Photo of Rachel Corrie (far right, red jacket) holding a megaphone protesting home demolitions in Rafah, Gaza on the day she was killed. (Photo: International Solidarity Movement)
Tomorrow, on August 28th, the the Haifa District Court will announce a verdict in the Corrie family’s civil lawsuit against the State of Israel. Rachel Corrie was crushed to death on March 16, 2003 by an Israeli military Caterpillar D9-R bulldozer as she protested the demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah, Gaza. Her family filed this lawsuit in 2005 and it charges the State of Israel with responsibility for Rachel’s killing and failure to conduct a credible investigation in the case. There are indications that the U.S. government agrees with the family. On Friday, the Guardian reported that Dan Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel, met with the Corrie family in Tel Aviv two weeks ago and told them the U.S. government, “did not believe the Israeli military investigation had been ‘thorough, credible and transparent.'”
Since oral testimony began in the case in March 2010, there have been 15 hearings with 23 witnesses testifying. The Corrie family has been represented by attorney Hussein abu Hussein in these hearings. Although the trial has received much attention, little has been shared with what actually took place in court. I was given access to translations of never before published legal summaries submitted to the District Court in Haifa and these documents record an emotional and heated debate over the events of March, 2003 and Israel’s occupation policies in Gaza.
The legal summaries are submitted to the court by the lawyers for the plaintiff (the Corrie Family) and the defendant (the State of Israel) and analyze the evidence and legal arguments presented in court, as well as the testimonies given during the trial. The summaries also act as an exchange of sorts between the two parties with each side attacking the arguments of the other.
These summaries reveal a callous Israeli defense which attempts to smear Corrie and the International Solidarity Movement which she was working with. More broadly, the Israeli case recounts arguments many have become familiar with following Operation Cast Lead and the attack on the freedom flotilla — namely that Israel is above the law as it fights whomever it deems a threat.
The Corrie verdict on Tuesday is yet another test of whether Israeli courts can hold its own military accountable. If the Corrie family wins its case it will show that even nearly ten years after the loss of their beloved daughter, there is a price to be paid for the actions of the Israeli military. If the State wins, it will serve as yet another indication from the Israeli legal system that Israel can continue to act with impunity in the occupied territories.
The state believes that it was proved that the activity of the IDF force is within the framework of “war activity.” . . . In addition, the state proved that the deceased willfully endangered herself and, sadly, her contributory fault stood at 100%.
– Page 177, Summaries on Behalf of the State submitted to Judge Oded Gershon in the case “The estate of Rachel Aliene Corrie vs State of Israel, Ministry of Defense”
Attacks on Rachel Corrie and the ISM
One of the Israeli government’s main tactics in the case was to attack the International Solidarity Movement (the organization Rachel was working with) and in the process blame Rachel for her own death. Here is how the Israeli government describes the ISM (From Summaries on Behalf on the State, pps. 48-49):
the ISM organization, whose ranks included the deceased and the plaintiff’s witnesses, is an anti-Israel organization that conducts illegitimate, violent activity including hunkering down in the homes of terrorists to prevent their demolition, providing refuge for terrorists, active participation in confrontations with IDF soldiers, and even standing as human shields for “wanted men” or for homes of Palestinians. The organization’s activists, backed by the organization, are
aware of the great dangers that exist in the places where they conduct their activity, but they are prepared to endanger their lives for the sake of the agenda they seek to promote.
To make its case, the State brought in a former spokeperson from the IDF, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, as an “expert witness” to try to tie the ISM to terrorism. Although the state was careful never to attack Corrie explicitly, as the quotes above show, the Israeli government did say that Rachel Corrie was responsible for her own death.
The Corrie family’s lawyer struck back forcefully in his response, defending Corrie and the important work she was doing:
Scornful rejection must be the response to repugnant attempt by the defendant to label the deceased as a suicide or someone with a “death wish” and a readiness to willfully endanger her own life, and attributing this to her based on the fact of her having come to Israel and being in the Gaza Strip to protest against the demolition of Palestinian homes on the outskirts of Rafah. The defendant has tried — unsuccessfully, with all its might — and relying on an “expert” opinion, to portray the death of the deceased as somehow fitting, by virtue of her membership in the ISM. The plantiff’s ask the Court to ignore these loathsome comments disrespectful to the dead, when their sole purpose is to crush the pride of her family who do not apologize and will never apologize for the legitimate humanitarian activity of their beloved daughter.
