Rachel Corrie trial continues in Israel, reviving controversial case

Rachel Corrie, a pro-Palestinian activist, was killed in March 2003 near the Gaza-Egypt border by an Israeli bulldozer. Her parents are suing the Israeli government for a symbolic $1.

Moti Milrod/AP
Cindy Corrie (l.) and Craig Corrie (r.), the parents of Rachel Corrie, a pro-Palestinian activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, sit together with their daughter Sarah at the District Court in Haifa, northern Israel, March 10. The Corrie family is demanding a symbolic $1 in punitive damages from the state for wrongful killing and negligence.

Seven years after an Israeli military D-9 bulldozer buried American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie under sandy soil near Gaza's border with Egypt, her family has effectively put the Israeli army on trial for her death. The Corrie family is demanding a symbolic $1 in punitive damages from the state for wrongful killing and negligence.

Ms. Corrie, along with other nonviolent volunteers from the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM), was trying to block two army bulldozers from demolishing Palestinian homes in Rafah when she was killed March 16, 2003. The commander of the two-man bulldozer team denied seeing Corrie, but ISM volunteers said in affidavits that the bulldozer driver could see her while pushing dirt on her body.

On Thursday it was the turn of Shalom Michaeli, who headed the short-lived military police investigation into Corrie's death, to testify in Haifa District Court. During most of his testimony, Mr. Michaeli was cool and self-confident. But on several occasions his voice rose and he told Corrie family attorney Hussein Abu Hussein to "stop putting words in my mouth."

He said that an army manual specifying that the D-9 bulldozer should not be operated near people was not relevant in a situation of war. "There was war going on between the Israel Defense Forces and all the people in that area," said Michaeli.

In the cross-examination it also emerged that Michaeli ordered only a partial transcript of radio transmissions and that he did not question the operator of a surveillance camera that panned away from the scene only minutes before Corrie was killed.

A symbol of idealism

In death, Corrie, from Olympia, Wash., became a symbol of idealism and self-sacrifice to many and an embarrassment to Israel. But her parents, who sat in the observers part of the courtroom taking notes as translators whispered to them, say the case is not about only accountability for Corrie's death. They have paid about $50,000 for translation alone since the case started early this year.

''This is way beyond the means of someone in Gaza. So few of the people killed in Gaza and the West Bank ever get any sort of day in court. When we have the means and we have the voice because Rachel was an international, that brings with it an obligation to go forward,'' said her father, Craig Corrie.

''The process is both physically and emotionally demanding,'' adds Mr. Corrie, a soft-spoken retired insurance actuary and Vietnam war veteran. ''I think it's something we each feel we need to go through for one reason or another. For me, part of the reason is to keep this from happening to anybody else. You do what you can to save another family this sort of grief."

Was the investigation thorough enough?

After Corrie's death, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised former President Bush a "thorough, credible, and transparent" investigation. But during the course of the trial, evidence has emerged that appears to implicate Israel's Gaza commander in an attempt to obstruct justice.

According to a hand-written military police affidavit from the day after Corrie was killed, the commander of the bulldozer was giving testimony when a colonel dispatched by former southern commander Maj. Gen. Doron Almog interrupted the proceedings and ordered the witness to stop testifying. General Almog, for his part, recently denied that he interdicted the testimony, which attorney Abu Hussein said could have been crucial for assessing whether the bulldozer commander's assertion that he did not see Rachel Corrie was reasonable.

The Israeli military has maintained troops were not to blame for the death and Israel accused Corrie and other ISM volunteers of "illegal, irresponsible, and dangerous" behavior that day. The state's writ of defense stresses that the incident took place in a ''reality of armed conflict in which fierce acts of warfare are conducted."

"The incident in which it is alleged the deceased was struck occurred during an action that is an act of state. The state is exempt from responsibility for activity legally authorized and in good faith."

Israel says Corrie is to blame

The writ blames Corrie herself for the tragedy, saying her presence in Gaza was illegal and that she "willingly endangered herself and/or did not act as a cautious and/or reasonable and/or intelligent and/or guileless person would have acted."

The writ says troops came under attack from a fragmentation grenade an hour before the incident. It also stresses the bulldozer had "limited field of vision."

Judge Oded Gershon has granted state requests to protect some witnesses' identities by having them testify behind a partition curtain that enables the judge and lawyers to see them, but not the observers in the courtroom.

The commander of a second bulldozer that was on the scene at the time of the incident testified Thursday without the Corries being able to see him.

"I did not see how she met her end," said the former commander, who was identified only by his initials, A.S. At another point he added, "I saw her critically harmed, buried in a pile of sand. She was covered up to her knees. What I saw was her upper body."

The Corries are petitioning the Israeli supreme court to remove the partition so that they can see the people who are testifying.

"While Rachel stood in front of a wall to protect the two families huddled behind it, the state is now making the soldiers hide behind a wall that denies us the opportunity to see them. The state of Israel has been hiding for over seven years. Where is the justice?" said Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother.

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