Palestine Monitor, 14 September 2010
Seven and half years after their daughter was crushed by an armored bulldozer, Cindy and Craig Corrie stood in front of a courthouse in Haifa, Israel. Far from home, they were surrounded by Israelis carrying signs of support in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The Corries came for the truth of 16 March, 2003.
Corrie family outside courthouse bfore their civil suit against Israel resumed.
“I’ve looked forward to today,” Craig said. “For seven and a half years our family has waited for the ‘complete, credible and transparent investigation’ promised by President Sharon to President Bush.”
September 5 marked the resumption of the family’s civil suit against the Israeli government begun this March. They charge Israel – by either intent or negligence – is ultimately responsible for Rachel’s death.
“I feel like we are standing up in the same way Rachel stood up when she stood up to actions against a civilian population that were going unaccounted for,” Cindy said. “We are trying to challenge what happens here in the same way, hoping that by demanding some accountability that soldiers everywhere, but soldiers here particularly, see that their actions will always have to be explained.”
The official Israeli investigation cleared the bulldozer’s operators and shed little light on how Rachel died. A former US State Department official wrote “without equivocation” the investigation was inadequate. The Corrie’s suit against Caterpillar Inc., the manufacturer of the massive D9R, was dismissed for political reasons.
“There are literally thousands of others who’ve been hurt in the same way but who don’t have the opportunity to go to court,” Cindy said just before the trial resumed on 5 September. “I know how difficult it was for us, and I hope they draw some hope from us being here.”
The enormous concrete and glass courthouse then opened its doors to the Cindy, Craig, their daughter Sarah Corrie Simpson, their legal team, the US Consul General, supporters, volunteer translators, and journalists. The courtroom was on the sixth floor, and previous cases had yet to finish. After a man handcuffed by chain to his feet was led shuffling past, the case began. Unlike most judicial systems, Israel employs no jury, just judges.
Hussein Abu Hussein had taken the Corries’ case pro bono. Over the next two days, the trilingual advocate vigorously challenged the state’s witnesses, slowly uncovering the surrounding details of Rachel’s death.
There are a few established facts. At 10 am on 16 March, 2003, a group from the International Solidarity Movement rushed to the militarized border zone between Egypt and the Gaza strip called the Philedelphie Route. The giant blade – 4 meter-tall by 4.5 meter-wide – of a D9R bulldozer were coming to demolish the family home of Dr. Samir Nasrallah. A group including Rachel stood as human shields. Auxiliary armoured personnel carriers launched stun grenades and tear gas canisters at the activists and fired shots in the air.
When they didn’t run scared, the bulldozer crews left Philedelphie but were ordered to return, according to the military police investigation. In the affidavit of the D9R commander Edward Valermov, they resumed with “all possible delicateness.” Rachel was trampled soon after.
Valermov was stopped from continuing his testimony, and possibly clarifying the event, by Major General Doron Almog, the commander of Gaza. Such high-ranking intervention in the courts is common, said the state’s first witness at the Haifa trial.
Known simply as Oded, the witness was twenty, with three months of interrogation training beyond basic army procedures, when he joined the team to investigate Rachel’s death. Hussein cross-examined Oded all of the first day, challenging his competency and thoroughness. Hussein charged the team’s report absolving the soldiers of all responsibility was inaccurately incomplete, Oded was inexperienced and he mishandled a 24-hour surveillance camera’s record of the day.
The tape is available – but obviously edited. Large segments are missing, the quality of the video is diminutive, and unknown speakers say in Arabic “Did you kill him?” and “May God have mercy on him.” The video was acquired by military intelligence and held for seven days before his team got it, Oded said at the trial.
“How can you explain the delay?” Hussein asked.
“They probably had other things to do at the time,” Oded said, smiling. “Maybe it was not a high priority.”
Judge Oded Gershon ordered the state attorneys to release the tape, unaltered. At the end of second day, the Corrie family, lawyers, Human Rights Watch representatives, journalists and supporters were allowed to view it without comment. While more detailed, the dates on the video questionably fluctuate.