The Corrie team criticized the use of Yaron as an expert witness because she was in fact not an outside expert, but was serving in the IDF Spokesperson’s office at the time of Corrie’s death and had been personally involved in the case itself.
“Every day a war” – Commander of IDF Southern Command Col. Pinky Zoaretz
The second pillar of the Israeli case was that Corrie chose to enter a war zone and that Israeli actions were consistent with the field of battle. The Corrie lawyers countered that there was in fact no “war activity” taking place at the time of Corrie’s death, and that the D9 bulldozer that killed Rachel was conducting routine home demolitions in Rafah in a civilian area.
The Israeli argument states (From Summaries on Behalf of the State pps. 18-22):
In the Gaza Strip in general and particularly on the Philadelphi Route, which was one of the main flashpoints of the conflict, many shooting attacks were conducted against civilian and military convoys traveling on the route. The terror activity in these areas included the firing of steep-trajectory weapons toward Israeli territory, the detonation of anti-tank bombs, the digging of many tunnels to the Egyptian city of Rafah for arms smuggling, the tossing of live grenades, sniper fire, and so on. In contending with this, and in order to eliminate and prevent terror as much as possible, the IDF had to work with combined forces (units from the Southern Command, together with the Engineering Corps) to carry out clearing missions to uncover roadside and anti-tank bombs and to locate openings of tunnels used to smuggle weaponry and plant bombs.. . .
IDF forces that operated in the area were compelled to take additional precautions, beyond those used in routine times, in order avoid causing harm to innocents. The fact that the combat activity and life-threatening dangers were daily, as noted, does not diminish the combat nature of this activity or the great danger the soldiers experienced at every moment and in every minute.
Therefore, it is clear that the position of the plaintiffs, who try to portray it as routine IDF activity, should not be accepted. It cannot be said that IDF activity is routine and without any special risk, even if the activity was repeated a number of times. Each and every time this activity was conducted, the soldiers were under real, life-threatening danger.
This point was made explicitly in the testimony given by Col. Pinky Zoaretz, who had been Commander of IDF Southern Command at the time of Corrie’s death. In his testimony, Zoaretz agreed that it was permissible to kill any person in Rafah near the Philadelphi Route (a buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt that was controlled by Israel at the time of Corrie’s death) because from the beginning of the second intifada through the time of Corrie’s death the entire Gaza Strip was considered a combat zone.
From the Updated Written Summaries on Behalf of the Plaintiffs (pps. 177-179):
According to the witness Zoaretz, the area in question is an area where there is combat every day, “and rational people do not permit themselves to roam around in the route, unless their goal is to attack our forces” (p.1186, lines 6-7 / session of July 10, 2011). He went on to claim that this situation of combat began at least with the events of 2000 and continued at least until the period when he was there as commander of the sector in 2004, and during all that period the area was defined as a closed military area for all intents and purposes (pp.1186-1187 / session of July 10, 2011).
Pinky Zoaretz exaggerated by treating the entire area of the Southern Command as a combat zone, in his words:
“Q: When you tell me – a war zone, you are referring to the entire Southern region, and not just the Philadelphi route itself.
A: All the area of the Southern Command is a very, very significant combat zone, but the Philadelphi route was the most significant of all.” (p.1187, lines 4-7 / session of July 10, 2011). In this corridor there is no situation of getting out of the vehicle (end of p. 1210, lines 1-6 / session of July 10, 2011).
He went on to argue that, in the Philadelphi route, civilians do not roam around and “it is a route where anyone roaming around is courting death.” (p.1213, lines 20-23), since “Anyone who is there, his intentions are not innocent” (p.1214, lines 1-2 / session of July 10, 2011).
According to Zoaretz, in that route there is a war going on:
Q: There is a war going on there.
Q: And anyone who comes to the route, his blood is on his own head.
A: Absolutely. And much more so at night.
