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08.28.12

Israeli Court Rules Corrie Death Accidental

Court rules killing of Rachel Corrie was accidental. Dan Ephron talks to the family of the young American activist bulldozed to death.

An Israeli court rejected a civil suit Tuesday filed by the parents of American political activist Rachel Corrie, ruling that the military could not be held responsible for her grisly death in Gaza in 2003, during the height of the second Palestinian uprising.

Corrie was bulldozed to death by an Israeli soldier while trying to prevent the demolition of homes along Gaza's southern border, where Palestinian gunmen frequently fired on army positions. She had been a 23-year-old college student in Olympia, Washington, before travelling to Gaza.

Her parents have maintained that the soldier clearly saw Corrie and that internal military probes absolving him from responsibility amounted to whitewashes. The U.S. government also suggested over the years that the investigations were not credible.

But Judge Oded Gershon of the Haifa district court said Corrie had acted recklessly by entering a war zone and that her death was the "result of an accident she brought upon herself." He denied the Corrie family's demand for a symbolic $1 in damages.   

The decision capped a nine-year struggle by Corrie's parents to have the military held accountable for their daughter's death -- not just the soldier who drove the bulldozer but officers up the chain of command. Craig and Cindy Corrie attended all 15 hearings since 2010 and spent more than $200,000 of their own money on travel expenses and court costs.

But while the trial featured testimony from most of the people involved in the incident – 23 witnesses in all, including the driver -- it failed to satisfy the family's sense of justice.

"We knew from day one it would be an uphill battle so we weren't entirely surprised by the verdict," Rachel's sister, Sarah Corrie Simpson, told the Daily Beast after the verdict.

She said the judge had essentially related to Corrie as a combatant in a war zone, thus justifying the army’s aggressive behaviour towards her and other activists. "But Rachel was a non-violent civilian observer. She had the rights of civilians during acts of war.”

Corrie arrived to Israel in January of 2003 with the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that helps place westerners in the West Bank and Gaza, often in friction spots. She entered Gaza later that month and made her way to the southern town of Rafah, the site of fierce clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen.     

The U.S. government suggested over the years that the investigations were not credible.

The gunmen often fired on Israeli army positions along the border between Rafah and Egypt and occasionally staged deadly ambushes. 

The activists, dressed in bright orange jackets and armed with bullhorns, tried over several weeks in February and March to prevent Israeli soldiers from demolishing rows of Palestinian homes along the border – a measure the army was taking in order to deny gunmen place to hide.

Corrie was killed nearly two months into her time in Gaza, when she positioned herself in front of a Caterpillar D9R, a huge earth moving machine with armoured panels and a blade that weighs several tons. Conflicting accounts have her either falling back and getting sucked under the bulldozer or being hit head one.

At the trial, fellow ISM activists testified that soldiers definitely saw them in the area.

One of them, Richard Purssell, said in court: “During the entire time they knew who we were and what we were doing, because they didn’t shoot at us. We stood in their way and shouted. There were about eight of us standing in an area about 70 square meters. Suddenly, we saw they turned to a house they had started to demolish before and I saw Rachel standing in the way of the front bulldozer.”

But the driver testified that he failed to see Corrie because his field vision from inside the bulldozer was narrow. He provided his testimony from behind a screen in the court. His identity remains classified.

Sarah Corrie Simpson, the sister, said her family had asked for face-to-face contact with the driver during the trial but the request was denied.

“It was important for us that the soldier see us but the state said it could not vouch for his security if his identify was revealed.”

She said Ariel Sharon, who was Israel’s prime minister when Corrie died, had promised President George W. Bush a reliable investigation but went back on his word.

“It’s a huge toll on the family and what upsets me most is there could have been a diplomatic resolution to this,” she said in the interview. “It’s been a day-to-day struggle for accountability in Rachel’s killing.”