Demonstrators in the occupied West Bank village of Beit Jala carry a banner commenorating Rachel Corrie, seven years after her death, 21 March 2010. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)
Several Israeli soldiers testified at the witness stand in the Haifa district court earlier this week, as trial hearings continued in the case of Corrie vs. the State of Israel. As the trial drags on, years after Rachel Corrie’s killing, Israel’s impunity is being challenged and carefully cross-examined.
Eight years ago last month, 23-year-old American solidarity activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an armored US-made Caterpillar D9 bulldozer in Rafah, at the southern edge of the occupied Gaza Strip.
Wearing a fluorescent orange vest and wielding a bullhorn, Corrie attempted to defend the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home by the Israeli military along the Philadelphi corridor, a wide swath of land in Rafah at the border with Egypt in which hundreds of homes were demolished from 2002-2004, according to field reports from Human Rights Watch.
After years of legal proceedings, Rachel Corrie’s parents, Cindy and Craig, were able to bring soldiers who were on duty that day in Rafah into the Haifa district court. Hearings began in March 2010 and continued in September, November and earlier this week.
The Corries are suing the Israeli military for one dollar in damages, but, more significantly, are charging those responsible with the wrongful death of their daughter and criminal negligence.
Eyewitness testimony from fellow International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activists, supported by photographic evidence, shows that Rachel was crushed underneath the massive blade of a bulldozer and died shortly afterwards. The Israeli military and its defense team argues that Rachel’s death was an accident, that the bulldozer driver didn’t see her and that it was not the blade that killed her but perhaps a pile of rubble that was dropped on her body by the bulldozer as it was razing the land.
Saturated throughout the soldiers’ testimonies is the unwavering argument that all Palestinians in that area were considered armed and a danger to the military unit, and that the military orders had a strict shoot-to-kill policy as they demolished homes. They infer that because this was a closed military zone, Rachel and the other activists with the ISM put themselves at risk and therefore the soldiers and their commanders cannot be responsible for her killing.
But what fails to be addressed by the judge is how and why the soldiers and their armored bulldozers were there in the first place. The soldiers driving the bulldozers and their commanders operated from orders to destroy houses along the Philadelphi corridor — the name Israel gives to the strip of land it has used as a buffer zone— starting in 2002 and continuing throughout the next two years, displacing thousands of residents. Human Rights Watch reported that after the homes were demolished, a steel wall was constructed along the Philadelphi corridor (“Razing Rafah,” 17 October 2004). The demolition of Palestinian homes is a violation of Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that “Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons … is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”
Israel, which is a signatory to the convention, contends that the law “does not apply to its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” according to a detailed report by Amnesty International (“Document - Israel and the Occupied Territories: Under the rubble: House demolition and destruction of land and property,” 17 May 2004).
Amnesty International adds “Whether it justifies such action on grounds of ‘military/security needs’ or whether such action is imposed as a form of collective punishment, or whether carried out in enforcement of planning regulations such large-scale forced evictions are inconsistent with the realization of the right to adequate housing. The obligation of the state under international law is that it must refrain from forced evictions.”
The occupying forces had been willingly engaged in layered violations of international law — violations that Rachel Corrie and her fellow activists attempted to confront and remediate.
S.R., a unit commander in the Israeli army who gave his testimony on Wednesday and was obscured by screens so the Corries could not see his face, stated that “none of the houses [in the area being razed] had anyone living inside … They were all being used as positions for terror activities.”
This blanket statement is untrue; the home that Rachel died trying to protect was inhabited by the Nasrallah family. Neither Dr. Samir Nasrallah, a pharmacist, nor his family members living in the home, were ever charged by the Israeli military with “terror activities.” Dr. Nasrallah was obviously never a threat to the Israeli military or its government, as Israel even allowed him to travel to the United States on a speaking tour with the Corries — something that would never be allowed for any Palestinian accused of being linked with such activities.
When I attended a round of hearings last September, another military training leader brazenly stated to the courtroom that “during war, there are no civilians.” Craig Corrie told me then that this admission was a shock to the family and to their supporters in the courtroom, but not a surprise given the attitude of the Israeli military since its inception.
This was not a war in Gaza; this was — and still is — an aggressive, lethal and unequal military occupation meted out against Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.
Human Rights Watch states that more than 2,500 homes were destroyed in Gaza from 2000-2004, as the Israeli military implemented its so-called “buffer zone” policies after the breakout of the second intifada. The buffer zone is a 300-meter-wide militarized no-go area near the boundary with Israel which has since taken 35 percent of Gaza’s total agricultural land — and the lives of more than 100 Palestinians who have been shot and killed since March 2010.
Attending this week’s hearing were members of the Corrie family, activists, journalists and legal observers from the the US embassy, the National Lawyers Guild, Human Rights Watch, Al-Haq, Avocats Sans Frontieres, Amnesty International, Yesh Din and other Palestinian, Israeli and international human and civil rights organizations.
In a press release, Zaha Hassan of the National Lawyers Guild stated that “[i]t has been eight years now and Rachel’s family and all of us who are attending the trial in support have been waiting for an answer to the question of why the unit commander ordered the bulldozer driver to move forward directly over the location where Rachel stood yelling into a blow-horn” (“National Lawyers Guild Free Palestine Subcommittee to Observe Resumption of Trial Brought by Family of Slain Peace Activist Rachel Corrie,” 4 April 2011).
Hassan added: “Justice demands that these questions be answered and that those responsible for her death be held to account.”
The judge, Oded Gershon, admitted proudly in court on Wednesday that he had been a military judge earlier in his career. It remains to be seen whether his potential proclivity toward defense of military policies will influence the final decision in the Corrie case, but the entire process sets an incredibly important precedent.
Israeli soldiers responsible for the demolition of homes and the killing of Palestinians and internationals are now being brought inside courtrooms. Military mandates are being meticulously scrutinized. Cracks in the solidified Israeli military system of impunity are starting to appear, and the Corries are determined to widen those cracks so that other bereaved families can seek justice, too.
The next round of hearings begins on 22 May, and the courtroom will once again be packed. For the Corries, and the family members of countless Palestinians awaiting true justice from the occupier state since 1948, the legal process may be tedious and excruciating but it is vital. And long overdue.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, writing for The Electronic Intifada, Inter Press Service, Al-Jazeera, Truthout and other outlets. She regularly reports from Palestine.
For summaries of the hearings, and for more information, visit the Rachel Corrie Foundation website at rachelcorriefoundation.org.