By Mya Guarnieri
Jerusalem - Ma'an - On Wednesday, the Israeli Defense Ministry will go on trial as a court hears a case filed by the parents of an American woman run down by an Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza, in March 2003.
A civil suit seeks to hold Israeli forces responsible for the death of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old activist who was crushed to death as she protested a Palestinian home from demolition in the Gaza Strip.
"We claim that her assassination was intentional," or, at the very least, that the army is guilty of "huge negligence," Hussein Abu Hussein, the attorney who filed the petition on behalf of Corrie's parents, commented.
Abu Hussein cites the state's acknowledgment of the fact that Corrie and other members of the International Solidarity Movement—a Palestinian-led peace organization that advocates non-violent means of resistance to the Israeli occupation—were demonstrating in the area for several hours before Corrie was struck by the bulldozer. He also points out that Corrie was wearing a fluorescent orange vest to increase her visibility.
At the time of her death, the Israeli military response was that the driver of the machine did not see Corrie.
"If you see people, you should stop and think of all the needed steps not to harm [them]. Instead of stopping the D9, which weighs 64 tons, they continued. And due to that, [Corrie] was killed," Abu Hussein said.
Four of Corrie's fellow activists who witnessed her death were initially denied entry into Israel where they were asked to testify at the trial, but US pressure reportedly changed the Israeli position. A US citizen and three UK nationals will now be able to speak at the trial, which is expected to last two weeks.
Israel will not issue an entry permit to Dr Ahmed Abu Nakira, the Gazan physician who saw Corrie after she was injured and declared her dead. The state rejected the request for his entry on the grounds that there is no coordination between Israel and Gaza, due to the Israeli blockade that began after Hamas rose to power in 2007.
"It's an obstacle to justice," Abu Hussein said. "On the one side, [Israel] won't give permission [for Dr Abu Nakira] to come; on the other they won't allow him to testify by videoconference, which is used daily by courts everywhere in the modern world."
Speaking shortly after Corrie's death, an Israeli military representative called the incident a "regrettable accident." An internal investigation conducted by the Israeli army later absolved the soldier operating the bulldozer of any wrongdoing.
The report, released in April 2003, claimed that Corrie was not killed by the "engineering vehicle" but "was struck by a hard object, most probably a slab of concrete which was moved or slid down while the mound of earth which she was standing behind was moved." The army accused Corrie and the other activists present of behaving in an "illegal, irresponsible, and dangerous" manner.
Abu Hussein says that the army's investigation lacked transparency. The civil suit, which was filed in 2005, is the only way to hold the state accountable for Corrie's death, he says.
While it is exceedingly rare for the Defense Ministry to take direct responsibility in such cases, the state has made financial reparations to a handful of families like the Corries. Just two months after Rachel's death, British journalist and filmmaker James Miller, 34, was shot to death by an Israeli soldier. After an army investigation found no wrongdoing, the UK warned it would extradite the soldiers involved. Last year, Israel settled out of court with Miller's family for approximately 1.5 million pounds (2.25 million US dollars).
"The family is not seeking money. They're seeking acknowledgment of responsibility by the state," Abu Hussein says. If the Corries do receive compensation from Israel, they intend to donate the sum to "the matter Rachel was struggling for—for peace."
The Corries' suit "underscores that Israel doesn't prosecute" soldiers accused of wrongdoing and that the state behaves it is "exempt from accountability," Abu Hussein said.
"In the cases brought by Palestinians against the IDF [Israeli forces], more than 90 percent are denied," he says, pointing to a culture of immunity that has been criticized human rights groups.
From 2000 to 2009, the Israeli NGO Yesh Din monitored almost 2000 Israeli military investigations into incidents in which a Palestinian or international claimed the army was guilty of a criminal offense, including unlawful shooting that led to injury or death. Indictments were filed in only six percent of these cases. Many of the soldiers who were prosecuted cut deals with the court that reduced the severity of both the charges and punishments.
"When we look at the number of cases, and we look at the fact that only six percent yield indictments, it is safe to assume that a soldier in the field today will know that he can get away with pretty much anything," Yesh Din's research director Lior Yavne remarked.
A representative for the Corries emphasized that the family hopes the upcoming trial will bring attention to ongoing human rights abuses perpetrated by the Israeli army in the occupied Palestinian territories. "The issue is Palestine and human rights defenders," the liaison says. "They want to highlight Gaza in light of [the UN-commissioned] Goldstone [report] and Operation Cast Lead." Mya Guarnieri is a regular contributor to The National (Abu Dhabi), The Huffington Post, and The Jerusalem Post.