Was the Rachel Corrie Verdict the end of Israel’s Judicial Credibility? (Marlowe)

Jen Marlowe writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

August 28, 2012: Cindy and Craig Corrie and Sarah Corrie Simpson made their way into the Haifa District Court, surrounded by scores of journalists and Israeli activists and friends. They had entered this courthouse on fifteen previous occasions since March 2010, listening to the testimony of twenty-three witnesses in a civil lawsuit filed against the state for the wrongful killing of their daughter and sister, Rachel Corrie. On this day, the Corrie family entered the court to hear its decision.

Rachel Corrie was crushed to death on March 16, 2003 by an Israeli military armored bulldozer while nonviolently protesting home demolitions in Rafah, Gaza. The killing was either intentional, the Corrie family claimed in the lawsuit, or as a result of negligence.

The rendering of the verdict was swift and unequivocal: Rachel’s death was a “tragic accident,” Judge Oded Gershon read aloud from his 64-page verdict to an overflowing courtroom. She was responsible for her own killing by placing herself in a dangerous situation. Final summations of both sides had focused on the question of whether the military’s clearing of land that day on the Philadelphi Route in Rafah, Gaza was a routine task, or a combat operation. On this, as well, the judge ruled with the state, concluding that the incident occurred during “a war-related action” and therefore, according to Israeli law, the army is exempted from responsibility. On the issue of the Military Police Investigation, which the Corries charged was inadequate and mishandled, the judge also agreed with the state, finding the investigation to have been “conducted properly and without any flaw.”

The court proceedings took approximately twenty minutes. The reverberations coming from the decision, however, may be felt for a long time to come.

“I believe that this was a bad day, not only for our family, but a bad day for human rights, for humanity, for the rule of law, and also for the country of Israel,” Cindy Corrie said at a press conference shortly following the verdict.

Craig Corrie expanded: “I’m extremely concerned that the court’s decision in my daughter’s case sets a dangerous precedent that will put all civilians in a more vulnerable position than they already were. The state offered the broadest possible interpretation of what constitutes a war zone—and the judge accepted that interpretation. And, of course, even in a war zone, soldiers have an obligation to protect civilian lives. The court’s decision reinforces the idea that human rights violations conducted by the Israeli military are protected and shielded—legally.”

The ruling generated widespread concern regarding military immunity, particularly in regard to nonviolent activists, leading to condemnation of the verdict by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International USA, and a statement by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who described the killing of an American peace activist as “unacceptable” and criticized what he called the court’s confirmation of “a climate of impunity.”

“This verdict indicates open season on human rights defenders,” said Huwaida Arraf, a founding member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the group that Rachel volunteered with in Gaza. “We’ve seen this already with Palestinian victims of Israeli violence—when soldiers, and states, know they have this power, and this level of protection, where is the incentive for them to use restraint in the future? And now, through the legal system, Israel has confirmed that the impunity will continue.”

Alice Coy, a nurse in Glasgow, Scotland, was with Rachel when she was killed. Coy reacted strongly to the court’s assessment that Rachel was in a dangerous place, and therefore responsible for her own killing. “The place wasn’t ‘dangerous’ because there was a volcano there, it was because [the Israeli military] made it dangerous,” Coy said. “It was an area where people lived, had families, homes, and on top of them were these war machines. There was a reason why we were there–people lived there, they were being attacked, and it’s a matter of human decency to stand with people when they are being attacked.”

Coy thought the verdict, and the media coverage around it, might actually encourage more activists to come to Palestine. “After Rachel and Tom [Hurndall] were killed, there were a lot of people who traveled specifically to Rafah because they realized what was going on there, and they knew it was important for human rights volunteers to be there,” she said. However, Coy continued, “It must be terrifying to be out there with ISM [and other activist groups] in Palestine right now. And to know that the soldiers who are pointing their guns at you know that they can get away with it.”

Bill Van Esveld, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, found the court’s assessment of the military police investigation difficult to reconcile with the facts, including investigators’ failure to take statements from witnesses or to reconcile discrepancies between statements. “The verdict was a missed opportunity to urge the IDF to reform an investigation system that is deeply flawed,” Van Esveld said.

Israelis are also talking about the outcome of the trial, and the implications they believe it will have for their country.

“This lawsuit was really about how to prevent something like this from happening again. What is the obligation that the state has towards civilians?” said Ronnie Barkan, an activist with Boycott From Within and Anarchists Against the Wall. Barkan was not surprised by the outcome, stating that the verdict reads as if it was drafted by the state’s attorneys themselves. “There was no sign of the state taking responsibility for anything. On the contrary, they blamed the victim,” Barkan said. “Israel doesn’t see that it has to abide by international law, or human rights.”

