What the Rachel Corrie Case Reveals About Israeli Justice

Rachel Corrie's parents may not have succeeded in getting the IDF to take responsibility for their daughter's death, but they believe that their legal battle has exposed serious flaws in Israel's civil and military justice system.

Joel Greenberg
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Joel Greenberg

HAIFA - The court ruling here this week that exonerated the army of wrongdoing in the 2003 death of Rachel Corrie, the American activist run over by a military bulldozer she tried to block during a protest against home demolition in the Gaza Strip, was revealing.

The verdict, along with the investigations and legal proceedings that preceded it, provide a window into the way the military and civil justice systems deal with army killings in the Palestinian areas.

Unlike the killings of Palestinians, Corrie’s death received special attention in the army because she was American, and because her family has waged a vigorous public campaign for a thorough investigation of the incident. Family members met with members of Congress, contacted senior administration officials in Washington, and the case was brought up in high-level meetings between American and Israeli officials.

Departing from its usual practice when Palestinians are killed, the army conducted a military police investigation into Corrie’s death, in addition to the standard operational debriefing. From the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 until April of last year, the army had dropped the practice of automatically opening military police probes into killings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, on the grounds that it was engaged in an armed conflict there.

Oded Gershon, the judge in the civil lawsuit brought by the Corrie family, ruled that the military police investigation into Corrie’s death, which found no evidence of wrongdoing, had been “properly conducted.” However the U.S. government position, communicated to the Corries in writing, has been that Israel did not keep its promise to conduct a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation.

Military statistics and figures compiled by Israeli human rights groups show that the army rarely prosecutes soldiers for unlawful killing or injury in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A study of complaints and military police investigations published last year by the rights group Yesh Din showed that 96.5 percent of the files opened by the military police in cases of alleged unlawful harm to Palestinians were closed without an indictment. Only four soldiers have been tried and convicted for actions committed during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed.

The Corrie case also highlighted the army’s difficulty in dealing with non-violent protestors, who often attempt to block its activities but pose no threat to soldiers.

Citing evidence presented by the state, Gershon cast the group Corrie had joined, the International Solidarity Movement – which aids Palestinians and tries to disrupt army actions – as an organization involved in “violence in practice.”

ISM provided protection for Palestinian families “involved in terrorism,” the judge said, adding that it specialized in “disrupting operational activities of the IDF” by shielding “terror activists wanted by the Israeli security forces.” The group also provided “financial, logistic and moral support to the Palestinians, including terrorists and their families,” and was involved in “disrupting the demolition or sealing of homes of terrorists who carried out suicide attacks that caused many casualties,” according to the ruling.

The army investigations and the Haifa District Court have concluded that Corrie’s death was an accident, in which the bulldozer driver who ran her over could not see her from his armored cabin, behind the blade and a mound of earth. But while her parents have made no headway in getting Israel to acknowledge culpability, they believe that their legal battle helped expose serious flaws in the Israeli military and civil justice system.

Corrie’s mother, Cindy, put it this way at a news conference following the court ruling: “The state has worked extremely hard to make sure that the full truth about what happened to my daughter is not exposed, and that those responsible for her killing are not held accountable.”

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