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.