.

“I reject the idea that making these things known is somehow an attack on Israel,” said Craig Corrie, who left his job as an insurance actuary to work full time on understanding his daughter’s March 16, 2003 death. He noted the deaths of two other foreigners in the same area within weeks of Rachel’s. In a seven-month period, Cindy Corrie said, the Israeli human-rights advocacy group B’Tselem counted 100 civilian deaths, including 40 children.

“I’m an army veteran,” said Craig Corrie. “In 11 months in Vietnam, I was given nine medals. I think I can talk on some of this. I think that in controlling a military you have to start that before these incidents happen, and we have seen that that’s not the case. We have seen from the highest levels of this military that they thought they could kill people on that border with impunity.”

By the time Rachel was killed, at around 5 p.m., the activists and the crews had been sparring on the rubble field since noon. During the trial the Corries said, as much as anything, filing suit was a way to finally look into the eyes of the driver of the bulldozer. But he was allowed to testify from behind a screen. “I can say without a doubt that I believe my sister was seen as that bulldozer approached her,” Sarah Corrie Simpson said. “As for the intent of the driver, 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.”