Q: But also in the daytime.
A: Also in the daytime.
Q: And on the level of principle, a person who comes to this route in the daytime, it is permissible to kill him.
(p.1237, lines 8-23 / session of July 10, 2011).
And according to the witness:
“A: …On the level of the State of Israel, we are in a limited confrontation. On the level of the combat soldier, who gets up in the morning at his post, he gets up every
morning to a war, he is in a war. Up to the level of the division in Gaza, the division
was in a war situation. Every day we were fighting a war.
Q: Every day a war.
Q: From when to when?
A: From September, when it began, until the disengagement they were in a war.”
(p.1238, lines 7-9).
According to the witness, from September 2000 the entire state was in a situation of limited confrontation between Israel and organized terrorism, but in a war situation in the southern sector.
In essence, Zoaretz was claiming that Israeli attempts to combat the second intifada, which began in September 2000, constituted a war, and thus Corrie’s presence in Rafah “was not innocent.” In addition, because the IDF considered Gaza an open-ended war zone starting in September 2000, Zoaretz believed Rafah in effect became a free fire zone where any Palestinian, or international, could be killed with impunity.
The Corrie team responds:
Pity the ears that heard the words of Colonel (Res.) Pinky Zoaretz, who headed the Southern Brigade at the relevant time, who saw the southern region – including the [Philadelphi] route – as a war zone in every way beginning in 2000 and until 2004, and that every person by being there is marked for death and may be killed, never mind that person’s identity, age, gender or reasons for being in the corridor. For this reason, in Zoaretz’ opinion, if someone were to fire from a tank and kill 15 foreigners, according to him this behavior would be consistent with the open-fire instructions and with the orders (p.1232, lines 13-21 / session of July 10, 2011). Zoaretz’s position ignores the reality in the occupied Palestinian territories, and contradicts the directives of international humanitarian law, intended to protect civilians in situations of armed conflict.
By contrast, S.R. [Ed Note: These initials indicate a witness whose identity was not make public], commander of the operational force that protected the force at the site that date, had a different opinion on this subject. This witness was unable to answer whether there was an order prohibiting the entry of the foreigners to the route (p.929, lines 1-6 / session of April 3, 2011). . .
It is hard not to distinguish the difference in tone between the warlike tone of Pinky Zoaretz, and the tone of S.R., for Zoaretz sees the route as being in a state of war, not only the Corridor but the entire southern brigade area and the Gaza Strip from the year 2000 at least through his leaving his position in 2004, and harming someone who is in the Corridor – without any consideration – even unto death – is permitted.
In the end, although there are not criminal charges being weighed, this trial will cast judgement on the actions, and worldview, of those like Zoaretz who view Israel in a state a perpetual war and believe any action – “even unto death” - is permitted.
Finally, the verdict tomorrow will serve as another chapter in the incredible legacy that Rachel Corrie has left behind. A true martyr, Rachel’s death has stood as an inspiration, lightning rod and beacon of moral clarity. Further, the persistence, strength and grace of the Corrie family has a power all its own, and has moved everyone who has had the chance to meet them as they have struggled for accountability these past nine and a half years. Regardless of the verdict, tomorrow’s announcement will not represent justice, but it may offer respite, and a long overdue acknowledgement of what was done to Rachel. Either way, Rachel Corrie’s legacy and example will live on.
The lawyer representing the Corries captured the beauty and force of the family in his ending of the Plaintiffs’ Response to Defendant’s Summaries. Abu Hussein finishes his argument by quoting Mahmoud Darwish, and uses the poet’s words to imagine how Rachel might address the soldiers who took her life:
Finally, we wish to quote the thoughtful words of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish of blessed memory in his poem “Think of Others, on the premise that these are the words the deceased would have addressed to the soldiers who were involved in precipitating the end of her young life:
Think of Others
As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you wage your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).
As you pay your water bill, think of others
(those who are nursed by clouds).
As you return home, to your home, think of others
(do not forget the people of the camps).
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others
(those who have nowhere to sleep).
As you express yourself in metaphor, think of others
(those who have lost the right to speak).
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: If only I were a candle in the dark).