A 27-year project manager of a high-tech company in Tel Aviv (who wished to remain anonymous, and who is not an activist herself) was concerned that the decision might deter future peace activists, whose presence she feels offers an important counterbalance to the IDF. “[Protestors] will now know no one is watching their backs,” she said. “The IDF and the country will gain more power and feel more legitimate in wreaking havoc, and they will have less protestors to deal with now.”

Inbal S., who is getting her masters in law, agrees that the verdict may deter international activists, an outcome which she welcomes. She hopes potential protestors receive the following message from the court’s decision: “If you are an outsider, and you are intentionally taking yourself into a war zone against all recommendations—then the risk is on you. We will not pay for what you have done to yourself.”

Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Prime Minister of Israel, called the verdict a “vindication” on CNN and lauded Israel’s independent judiciary.

According to Inbal, Israeli courts have been exceedingly careful about toeing the line of international law since Israel’s 1992 passage of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. The Corrie verdict has finally reversed the trend of Israeli courts deferring to the court of world opinion, she opined.

But Barkan argues that Israel’s legal system has always been the country’s main vehicle for occupation and apartheid. “The Israeli legal system is what legitimizes the worst crimes performed by Israel. For example, Israel is the only country in the world that legally legitimized torture. Other countries torture, of course, but, until recently, Israel tortured legally.”

Barkan believes this high-profile case might positively affect the discourse in Israel, but only if there is sufficient pressure applied by the international community, who “could actually force Israel not to shove this verdict under the carpet, but to respond and actually question this issue of not living up to our obligations towards civilians.”

The verdict also holds deep meaning for those in Gaza, especially in Rafah, where Rachel was killed. Khaled Nasrallah’s home was behind the wall that Rachel stood in front of, intent on protecting his family from the army bulldozer. Nasrallah expressed shock at the trial’s outcome. “Although we have a conflict with Israel, we grew up with the idea that Israel is democratic with a fair judicial system—at least within its own borders. The verdict reflects that every aspect of the Israeli state has an ugly, political face—even the court system.” Rachel Corrie has long been a symbol for the Palestinian people, and now, according to Nasrallah, her trial is symbolic as well. If justice was denied the American with the high-profile case, what hopes for justice remain for thousands of Palestinian families? Yet, the very lack of justice in Corrie’s case serves to highlight Palestinians’ struggle for their own day in court. “If Rachel’s family continues their struggle against the injustice of the legal system, and brings her case to the high court, it will be a trial for the thousands of Palestinians who don’t have the same opportunity.”


Jen Marlowe is an author/filmmaker/playwright and human
rights advocate. Her most recent book is The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, written with her former colleague, Sami Al Jundi. Her previous book was Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. Her most recent film is One Family in Gaza. Her previous films include Rebuilding Hope: Sudan’s Lost Boys Return Home and Darfur Diaries: Message from Home. She is currently working on a book with the sister of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia despite a strong case of innocence. For more information about Jen’s work, visit www.donkeysaddle.org.
Twitter: @donkeysaddleorg. Ms. Marlowe helped the Corrie family on work related to the trial as a volunteer.

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Responses | Print |

19 Responses

  1. Killing Fields of Rafah

    The killing fields of Rafah

    (Haaretz) – The BBC broadcast a program titled “When the killing is easy” about the killing of British TV cameraman James Miller, the death of International Solidarity Movement volunteer Rachel Corrie under a bulldozer, and the shooting of ISM peace activist Tom Hurndall, who has been rendered a vegetable by his injuries. All three incidents happened within a few weeks in Rafah.

    Both British citizens got justice through political pressure from FM secretary Jack Straw. US State Department was negligent by withholding support for its citizen Rachel Corrie.

  2. I feel enormous empathy for the Corrie family but Marlowe’s journalistic treatment of the story – and particularly its sensationalist headline – is utterly misleading. She doesn’t address the evidence submitted to the court by the two sides or the nature of civil jurisprudence in Israel. You may not like a particular court decision but it’s flat wrong to blame a losing argument on political bias in the domestic court system. Israeli civilian courts have ruled for and against the sides and they are fiercely independent and professional.

