Israel's Military on the Spot Over Activist's Death

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Abed Omar Qusini / Reuters

The parents of Rachel Corrie stand in front of her picture during a rally in the West Bank city of Nablus on March 20, 2008, to mark the fifth anniversary of her death

The day after the American activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by the armored Israeli bulldozer she was trying to stop from destroying a Palestinian home, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised U.S. President George W. Bush "a thorough, credible and transparent investigation." It was the least that could be expected after the death of a U.S. citizen at the hands of its closest ally.

Seven years, two Prime Ministers and one President later, Corrie's parents sat in the front row of Haifa District Court on Sunday, a white-haired couple struggling to get to the bottom of their daughter's death. Corrie v. the State of Israel, a civil suit, is also putting a withering spotlight on Israel's conduct since March 16, 2003.

"She was hurt by a grenade; this is the information that was given to us," said Oded (his last name was withheld for security reasons), one of the three military police investigators who conducted the official inquiry into the death — an effort the testimony painted as slipshod at best. "I don't remember who said it."

"How many grenades were there?" asked Hussein Abu Hussein, an attorney for the Corrie family.

Oded: "I don't remember."

Hussein: "You didn't record it?"

Oded: "I don't know."

Hussein: "Who threw the grenade?"

Oded: "I believe hostile forces, but I don't know."

As the attorney bore down, Oded shot a look at the table where two lawyers for the state of Israel sat. The look said, Can you believe this? But with a wave of his hand, the judge spared the witness from digging through the case file for answers. "No," said Judge Oded Gershon from the bench, "we know that it is untrue that a grenade was thrown."

What, then, do we know is true? Neither thorough nor credible, and every bit as transparent as a sandstorm, Israel's investigation of Corrie's death sheds little light on what happened — the grenade story apparently came out of thin air — but is providing a great deal of fodder for her family's case against the state. Heard intermittently in the manner of Israel's court system, the case may not conclude until November. But it has already validated anew Richard Nixon's timeless observation that it is the cover-up that does you in.

"What, did you kill him?" a soldier asked after Corrie disappeared beneath the blade of a D9R Caterpillar, wreathed in armor for use by the Israel Defense Forces. "May God have mercy on him," came the reply. The striking exchange, between Israeli soldiers speaking in Arabic, was not included in the report's transcript of radio transmissions, the former investigator acknowledged on the stand. He said he didn't think it was important.

Oded testified that the interview of the bulldozer driver was halted on the order of a senior commander. He also testified that investigators waited a week to retrieve from another unit the only known videotape of the incident; failed to interview non-military eyewitnesses; ignored the ambulance workers, doctors and other Palestinians who treated her; and did not even visit the scene of her death. That was a neighborhood in the Gaza Strip where a handful of foreign-born protesters with the International Solidarity Movement tried to do what Palestinians could not do themselves if they expected to survive: turn themselves into human shields between Israeli bulldozers and the Palestinian homes the bulldozers were trying to tear down on the grounds that they provided cover for gunmen and tunnels.

The army maintains that Corrie's death was an accident: because of the armored plating around the cab, the driver, who is scheduled to testify next month, could not see her, even in a fluorescent orange vest. But on Monday the expert witness whose study of sightlines backed up that claim confirmed on the stand that he in fact set out to support the army's narrative.

Afterward, Craig Corrie despaired at how easily the contradictions were coming.

"It was really depressing, because my impression was the people were making statements that indicated they never expected to be questioned," Rachel's father told TIME. "The lies were like the lies of a 7-year-old."

Composed and genial, the Corries cut an impressive figure in the sun-drenched Haifa courthouse. After quitting his job as an insurance actuary, Craig and his wife Cindy made full-time work of ascertaining the truth about their daughter's death. That meant immersing themselves, as she had done, in the situation of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. Although the imminent invasion of Iraq had kept her story, and the plight of the Gazans, largely out of the headlines at the time, the recent Israeli raid that killed nine Turkish activists aboard a boat intent on breaking Israel's blockade of the Hamas-controlled coastal strip has put it back in the spotlight. Weeks later another boat filled with Irish activists approached; its name: the MV Rachel Corrie.

"Like a lot of Americans, we were really removed from what was going on there," said Cindy of life before her daughter's death. The education that had begun with Rachel's e-mails deepened profoundly when they met residents of Gaza in person, making new friends and worrying for their lives, too, during Israel's massive military offensive against Gaza in January 2009 in response to Hamas rocket fire.

"We'd call a Palestinian friend to see how he was doing," Craig said. "And he'd say, 'Listen to this,' and hold the phone out. It was just what Rachel used to do: 'Listen to this.' And you'd hear the explosions."