Parents want case to highlight events that led to American activist’s death under Israeli army bulldozer
* Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem
Peace activist Rachel Corrie died while protesting in front of a bulldozer trying to destroy a Palestinian home in Rafah in March 2003. Photograph: Denny Sternstein/AP
The family of the American activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza seven years ago, is to bring a civil suit over her death against the Israeli defence ministry.
The case, which begins on 10 March in Haifa, northern Israel, is seen by her parents as an opportunity to put on public record the events that led to their daughter’s death in March 2003. Four key witnesses – three Britons and an American – who were at the scene in Rafah when Corrie was killed will give evidence, according the family lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein.
The four were all with the International Solidarity Movement, the activist group to which Corrie belonged. They have since been denied entry to Israel, and the group’s offices in Ramallah have been raided several times in recent weeks by the Israeli military.
Now, under apparent US pressure, the Israeli government has agreed to allow them entry so they can testify. Corrie’s parents, Cindy and Craig, will also fly to Israel for the hearing.
A Palestinian doctor from Gaza, Ahmed Abu Nakira, who treated Corrie after she was injured and later confirmed her death, has not been given permission by the Israeli authorities to leave Gaza to attend.
Abu Hussein, a leading human rights lawyer in Israel, said there was evidence from witnesses that soldiers saw Corrie at the scene, with other activists, well before the incident and could have arrested or removed her from the area before there was any risk of her being killed.
“After her death the military began an investigation but unfortunately, as in most of these cases, it found the activity of the army was legal and there was no intentional killing,” he said. “We would like the court to decide her killing was due to wrong-doing or was intentional.” If the Israeli state is found responsible, the family will press for damages.
Corrie, who was born in Olympia, Washington, travelled to Gaza to act as a human shield at a moment of intense conflict between the Israeli military and the Palestinians. On the day she died, when she was 23, she was dressed in a fluorescent orange vest and was trying to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home. She was crushed under a military Caterpillar bulldozer and died shortly afterwards.
A month after her death the Israeli military said an investigation had determined its troops were not to blame and said the driver of the bulldozer had not seen her and did not intentionally run her over. Instead, it accused her and the International Solidarity Movement of behaviour that was “illegal, irresponsible and dangerous.”
The army report, obtained by the Guardian in April 2003, said she “was struck as she stood behind a mound of earth that was created by an engineering vehicle operating in the area and she was hidden from the view of the vehicle’s operator who continued with his work. Corrie was struck by dirt and a slab of concrete resulting in her death.”
Witnesses presented a strikingly different version of events. Tom Dale, a British activist who was 10m away when Corrie was killed, wrote an account of the incident two days later.
He described how she first knelt in the path of an approaching bulldozer and then stood as it reached her. She climbed on a mound of earth and the crowd nearby shouted at the bulldozer to stop. He said the bulldozer pushed her down and drove over her.
“They pushed Rachel, first beneath the scoop, then beneath the blade, then continued till her body was beneath the cockpit,” Dale wrote.
“They waited over her for a few seconds, before reversing. They reversed with the blade pressed down, so it scraped over her body a second time. Every second I believed they would stop but they never did.”
While she was in the Palestinian territories, Corrie wrote vividly about her experiences. Her diaries were later turned into a play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, which has toured internationally, including to Israel and the West Bank.
Other foreigners killed by Israeli forces
Iain Hook, 54, a British UN official, was shot dead by an Israeli army sniper in Jenin in November 2002. A British inquest found he had been unlawfully killed. The Israeli government paid an undisclosed sum in compensation to Hook’s family.
Tom Hurndall, a 22-year-old British photography student, was shot in the head in Rafah, Gaza, in April 2003 while helping to pull Palestinian children to safety. In August 2005 an Israeli soldier was sentenced to eight years for manslaughter.
James Miller, 34, a British cameraman, was shot dead in Gaza in May 2003. He was leaving the home of a Palestinian family in Rafah refugee camp at night, waving a white flag. An inquest in Britain found Miller had been murdered. Last year Israel paid about £1.5m in damages to Miller’s family.