    • I imagine there must have been a time when the courts of the southern American colonies, later the southern United States, were known for their objectivity and independence. After all, John Marshall was a Virginian. But would you expect that a black man could get a fair trial on any issue in a Virginia court after Virginia’s ruling elites, including the judges, came to believe that slavery and white supremacy was a matter of survival for Virginia? At one time, believe it or not, the black captives taken to Virginia were merely indentured servants, bound only for a set period as was English custom. But the laws were changed because the economic system demanded it.

      Of course, after the successful slave revolt in Haiti, and especially the unsucessful slave revolt by Nat Turner, things got much more unfair. What kind of objective court system would let stand a law that forbade blacks to be taught how to read?

      Perhaps South Africa, as a British dominion, once had fair courts too. But it certainly didn’t under apartheid. Once whites convinced themselves that their system was necessary for survival, they redefined “fairness” to fit.

      The Palestinians must either be broken or eliminated for Israel to survive as it has defined itself, a state where a Jew is more of a citizen than a Christian or Moslem. Is that not the supreme law in the minds of a nation’s judges?

    • Yeah, just like here in America.

      And it does not take a lot of digging to find that there are a lot of people, even Israelis, who are shall we say less than satisfied with the honesty and “judiciousness” of the various courts, civil, criminal and religious, in Israel. On the scholarly side, with a look at “fierce independence,” link to ruthfullyyours.com. On the Palestinian side, link to electronicintifada.net. And google has millions more bits on biases in the Israeli judiciary. It’s not, far as I can see, just a matter of “hard cases making bad law.” Anywhere you go on the planet, in systems created and maintained by hateful humans, you are going to find venality, corruption and bias.

      Some places are worse than others, but in 20+ years of public and private legal practice, I saw some good, much bad and way too much really ugly in state and federal courts all across our “ruleoflaw” land. Israel ain’t no better, and now that “we” are doing the same kind of “righteous killing,” in various places at home and abroad, and running our “prison industrial complexes” and such-like, “we” both have descended a long way into the darkness.

    • I have spent over 20 years in the United States federal and state court systems practicing law.

      There is a common perception by American attorneys that the judge assigned to your case will determine whether you will win or lose.

      Look at our U.S. Supreme Court. There have been liberal and conservative appointees. Thurgood Marshall and William Rehnquist could impose a political tint to their interpretation of the law and facts that often placed them at the opposite end of court rulings.

      Israel is no different. I have read the Corries spent $200,000.00 in legal costs to arrive at this ruling by Judge Gershon. The entire tone of the opinion appears to blame Rachel Corrie and ignore numerous witnesses that clearly placed blame on the bulldozer operator.

      My personal belief is that the Corries never had a chance in this trial court. They may appeal and if there were errors of law by the trial judge, maybe a reversal will occur. The trial court phase of John Demjanjuk’s Israeli war crimes case was largely a show trial in which he had little chance at acquittal but the Israeli Supreme Court eventually stepped in on appeal and cleared him.

      My best wishes to the Corries.

    • Ask Caterpillar Tractor Company; they manufactured them.

      They stopped exporting bulldozers to Israel pending the verdict, but now we may have to wait and see if that trade freeze will still be in effect.

  3. Every time I think about this case I can’t help it but to remember the Tiananmen Square Protests. As bad as human right violation are by the Chinese military and government, the tanks did not run over the protestor, the Israeli bulldozers do and the Israeli judicial system accepts that as norm.

    link to youtube.com

    What is shocking to me is that State department and President Obama has not come out against this verdict. How do they expect the rest of the world to interpret their condemnation of Chinese human right, when they are not even willing to make a stand for rights of an American citizen?

  4. Disturbing is the only word that comes to my mind. Should we be surprised at all by Israel’s actions and subsequent reactions?

  5. This is the way israel treats its friends ie the USA, which allows israel to act as if it is always at war and can therefore get away with anything. Never does israel consider others as humans, or people to be negotiated with, or treated fairly.

  6. As we saw in the case of the Goldstone Report, Israel has again judged itself and again found itself innocent.

    I think the World Criminal Court may be a better venue for any further effort to adjudicate the killing of Rachel Corrie.

  7. Several points:

    (1)Tom Hurndall, another ISM activist from Britain, is referenced in the article. His family received a large settlement from the Israeli government after an IDF sergeant, a Bedouin, shot Hurndall dead with his rifle in Gaza; aclasic sniping incident. The sergeant was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison.

    Why the difference?

    (2)The Corries’ U.S. Congresssman attempted to introduce a bill to push for an investigation into Rachel Corrie’s death – it received zero support in the United States House.

    Why no outrage by other legislators?

