Israeli court dismisses Corrie family's lawsuit, ending effort to put army on trial

Rachel Corrie, a young American activist, was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003. The Corrie family's lawsuit was aimed at putting the opaque Israeli military investigation system 'in the dock.'

Ariel Schalit/AP
Cindy (r.) and Craig Corrie (c.), the parents of Rachel Corrie, a pro-Palestinian activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, sit together with their daughter Sarah in the court room just before the district court's ruling in Haifa, Israel, Tuesday, Aug. 28.

Israeli officials are welcoming today's rejection of a lawsuit brought by the parents of Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist crushed to death by an army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003, as a long-due exoneration. But human rights organizations have deemed aspects of the verdict ''outrageous'' and say troubling questions persist about the credibility of military investigations, an issue on which the Corrie trial put an unprecedented spotlight.

 A military investigation into the bulldozer incident cleared The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of any wrongdoing in June 2003, but the Corrie family filed a civil lawsuit in a Haifa district court to overturn that finding and force the state to take responsibility for the death. The court began hearing arguments in March 2010 and handed down its decision today.

Judge Oded Gershon absolved the military, endorsing the bulldozer driver's claim that he had not seen Corrie, a 23-year-old nonviolent activist from Olympia, Wash., who wore a fluorescent vest, before his vehicle fatally injured her. In a 62-page opinion, Judge Gershon termed Corrie's death ''an accident she brought upon herself'' and wrote that, contrary to fellow demonstrators' accounts, the army was not engaged in an effort to bulldoze nearby Palestinian homes at the time.

The conduct of military police was at the heart of the trial, as well as the verdict. The Corrie family charged that the military investigation into the bulldozer incident was "negligent and unskilled," but Judge Gershon wrote in his ruling it was ''conducted with great professionalism and in a comprehensive and fulfilling way.''

Craig and Cindy Corrie, Rachel's parents, told a news conference they will appeal the decision, to the Israeli High Court of Justice. Cindy Corrie, her voice cracking at times, said she was ''deeply saddened and deeply troubled by the court decision'' and said that it highlighted what she perceives as a lack of military accountability. She termed the ruling ''part of a well-heeled system to protect the military and provide it with impunity at the cost of civilians who are impacted.''

Meanwhile, Israel's right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, a partner in the government coalition, issued a statement terming the decision ''vindication after [years of] vilification.''

Judge stands by the IDF

The Corrie case prompted rare scrutiny of Israel's system for probing misconduct and abuses by soldiers, but the judge's ruling rejected criticism of the Corrie investigation.

It emerged during the trial that Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, head of Israel's southern command, intervened in a military police interrogation. According to a military police investigator's report, as the commander of the bulldozer that struck Corrie was giving testimony the day after her death, an IDF colonel dispatched by Mr. Almog entered the room and told the witness to halt testifying on Almong's orders. 

According to the Corries' lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, this may have blocked the emergence of evidence that could have determined whether the commander's assertions that he did not see Ms. Corrie were reasonable. Gershon acknowledged Almog's intervention, but backed the state's argument that it came at the end of the testimony and had no impact.

''The central questions had already been asked and answered,'' he wrote.

The plaintiffs also alleged that the military police did not visit the site of the incident and that they failed to obtain vital evidence, such as radio communications for the five hours before Ms. Corrie was injured. Gershon endorsed the state's argument that it was too dangerous for investigators to visit the scene because of possible Palestinian attacks and wrote that it was ''unrealistic'' for the military police to locate the communications.

The plaintiffs also charged that the critical minutes when the deceased was run over were erased from army camera footage, something the IDF denied. Judge Gershom backed the state. 

On the whole, the military investigation team behaved as if it was part of the chain of command, accommodating the wishes of superior officers rather than conducting an independent investigation, the plaintiffs argued. Interrogations were conducted after operational debriefings in which soldiers involved in the incident talked among themselves and each heard the version his comrade gave of what happened, the plaintiffs said. In his ruling, Gershon did not address this point.

Putting the military investigations system 'in the dock'

While the Corrie investigation was opened promptly, perhaps because of its international resonance, that is by no means the rule for Israeli military police, says Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman of B'tselem, a prominent Israeli human rights group. 

And once the investigation is completed, the files often languish for months or even years at the Military Advocate General's office, waiting for charges or for cases to be closed, she says.

''This kind of foot dragging is outrageous,'' Ms. Michaeli says. ''Even the basic measure of closing the case and allowing for an appeal is not provided.'' The IDF did not respond to a request for comment.

During the trial, the Corries made clear that one of their hopes was to put the Israeli military investigation system in the dock, saying that as internationals with adequate financial means, they were morally obliged to mount a challenge that was beyond the capability of an average Palestinian.

 Israeli human rights groups, such as Michaeli's B'tselem, charge that it is the rule and not the exception for army investigation efforts to be inadequate and flawed. They say that this pattern has been uninfluenced by the trial, citing a decision in May to close a military police investigation into the killing of 21 civilians in an Israeli airstrike during the Gaza war in January 2009 without taking any measures.

From 2000-10, only 6 percent of the 1,949 military police investigations opened resulted in indictments, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli NGO that assists Palestinians in Israeli legal proceedings. The military did not respond to a request for its figures.

Yesh Din alleges that the military police rarely utilize routine tools such as polygraphs and that key witnesses are often not questioned and criminal liability of superior officers is not examined. 

Michaeli adds, "Investigations are opened years and in best cases months after an incident, conducted in an unprofessional way by, in some cases, very young soldiers. In a majority of cases, investigators don't visit the scene, most don't speak Arabic and there is a lack of interpreters. The process is not transparent and it takes years to receive the files'' 

But government officials say Gershon's opinion proves the IDF can investigate itself. 

''We have very credible checks and monitoring of the army inside and outside of the army. It's sad that this thing happened, but we can see that it doesn't mean the army is incapable of investigating itself,'' says Paul Hirschson, deputy spokesman of the foreign ministry.

And IDF spokesman Capt. Eytan Buchman stresses that the system is sound.

''When mistakes take place they are investigated with a system similar to other militaries in the Western world: an initial operational investigation that can lead to a military police investigation and even the criminal court system," he says. "Such investigations can and do lead to punitive measures, including imprisonment, job dismissal and more.''

But Bill Van Esveld, the local Human Rights Watch representative, terms Gershon's findings ''outrageous and very difficult to reconcile with the facts.'' The military police ''failed to interview witnesses, and when they finally did so, they didn't cross check the statements. There were very basic steps the military police failed to do.''

''Despite the court's conclusions, the serious flaws of military investigations are well known and this does nothing to remedy that,'' Mr. Van Esveld says.

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