JERUSALEM, Israel – Over a decade after Rachel Corrie was crushed under the blades of an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah, her parents Craig and Cindy Corrie found themselves in the halls of the Supreme Court of Israel. The Corries were appealing a verdict handed down in 2013 by Judge Oded Gershon of the Haifa District Court decision. Gershon ruled that Corrie was responsible for her own life by entering willfully into Gaza during a time of conflict.
“While not surprising, the verdict is yet another example of impunity prevailing over accountability and fairness and it flies in the face of the fundamental principle of international humanitarian law – that in a time of war, military forces are obligated to take all measures to avoid harm to both civilians and their property,” said Attorney Hussein Abu Hussein, Corrie’s attorney at the Haifa hearing in 2013.
This prolonged legal battle, which is approaching it’s almost 20th hearing, has taken on many different shapes over the years. The media generally focuses on evidence disputing whether or not the bulldozer operator did in fact see Corrie during the act of demolishing Palestinian homes on March 16, 2003. Much hangs in the balance in the court ruling, all of which has far reaching implications for the Corrie family, the Israeli legal system, and the broader nonviolent movement across Israel and Palestine.
Corrie’s legal unit contests that this is not an issue of murder, but a failure to protect civilians – which is covered by both a multitude of Israeli and International laws.
“We have tried very hard to let people know that this isn’t a case about murder,” said Cindy Corrie standing outside the hall of the Supreme Court, as she responded to reporters. “We want to push the issue of negligence and bring up the point of International Law and the protection of civilians.”
In the court room, Corrie’s legal representation, presented a case that the military command unit not only knew of the legal and moral obligations of protecting civilians during a time of war, and that at the very least, a proper investigation had not taken place, and at worst, there was a subsequent cover up.
Their attorneys argued that, even if the bulldozer operator did not see Rachel Corrie, he did see the other activists of the International Solidarity Movement, and that was enough to stop the operational engagement and remove civilians before proceeding.
Heading into the court room, Cindy Corrie was optimistic that they had a better chance of having tenants of Internal Law recognized and applied in the court room. “This time, instead of one judge, we will have three judges that will hear the argument,” said Cindy Corrie.
“When the former Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade Commander Colonel Pinhas (Pinky) Zuaretz, who was in charge in 2003, testified, he confirmed that the rules of engagement at the time Rachel was killed were to “shoot to kill any adult person on the [Philadelphi] route.” As another Israeli colonel who testified put it: “There are no civilians in a war zone.” By accepting the testimony of Zuaretz and others, Judge Gershon essentially accepted that the “shoot to kill” order was acceptable, which violates the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law, mandating that soldiers distinguish between combatants and civilians,” said Corrie’s attorney after the verdict in Haifa.
Shortly after the Haifa ruling, former President of the United States Jimmy Carter said, “The court’s decision confirms a climate of impunity, which facilitates Israeli human rights violations against Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territory.”
The State Defense argued that, “It’s impossible to stop during an operational mission, particularly if there is impending loss to Israeli life,” reasoning that it was impossible to expect the operation to halt during the presence of civilians, and further argued that Rachel Corrie was not a civilian and there for was not covered by International Law.
“In its appeal, Israel took things to a whole new level, arguing in its brief to the Supreme Court that Rachel fell outside the protections of international humanitarian law. Israel’s novel argument — which goes against both international law and Israeli precedent — is that only the “occupied population,” i.e., certain Palestinians, enjoy the protection of international humanitarian law, and that non-Palestinian civilians, including U.S. human rights defenders and presumably NGO workers, can be targeted by Israeli forces,” said Katherine Gallagher a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, and a Vice-President of the International Board of the International Federation for Human Rights. “If the court accepts this argument, it would set a dangerous precedent and place human rights defenders in the Occupied Palestinian Territory at even greater risk than they already are.”
Corrie’s team stated that, if it was the case that there was impending danger to Israeli lives, the operation would not have stopped after Corrie was ran over by the bulldozer and investigated the scene, and that if there was an eminent threat, they would not have used bulldozers, which are not a combat vehicle.
“There was only one armed vehicle in the operation,” pointed out their attorney. “Bulldozers are not combat vehicles.”
The Israeli state defense further argued that it’s not military protocol to evacuate activists, to which Corrie’s attorney rebutted that the military has extensive training on removing Palestinians, International actors, and Illegal Jewish settlers both before and during operations. The state countered Corrie’s legal representatives, saying “that’s just training, not war time procedures” and added that “We can’t be stopping for foreigners.”
Corrie’s representation elaborated and connected the dots, suggesting that if the previous courts had wanted to know the true circumstances and conduct a proper investigation, than it would demanded the submission of military documents and orders on that day, and that the lead investigators would have been properly trained.
“We had two 19 year old boys carrying out a murder investigation of an international – two young boys,” the attorney said. “They should have had investigators with experience.”
Bill Van Esveld, of Human Rights Watch, stressed that the military police investigation failed to interview key witnesses and neglected to cross-check statements, pointing out that military police did not visit the site in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip .
The military police also failed, according to Corrie’s legal team, to obtain vital information such as radio communications for the hours before Rachel was run over.
According to a military police investigator’s report, the head of southern command, general Doron Almog, prevented the bulldozer driver from giving testimony.
The investigation has been such a point of contention during the legal battle, disputing falsified reports, manufactured video tapes, and the inability to openly question witnesses on the day, that In 2003, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised George W. Bush there would be a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation into Rachel’s killing.
If the judges rule in affirmation of Judge Oded Gershon’s ruling in 2012 that Rachel Corrie took her own life by resisting oppression, it opens up the doors for legitimized attacks on internationals across Israel and Palestine, whether they are activists or not because as the Israeli state defense argues, “internationals are not civilians.”
In 2003, Rachel Corrie wrote in an email home, describing her comfort as an activist, relying on International Law to keep her safe: “I am staying put in Rafah for now, no plans to head north. I still feel like I’m relatively safe and think that my most likely risk in case of a larger-scale incursion is arrest.”
Time will judge whether or not this will be the last time that an international worker writes home believing that the law is on their side in the State of Israel.