Top court hears appeal on American activist’s death

Rachel Corrie’s parents seeking to overturn 2012 lower court ruling that rejected claims IDF was responsible for 2003 incident

Cindy Corrie, center right, with lawyer Reem Masarweh in court Wednesday. (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)
Cindy Corrie, center right, with lawyer Reem Masarweh in court Wednesday. (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Almost two years after a Haifa court ruled that Israel was not negligent in the 2003 death of American activist Rachel Corrie during a protest against IDF operations in the Gaza Strip, the Supreme Court heard her family’s appeal of the verdict Wednesday afternoon.

Speaking before the hearing in Jerusalem, Craig Corrie, the activist’s father, said the lower court’s ruling had given the army “immunity and impunity.”

“I think that’s very dangerous,” he said. “I hope the Israeli high court will change the findings, but if they don’t, I hope the world and the world press will bring it into the open and Israel’s friends and other nations will help them behave in the right way.”

Corrie, a 23-year-old native of Olympia, Washington, was crushed to death on March 16, 2003, by a military armored bulldozer clearing vegetation in a combat zone along the Gaza-Egypt border. She was a member of the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that has sent Western volunteers to interfere with Israeli military activities in Gaza and the West Bank.

During the hearing, lawyer Hussein Abu Hussein, reading from torn handwritten notes, made the case that the area was not formally declared a closed military zone — the general’s order has never been found — and that the motivation to continue the operation, amid civilian protest, was rooted in avoiding the establishment of a dangerous principle rather than an urgent war-like necessity.

However, the state attorney said the incident “occurred in the most dangerous spot of all the places IDF operated at the time.”

“The facts are all clear, set in stone,” she said.

Judges said the issue of how dangerous the area was at the time was the “first hurdle” the family had to pass to make a case, because unless Hussein could prove that there was not a state of war, “there is nowhere to progress.”

Before the hearing, Hussein said that he “expects the state to take responsibility for her death” and that “she was equipped with nothing beyond her body, which weighed 65 kilograms and faced a bulldozer weighing 66 tons.”

He added, when asked about the warlike atmosphere that day in that region, that “even during war there are rules… The driver could have turned off the ignition for a second.”

“The case is about our own deep and personal loss, but it has become about more than that, about impunity and the protection of civilians,” Craig Corrie told Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Monday.

In their appeal to Israel’s highest court, the Corries have argued that the Haifa judge who presided over the original case ignored key witness testimony and entered the proceedings with the “final goal of rejecting the lawsuit.”

The Supreme Court is the family’s last recourse in the Israeli legal system.

“We are appealing on several grounds,” Craig Corrie told the Guardian. “The first is that the lower court was unwilling to apply international humanitarian law [regarding the protection of civilians]. It also applied a very narrow interpretation of the idea of negligence.”

In 2003, Corrie and other pro-Palestinian activists had confronted two bulldozers and a small infantry contingent guarding the vehicles in an attempt to halt what the activists believed was an impending home demolition. Corrie was in front of the bulldozer’s blade trying to block the vehicle when she was killed.

After her death, Corrie became a hero for opponents of Israel, the subject of a play, and one of the best-known victims of the violence of the second Palestinian Intifada, which claimed more than 6,500 lives. A foundation set up by her family in her honor advocates for an anti-Israel boycott.

Corrie’s family sued Israel over her death, charging that soldiers had either killed her intentionally or acted with reckless neglect. They asserted that the Israeli military was responsible for Corrie’s life even though she had knowingly placed herself in danger to thwart a military operation.

They were seeking a symbolic $1 in damages and legal fees.

Hearings in the trial began in 2010, and in August 2012, Judge Oded Gershon rejected all of the family’s claims as “baseless,” ruling that the death was an accident on the part of the IDF and that Corrie was at fault.

“This was a very unfortunate accident and not an action undertaken with intent,” he said.

American activist Rachel Corrie speaking in Gaza before her death in March 2003. A verdict in her family's lawsuit against Israel over Corrie's death is due Tuesday (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)
American activist Rachel Corrie speaking in Gaza before her death in March 2003. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)

“The deceased put herself into a dangerous situation. She stood in front of a large bulldozer in a place where the operator could not see her. Even when she saw the mound of earth approaching her she did not distance herself as a reasonable person would have done.”

Cindy Corrie, the activist’s mother, lambasted the Israeli court system at the time for protecting “the Israeli military and the soldiers who take action in that military and provide them with impunity.”

In the case, the Corries’ lawyer Hussein argued that Corrie was clearly visible because of a bright yellow jacket she was wearing. He called her an “American peace activist who only wanted to protest house demolitions and the great injustice against residents of Gaza.”

The bulldozer operator, an army reservist who was identified only by his first initial, Y., testified in court that because of the armored vehicle’s restricted field of vision he did not see the American.

The commander of the troops on the scene, an infantry major, testified that the activists had ignored repeated warnings to leave and were endangering his troops. “It was a war zone,” he told the court.

During the course of the trial, it also emerged that commanders had discussed the possibility of ceasing operations due to the presence of activists, but chose to continue so as not to set a precedent.

The Corries’ lawyer argued that the order was illegal and that the driver should have ignored it. He also contradicted the state’s claim that Corrie had inserted herself into a what amounted to a war zone, pointing out that the state had failed to produce a copy of an order declaring the area a closed military zone and that the IDF had not pressed any charges against activists trying to block demolitions in the area.

An earlier military investigation also cleared the soldiers of wrongdoing, and the Haifa judge said that investigation “was not flawed in any way.” The Israeli forces on the ground were in “deadly danger” and had acted properly, he said, by warning the activists to leave the area in a confrontation that began several hours before Corrie’s death. They ignored the warning.

The judge pointed out that from the outbreak of violence in September, 2000, and until the day of Corrie’s death, Israeli forces counted some 6,000 hand grenades thrown at them in the area, as well as 1,400 shooting attacks, 150 explosive devices, 200 anti-tank rockets and more than 40 instances of mortar fire.

Following the 2012 verdict, the US State Department called Corrie’s death “tragic.”

“We understand the family’s disappointment with the outcome of the trial,” then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the time. She did not say if the Obama administration shared that sentiment.

Mitch Ginsburg and Matti Friedman contributed to this report.

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