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For family of slain activist, no end in sight for case

7 November 2010 | Ethan Bronner, New York Times

Rachel’s family — her father, Craig, her mother, Cindy, and her sister, Sarah — has mostly been at the Haifa District Court, away from their Olympia, Wash., home, while fighting a civil case claiming the intentional and unlawful killing of their daughter.

HAIFA, Israel — Seven years after an American student, Rachel Corrie, was killed in Gaza by an Israeli military bulldozer she tried to block, becoming a global symbol of the Palestinian struggle, her parents and her older sister sit in an Israeli court in this northern city with two hopes: to confront the men who ran over her and to prove that the army investigation into her death was flawed.

On both counts, it has been a frustrating effort. To guard their identities, the bulldozer operators are called only by their initials and testify behind a screen, disembodied voices claiming vague memories. The Corrie lawyer presses them with props: “Mr. A,” he said to a commander this past Thursday, arranging a plastic toy bulldozer, an orange lump of putty and a Raggedy Ann doll, “Where was she when you saw her?”

Mr. A’s answer differed markedly from that of Mr. Y, the driver of the bulldozer who testified two weeks earlier, although both denied seeing her before she was crushed under their vehicle. The army said Ms. Corrie’s death was an accident. The Corries believe the drivers either saw Rachel or were so careless toward the protesters as to be criminally negligent.

On the blond wooden benches of the Haifa District Court, the Corries take notes, volunteer translators whispering in their ears. They have mostly been here, away from their Olympia, Wash., home, since their civil case claiming the intentional and unlawful killing of their daughter began in March and there is no end in sight, with sessions already planned for January. They are exhausted but unbent.

“If I killed someone, I would remember that day for the rest of my life,” Cindy Corrie, Ms. Corrie’s mother, said during a break, eyes tearing, voice shaking. “This is not just about Rachel, but something bigger. What happens to the humanity of soldiers?”

This is indeed about something bigger but just what has been debated since the instant of Ms. Corrie’s death. Books, plays, videos and even an aid ship to Gaza have been dedicated to her memory and spirit, her focus on human rights and the plight of the Palestinians. A student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Ms. Corrie, then 23, joined the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian activist group, in January 2003 and moved to Gaza to help prevent house demolitions in the southern border town of Rafah.

It was the height of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel, which at the time occupied Gaza. The Israelis say the houses in question were the source of sniper fire and arms-smuggling tunnels. Ms. Corrie, by contrast, wrote e-mails home saying that the families she met were gentle people whose houses had been shot at and whose children were harassed for no reason.

“The count of homes destroyed in Rafah since the beginning of this intifada is up around 600, by and large people with no connection to the resistance but who happen to live along the border,” she wrote in one e-mail on Feb. 27, 2003. “I think it is maybe official now that Rafah is the poorest place in the world.”

Rafah was never the poorest place in the world, but Ms. Corrie was writing as an incensed activist, not an economist. For many Israelis, however, the glorification of Ms. Corrie and her activism has amounted to an effort to portray Israel and its army as exceptionally brutal, part of a campaign to delegitimize the state and its security challenges.

The day that Ms. Corrie was killed, her fellow activists sent two photographs of her to news agencies that were then transmitted around the world. The first one showed her standing in an orange jacket with a bullhorn addressing an approaching bulldozer, and the second showed her crumpled on the ground, near death. The clear implication was that the two pictures were sequential, whereas the first was shot hours earlier with a different bulldozer.

The Israeli Army investigation found that the drivers of the bulldozer that killed her did not see Ms. Corrie because she was standing near a high mound of dirt as it approached. The drivers, it said, had limited lines of sight inside their heavily armored vehicle, and that by placing themselves in the bulldozer’s path as human shields, the eight activists bore primary responsibility.

But the Corries believe that the army carried out a lackluster investigation filled with internal contradictions and with insufficient care to what orders soldiers received when faced with civilians in their paths. That view, it turns out, was not only that of a grieving family. It won support from the United States government.

Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, wrote to the Corries in his official capacity in June 2004. He referred to their query whether the American government viewed the military’s final report “to have reflected an investigation that was ‘thorough, credible and transparent.’ I can answer your question without equivocation. No, we do not consider it so.”

Mr. Wilkerson recommended that the Corries pursue the matter in an Israeli court. An observer from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv has attended every session of the case.

Sarah Corrie Simpson, Ms. Corrie’s older sister, who is here with her mother and father, Craig, has taken a leading role in bringing attention to the case. Asked what she thought of how her sister was viewed, she said her family did not consider itself anti-Israel and was not responsible for the way in which Ms. Corrie’s name had been used by groups and causes.

To the contrary, she said, the family was using Israel’s court system to get its army to stand up to the standards it professes, a vote of confidence in the society.

“I don’t see this as about Israel’s legitimacy,” she said in an interview. “My family is not anti-Israel. What Rachel saw when she went to Gaza was extremely troubling and because of what happened to her we are now connected to the Palestinian issue. But Israeli peace activists shared her concern and are helping us with our case. From our family’s perspective, this is about human rights for all people and holding governments accountable.”

Cindy Corrie added, “An Israeli colonel said at this trial that there are no civilians in a war zone. But there are. If that hadn’t been the army’s attitude, maybe my daughter would still be with us.”