    (3)The Israeli Supreme Court has been generally fair. They exonerated alleged Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk after the trial court found him guilty beyond any shadow of doubt. They also overturned a few years ago an Israeli election commission decision to remove numerous Arab candidates from the Knesset ballot. They have “reined in” the IDF on several occaisions in their attempts to impose heavy-handed tactics against Palestinians; some of these ruling have been unpopular among Israeli Jews.

    It has been true however that Israeli judges at the trial court level have generally bent over bacwards to protect Jewish settlers who have assaulted over even killed Arabs; I can recall one case where an settler over his car getting pelted by stones, drove into a Palestinian town and shot a barber to death – he received a six-month sentence and a hero’s welcome outside the courthouse.

    (4) The Rachel Corrie incident has been a public relations nightmare for Israel. The failure of the Israeli government to conduct a fair and thorough investigation has harmed Isarel’s image in America.

    Rachel’s death largely spearheaded a boycott movement in her hometown of Olympia, Washington. The Olympia Food Co-op had a board of directors resolution to remove all Israeli products – except Palestinian olive oil – off its shelves.
    A lawsuit against that co-op to void the boycott was publically lauded by Israel Foreign Ministry official Danny Ayalon. The court dismissed the siut and awarded the sixteen defendants – including the board members – $10,000.00 apiece and is considering a request to make the anti-boycott plaintiffs reimburse $280,000.00 in costs and attorney fees in the co-op and its directors’ defense of the case. Several news reporters linked the lawsuit to the pro-Israel group Stand With Us and the Israeli Consul in the region -though this was disputed.

    (5) No one has spoken about the background of Judge Oded Gershon. Was he politically linked to conservative causesin Israel ? Did he serve previously as an IDF officer?

    (6)The trial was non-jury and lacked many procedural safeguards found in the American court systeem. The bulldozer driver was allowed to testify anonymously behind a curtain – such things would never be allowed in an American courtroom.

    (7)Numerous other Western nationals have been killed or seriously wounded by the IDF in similar circumstances. A British producer was killed by Israeli military forces while filming a documentary about the IDF occcupation in Gaza. His work was finalized essentially as an unfinished work in process largely through the efforts of his widow.

    (8) A play was performed in England – “My Name is Rachel Corrie” – but Jewish groups protested and a theatre in New York dropped plans to perform the play in the U.S.

  8. One of the best pieces about the Rachel Corrie verdict. Have alerted other folks to head over here and read. Thanks

  9. a losing argument doesn’t need to kill protesters and make martyrs out of them. Israel will lose a lot more by denying the rights of foreigners in the world court of opinion. not that Israel cares for any opinion other than their own. Carte blance for the killing of Israel’s enemies can only be used for the eradication of the Palestinians in the West Bank/Lebanon, as we have all seen over the years. but foreigners are not Palestinians, foreigner had rights at one time. now the court has ruled otherwise.

    And there is no way the Palestinians could ever defeat the IDF, ever. such is a simple fact that the rest of the world has accepted and everyone can plainly see. the wanton killing of “peace” protesters and the sham verdicts like this merely diminish any pretense Israel would like to raise in its’ defense. not that Israel will care one way or the other what others think, anyway. and this just proves it.

    Israel will fall from such blind hubris, as all nations eventually do. history will be judge, however. and those of us who are not in the Middle East, but pay taxes for the existence of Israel can tell when a line is crossed. this is one.

  10. Israeli justice has long been blind, but only to the crimes of the Israelis.

    While we can criticize the Israelis, let’s not forget the World Court, which tries precious few white men for war crimes but hauls in lots of wogs. It’s judicial credibility is about exhausted as well.

    The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is a case in point. The court gladly accepted the testimony of false witnesses in their zeal to indict Syria. Later, in their zeal to get Hezbollah, they could not be bothered to ask Israel about aerial, video surveillance it was conducting of the Hariri motorcade just as it was bombed. Just what was Israel up to?

  11. “Israel will fall from such blind hubris, as all nations eventually do.”

    I think Dr Cole has pointed out several times that this is essentially what Mr. Ahmadinejad said, which has been changed for most Americans by some tens of thousands of media and politico repetitions into “Iran wants to wipe Israel from the face of the earth.”

    I see also this morning that Obama personally intervened to pressure the Democratic Party to reinstate “God” and “Jerusalem as capital of Israel” into the Democrat platform. The cliff we are rushing toward with such enthusiasm is more than financial.

  12. Anything Israel does in Gaza or the West Bank is illegitimate by definition.

    Time for sanctions?

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