This is Sarah Corrie Simpson's first visit to Israel. Her younger sister, Rachel Corrie, was killed by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, at the age of 23. Now, the family is suing the state in the Haifa District Court.
"I'm glad the day is finally here, that the eyewitnesses are having a chance to talk in a court of law," she said in an interview with Haaretz on Thursday. "It's been seven long years."
The witnesses, who include Rachel's colleagues in the left-wing International Solidarity Movement, say Rachel climbed atop a mount of dirt to be sure the driver could see her, Simpson said. When he nevertheless kept coming at her, she tried to flee, but tripped and fell. "The bulldozer driver kept driving with the blade down, pushing the dirt over Rachel, and stopped when her body was under the cab."
"My father served in the military in Vietnam and was responsible for bulldozer operations," Simpson added. "He said there is no way that what happened to Rachel would have happened on his watch."
She rejects the IDF's claim that the area was an active combat zone. The witnesses claim no shots were being fired, she said, so the army could have stopped the operation and removed the demonstrators. But in any case, she added, international law requires soldiers to try to protect civilians even in a war zone.
What brought Rachel, a girl from a good family in Washington state, to the town of Rafah, on the Gaza-Egypt border?
According to Simpson, the September 11, 2001 terror attacks pushed Rachel into political activism. She wanted "to find out what was going on in the world, especially in the Middle East." She studied Arabic and began meeting with peace activists, including former Israeli soldiers. She wanted to understand America's role in the Middle East.
Rachel was a pacifist and a pluralist, Simpson added, her views informed by growing up in a Christian family with Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim in-laws.
After Rachel's death, Simpson said, "our lives changed instantly." Her father quit his job, and she herself has devoted herself fully to the political and legal effort to force the IDF to take responsibility for Rachel's death. Her goal, she said, is to ensure "that something like this will never happen again to any civilian ... whether Israeli, Palestinian or internationals."
Though the Military Police investigated Rachel's death, neither the family nor the American authorities consider the probe credible.
"There are pieces of evidence we have never been given," Simpson said. For instance, out of about six hours of video, in color, with complete audio, the family received "14 minutes of tape, a grainy black copy, with incomplete audio."
Would you want to meet the bulldozer driver?
"Yes, I would. Ultimately, in order to have any kind of restorative healing process occur, I need to be able to hear directly from him what happened that day and how he feels about it. As well, I hope he would be able to hear and somehow understand the impact this has had on my life and the life of my family. A credible investigation is important ... but in the end, it is also important that my family and the man who killed Rachel look each other in the eyes. This would be the most difficult and painful thing I can imagine doing, but it's something I feel is extremely important. But I have no control over this, the Israeli government won't release his name."
Asked whether the family was getting support from the U.S. government, Simpson said it was a U.S. government official who first encouraged them to sue the Israeli government.
The family has met with many senior American officials, she added, and more than 70 congressmen signed a letter demanding a serious investigation.
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