The video shows Rachel’s last moments. No one argues she was killed by a D9R bulldozer operated by the Israeli Engineering Corps TZAMA (Oded attempted to argue a grenade could’ve killed her but Judge Gershon berated him). Whether Israel intentionally killed her, covered up the evidence, or should be immune for actions in a war zone, is debated.
After Oded, the state presented three witnesses and their affidavits in Haifa. Major Yvonne Manshur was a career military engineer and equipment expert who retrofitted D9R bulldozers. Bought from the American Caterpillar company with US military aid, Manshur modified such massive machines with bullet-proof glass and metal shields, sometimes with machine guns and cameras. In Lebanon, Syria, Jenin and Gaza, the “Doobi”, or Teddy Bear in Hebrew, is deployed to destroy tunnels, clear minefields, pave roads and demolish homes. With modifications, each D9R costs nearly a million dollars.
But the Doobis are flawed. They have blind spots, according to a 2002 report by Manshur. Rachel died in one, he stated certainly after running standard computer simulations and experiments in the field (a later witness, Gad, revealed Manshur was not allowed to start or drive the D9R during this test). Adding a system guaranteeing 360-degree view via cameras and monitors – in short, a system that could detect Rachel – was deemed too expensive at $58,000.
“We installed those cameras as a test after [Rachel’s death],” Manshur said, adding the experiment wasn’t successful. “The cost was high, and [we] decided not to continue with that.”
The bulldozer operators were technically blind, Hussein said, but they had regulations to inspect those blind spots before each operation.
“But in a military situation,” Manshur said, “how are you supposed to walk around the vehicle before operating it?”
After a short break to toast the Jewish New Year, Judge Gershon resumed the trial with a Colonel from the Engineering Corps and former head of the Education and Training department.
Supporter holding a sign in Hebrew outside Haifa’s courthouse.
Following Rachel’s death, Yossi successfully claimed before the US Congress the D9R operators’ inability to see her. He was an expert in the operation of the bulldozers – he was ordered to adapt manuals for deployment in limited combat areas in October 2000. Before then, the manuals had been oral.
“The manual was not fit for war. It wasn’t satisfactory,” Yossi said. He helped craft guidelines for areas with snipers, mines and rocket-propelled grenades – a dangerous “war zone” necessitating new and harsh tactics.
“It’s not important for the bulldozers or army to safeguard other people. During war there are no civilians,” Yossi said. “We’re not going to write a manual about birds, animals or civilians. We’re not going to write that manual. We’re writing a manual for war.”
Hussein asked him to read from the manual.
“Before you start operating the vehicle, the driver should make sure there is no one around,” Yossi said, rapidly finishing before adding, “But these regulations are for regular circumstances – not war.”
“During war, what are the regulatory texts that are relevant?” Hussein said.
“When you go to war, you adapt these regulations to circumstances,” Yossi said.
“You are saying there are no regulations?” Hussein said.
Supporter of Corrie case outside courthouse.
“No one runs over someone intentionally,” Yossi said. “What happened in this situation is that the people arrived on the scene after we started. They entered the situation and should’ve taken care of their own safety. It was their responsibility.”
Yossi’s words, while callous, reflect Israel’s official stance: no one but Rachel can be blamed for her death in a dangerous combat zone. But they shocked the courtroom and troubled the Corries.
“In many ways I was just sickened to hear over and over again in different ways how there was absolutely no consideration for civilians,” Cindy said. “Somebody with that viewpoint to have the authority to guide soldiers is immoral and unconscionable.”
The trial ended with new court dates set for October and November. The Corries are staying in Israel and Palestine until the trial resumes. Peace comes, Craig said, first from understanding.
Over the years, he has seen the situation in Palestine and Israel deteriorate and peace grow ever distant: increased Israeli censorship of the truth, the growing separation wall, continual settlement expansion, flotilla attacks and the wars of Lebanon and Gaza.
“You see horrendous, horrendous things happening,” he said. But he finds hope in the example of South Africa’s successful fight against apartheid, especially Archbishop Desmond Tutu tripartite peace program: uncovering the truth, acceptance of each side’s roles, and forgiveness. The current peace process is still on the first step.
“The world does not have perfect knowledge of the situation here,” Craig said. “Until we do, I think asking for peace is like asking for a flower to grow but asking that it not be watered.”