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Border Control / Biden and the bulldozer

Akiva Eldar | Ha’aretz

9 March 2010

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who arrived in Israel yesterday, didn’t look for camels among the cars on the road from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Jerusalem. In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing held two years ago for the United States Ambassador to Israel, James Cunningham, Biden heard that the Israelis even know how to ride bulldozers.

Then a senator from Delaware, who chaired the committee, Biden asked for a detailed report on the affair of American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was run over and killed by the treads of an Israeli bulldozer.

If Biden schedules a meeting with Corrie’s parents here, the Israeli Information and Diaspora Ministry will have to work overtime. The parents, who arrived in advance of the scheduled deliberations on their suit against the state of Israel, will tell him that his hosts are continuing to deny any responsibility for their daughter’s death.

Rachel was a 23-year-old student run over by a 64-ton bulldozer in March, 2003, when she and others from the International Solidarity Movement tried to use their bodies to stop the demolition of a house in Rafah.

At the Senate hearing, Cunningham spoke about the Israel authorities’ refusal to open a thorough investigation into the affair and not rest content with an internal report.

Cunningham detailed numerous written and oral requests to top people in the Israeli government by senior people in the American administration and his predecessor at the embassy. In reply to Biden’s question, Cunningham undertook to stand by the Corrie family in the demand for a credible investigation of the tragic event. Tomorrow the witness stage in the Corrie family’s suit will open at the Haifa District Court. Facing the family and friends will be representatives of the state who are demanding the suit be withdrawn. They claim Corrie was killed in “an act of war,” during the course of an armed conflict in a closed military zone. Therefore, even if it is proved there was use of excessive force as well as gross negligence – the state is totally exempt from liability. The defense is giving legal cover to the bulldozer operator and the soldiers who secured him, on the grounds it was a sovereign “act of state.” In other words: Corrie was responsible for her own death.

Apparently Israel takes responsibility for the deaths of foreign civilians only when threatened. For more than five years legal wrangling dragged on between the state and the family of British television filmmaker James Miller, who was shot and killed in Rafah. With respect to that incident too, which took place two months after Corrie was killed, the state hid behind the excuse of “an act of war.” In this case too questions arose as to the credibility of the Investigative Military Police report and the top political level in London urged the government of Israel to compensate the widow and the orphans. The case was closed (with the payment of more than 1 million pounds Sterling in compensation) after the British threatened to issue an official extradition request for the Israeli soldiers who shot the cameraman.

The American media have long ceased to follow American VIPs who come to give artificial respiration to “the peace process.” Perhaps the White House reporters who are accompanying Biden will evince interest in the Corrie case.