By Rabbi Brian Walt, reprinted from his blog with permission.
On Tuesday this week, exactly seven years ago, Rachel Corrie, an ideallistic young woman and human rights activist from Olympia, Washington, was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to protect the home of Dr. Nasrallah, a pharmacist, and his family in Rafah, Gaza, from demolition. Yesterday, I spent the morning in a small courtroom in the District Court in Haifa, sitting next to the Corrie family, Cindy and Craig, Rachel’s parents, and her sister, Susan, in the hearing of their civil suit against the State of Israel. First, we listened to the cross-examination by the State’s lawyers of one of Rachel’s fellow activists, who was with her on that day. Following this, Husein Abu Husein, the Corrie’s lawyer, cross-examined Elad (a pseudonym to protect his identity), an Israeli man, one of the three people who conducted the Israeli military investigation into Rachel’s death. What emerged from this cross-examination was shocking. It was a window into the whole process of Israeli military investigations which has been so fiercely debated over the past year in response to the Goldstone report.
Elad, currently a student at Bar Ilan University, was assigned to the military investigation unit during his regular army service and as a result he was asssigned to the military investigation into Rachel’s death. He described his training as an investigator as a one or two month course followed by a one to two-week “advanced course” in investigations. His experience included some 30-40 investigations.
Elad hadn’t prepared for his testimony, he had not read the file of the investigation and repeatedly said he didn’t remember. His lack of preparation indicated the lack of importance he ascribed to his appearance in court and to the proceedings.
Husein abu Husein, the Corrie’s lawyer, started with the issue of the autopsy. Elad initially signed the request of the military to a court for an autopsy as he had heard that the family had objected to the autopsy. After establishing that he had no documentation to prove that the family had objected to the autopsy, the lawyer produced a fax from the Corries sent a day or two after her death indicating that they would agree to an autopsy on condition that it was performed by a civilian doctor and that a representative of the American embassy was present. A representative of the American embassy was not present. He pressed Elad as to why he hadn’t ensured the order of the court was fulfilled.
I felt a lot of sadness and anger sitting there next to Rachel’s parents as we hear that their wishes in regard to their daughter’s body were violated. Their daughter’s body and the investigation of her death were being manipulated by the Israeli military that had every reason to hide or even distort the findings. Cindy told me that it was only recently that she found out that an American representative was not present at the autopsy. Despite the fact that the Corrie’s request for the presence of a representative of the American government were included as part of the court order, not only didn’t the military make sure that these conditions were fulfilled, the court didn’t either. The court order specified that a copy of the autopsy report was to be sent to the court and this condition was also violated. In testimony last week the doctor who performed the autopsy, testified that he didn’t agree to the presence of a representative of the American embassy and he also for the first time revealed that he had kept samples of her body, a fact never shared with the Corries. The samples have since been discarded.
The lawyer then proceeded to other issues relating to the investigation all of which pointed to an investigation that lacks any credibility. The lawyer asked Elad if he thought as an investigator it was important to visit the site where the death occurred Elad if he had done so in this case. He said he hadn’t and he didn’t think that other two investigators did either. When pressed as to why they didn’t visit the site, Elad retreated to the cover of “security” to which the lawyer asked whether they could not have gone in an armoured military vehicle.
This type of questioning about obvious steps an investigator would take that were not done continued for the rest of the hearing. Some of the questions asked were:
Why the bulldozer and the military vehicles that were on the site were moved.
Why he never sat in the bulldozer to examine the sight lines.
Why despite the fact that the bulldozer regulations state that D9’s (the type of bulldozer) should not be operated in the proximity of civilians, he failed to question the bulldozer driver about these regulations or make them part of the military police investigation file.
The judge got angry with the lawyer for pressing Elad for reasons as to why he hadn’t taken on various tasks as a military investigator. Elad was a soldier in regular army service who worked in the military investigations unit. He was not in charge and didn’t make the decisions. He restricted the lawyer only to ask questions about documents Elad himself wrote or signed like the request for an autopsy. What the judge didn’t take into account is that the Husein Abu Husein is at a huge disadvantage as the State has seen everything related to the event knows all the parties and the military response. Husein doesn’t know the parties and only has access to a small portion of the documentation. This was one opportunity he had to question someone involved in the investigation and I thought he did a superb job. Moreover why did the army assign just a regular soldier with very limited training as an investigator to such an important case involving the death of a human being? How much authority is given to soldiers in regular service in military investigations? And, why shouldn’t the lawyer question Elad seeing that it is the prosecution that brought him as a witness?
There was a lot of tension in the room. Here was a Palestinian Israeli lawyer cross-examining an Israeli soldier, demonstrating the lack of seriousness of the military investigation for which he along with two others, was responsible. And this clash was being played out in front of a group of “zarim” foreigners, including the parents of the person whose death was being discussed. In this little courtroom we were watching the enactment of the complex relationships between Americans and Israel, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and people of other faiths.
The lawyer continued to produce more evidence that the investigation was not credible. After getting Elad to affirm that military investigations are independent and should not be subject to outside influence he produced a document that was in the file of talking points that they should use in the controversy about Rachel’s death. There was a note on the top of the page to the military investigation unit telling them that this was a very sensitive issue, so sensitive that the President of the United States had raised it with the Israeli Prime Minister! The note urged them to review the document carefully and to be careful in this matter.
I left the courtroom after the most effective lesson I could imagine on military investigations. All the problems one would imagine could be part of a military investigation of an incident in which it is involved were so obvious in that courtroom. When the military investigates itself – in any country – it has a vested interest in the outcome and the investigation will always be suspect. In this case it had overwhelming interest in making sure the outcome didn’t point to any responsibility on the part of the I.D.F. Rachel was an American young person who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she was trying to protect the human rights of a family. Her death could have an impact on relations between America and Israel and could affect the way Americans see Israel. This is the reason there was a hasbara document in the file.
It has taken the Corrie family seven years to get into a courtroom where hopefully some of the truths about their daughter’s death can be uncovered. I admire their profound commitment to their daughter, to the values she upheld, and to pursuing the truth about her death. One could argue that there are more pressing current issues but at the heart of this hearing is the critical issue of accountability. Jewish tradition teaches that every human life is of infinite value demands accountability for every life. Israel has refused to be held accountable in this instance, as it has in many other egregious violations of human life, including the deaths of other foreigners and of many Palestinians. Yesterday’s hearing was a powerful lesson that there must be independent non-military investigation into such violations. I wish those who have argued so vociferously over the past year that there is no need for an independent public investigation into what happened during Operation Cast Lead had been there yesterday. We will not know the truth and there will be no accountability until there is an impartial credible investigation into Rachel Corrie’s death and all other allegations about human rights violations and deaths caused by the I.D.F.
The Corries will be meeting with the American ambassador tonight. Following this meeting, they will be participating in a conference call sponsored by Jewish fast for Gaza. I invite you to join us. If you are unable to join us, check our website next week for an audio recording of the call.
May the memory of Rachel Corrie, a principled and ideallistic young woman inspire us always to pursue justice, human rights and peace. May her memory be a blessing.