Tomorrow, Tuesday, August 28, Haifa District Court in Israel will announce the verdict in the civil lawsuit brought against the State of Israel for the killing of Rachel Corrie in March 2003. For the best part of a decade, Corrie’s family has been seeking justice and accountability for the crushing to death by a bulldozer of the American human rights activist.
The lawsuit, originally filed in 2005, charges the State of Israel “with responsibility for Rachel’s killing and failure to conduct a full and credible investigation in the case”.
I have been given access to professional translations of the legal summaries submitted to the court, which analyse the evidence, court testimonies and legal arguments. Whatever the judge’s decision, this case has shed light on Israel’s grave breaches of human rights and the impunity enjoyed by its military.
In the summary submitted by the State of Israel, it is claimed that “the IDF is a cautious, proportional, considerate, humanitarian army that acts with caution, proportionality and reasonableness”. Yet evidence in the case, corroborated by other incidents external to the killing of Rachel Corrie, suggest that the Israeli army has killed civilians – Palestinians and internationals – as a result of official policy.
Evidence submitted to the court included extracts from the battalion operations log on the day Rachel Corrie was killed, March 16, 2003. The summary given that evening by the deputy battalion commander (referred to as “Sh R”) included the following:
We must not, as an army, allow such incidents to disrupt the ongoing missions. We are aware of the problem of the foreigners in this area and, as a policy, we do not halt activity because of the presence of foreigners in the area in order to avoid creating a dangerous precedent… But again, this incident was unavoidable and these foreigners should be dealt with and prevented from entering the Strip.
Here, the IDF officer states that the reason why the bulldozers did not stop their work, despite the presence of foreign activists, was not because of any “security” imperative but to avoid creating a “precedent”.
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Even more shocking evidence was to follow. The battalion log then records Sh R as stating that “the rules of engagement are to shoot to kill any adult person on the route”. In the State’s document, the accuracy of the log at this point is immediately denied, with Sh R testifying that those were not his words “and apparently the operations sergeant misunderstood him” – only a person “identified as a terrorist should be shot to kill”.
However, when the former Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade Commander Colonel Pinhas (Pinky) Zuaretz – in charge in 2003 – was questioned in court, he affirmed these instructions.
Q: And on the level of principle, a person who comes to this [Philadelphi] route in the daytime, it is permissible to kill him.
When Col Zuaretz was shown the deputy commander’s remarks in the operations log, “he said that the statements were correct and accurately reflect the open-fire orders and that every adult person who comes into the route, from the standpoint of the open-fire orders, can be hit”.
These words are all the more chilling when you remember that within seven weeks of Rachel Corrie’s killing, award winning journalist James Miller and activist Tom Hurndall, both British citizens, were shot and killed in Rafah – and in the case of Miller, the same deputy commander was involved (as he testified to during questioning by the plaintiffs’ lawyer as part of the Corrie suit).
The Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter in the case of Tom Hurndall, Sergeant Taysir Hayb, told a military court that he only did what he was “supposed to”, that “anyone who enters a firing zone must be taken out. [The commander] always says this”. He added: “They tell us all the time to fire; that there is approval. All the troops [in Rafah] fire without approval at anyone who crosses a red line”.
That summer, a report by Chris McGreal for The Guardian documented in detail incidents of Palestinian children being killed by the Israeli army. A military spokesperson told McGreal that he could not name the IDF commander in Gaza in his article, since “he has admitted his soldiers were responsible for at least some of those killings” and “in this day and age that raises the prospect of war crimes, not here but if he travels abroad he could be arrested sometime in the future”. That commander, of course, was Col Zuaretz.
Culture of impunity
The Rachel Corrie lawsuit has further exposed a culture of impunity in the Israeli military, where claims of unlawful killings and war crimes are ignored, or superficially investigated. The plaintiffs’ summary, for example, describes how the doctor who carried out the autopsy on Rachel Corrie at the Institute for Forensic Medicine “destroyed evidence documenting the proceedings of the autopsy, evidence that might have contained additional findings supporting the plaintiffs’ version”. Overall, the plaintiffs claim that “the work of the investigation team” suffered from “significant defects”, with a lack of “ingenuity, experience and possibly even the will to arrive at the truth”.
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Just last week, it was revealed by Amira Hass in Ha’aretz that the US government concurs with the plaintiffs assessment, and that “Israel’s investigation into the death of American activist Rachel Corrie was not satisfactory, and wasn’t as thorough, credible or transparent as it should have been”. In May 2011, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
For seven years, we have pressed the government of Israel at the highest levels to conduct a thorough, transparent and credible investigation of the circumstances of her death. The government of Israel has responded that it considers this case closed and does not plan on reinvestigating the incident.
This serious criticism echoes findings in the 2005 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report “Promoting Impunity“, which adjudged Israel’s “operational and Military Police investigations into Corrie’s killing” to have fallen “far short of the transparency, impartiality and thoroughness required by international law”. HRW was able to obtain a copy of the summary of the IDF’s “operational investigation”, a document “laden with generalities and emotive commentary”, containing “major factual errors” such as the incredible statement that “no signs substantiate assertion that Ms Corrie was run over by a bulldozer”.
Just last week, Human Rights Watch issued fresh condemnation of what it called Israel’s “broken military criminal justice system” following a military trial that “failed to hold anyone accountable for the killings of a mother and daughter” in Gaza during the massacre of “Operation Cast Lead”.
Human rights organisations have long complained about the lack of accountability in the Israeli military. Various studies have produced statistics such as “a complaint made to the military law enforcement bodies of offenses by soldier against Palestinians have a 96.5 per cent chance of being dismissed without an indictment being filed against the suspected soldiers”. Over a 10-year period, indictments were filed in just 3 per cent of the cases where B’Tselem demanded a criminal investigation into the killing of Palestinians by soldiers.
The plaintiffs end their response to the State of Israel’s summary with the Mahmoud Darwish 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”. Another Darwish poem, “Our Country is a Graveyard“, is a reminder of the injustices recorded and resisted by Rachel and many others – and an opportunity to affirm that those responsible will have their day in court.
Gentlemen, you have transformed
our country into a graveyard
You have planted bullets in our heads,
and organised massacres.
Gentlemen, nothing passes like that
All what you have done
to our people is
registered in notebooks.
Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/ Israel. He is a graduate of Cambridge University.