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December 2010, Pages 11-12
The Corrie Trial in Israel: Seeking Answers And Accountability
By Katherine Gallagher
Transparent. Credible. Thorough. These were the words used by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2003 when setting forth the terms under which the investigation into the killing of Rachel Corrie would be conducted to George W. Bush, one day after Rachel was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer. Both the scene at the courtroom in Haifa, where the Corrie family's civil case is proceeding against the state of Israel, and the testimony of the bulldozer driver who killed Rachel, expose the hollowness of those words.
Transparent? First, the scene at the courthouse. I arrived early with the Corrie family and their legal team. When we got to the courtroom, there was already a crowd gathered outside. Entering the courtroom, I was struck first by the small size of the room assigned to a case that has received significant international attention: there were only two rows that could each comfortably fit about 14 people.
Nearly half the seats were already taken by young members of the Israeli military, in uniform, and people we heard were from the Israeli Ministry of Defense. We quickly secured seats for the family and their translators, a team made up largely of dedicated volunteers as the proceedings are conducted in Hebrew and no translation is provided by the court. I was lucky to be in the courtroom, squeezed in between a journalist and shared translator. Many of the journalists, human rights observers and members of the public who had come to attend the proceedings were denied entry into the courtroom.
The one break in the four-and-a-half hour testimony of the bulldozer driver led to a chaotic scene with people trying to get into the courtroom and Israeli security officers pushing the lines of people back, as they decided who could come into the courtroom and who would be left in the hall. Sarah Corrie Simpson, Rachel's sister, had to intervene to secure entry for the family's translators.
Everyone asked the same question: why hasn't a bigger courtroom been provided for this case—or at least for the testimony that the court knew many people would come to hear? When members of the press, human rights observers and the general public cannot watch the proceedings, it is hard to describe the process as transparent.
Next, the makeshift screen. Two mismatched screens that looked like they had been borrowed from the dressing room of a clothes store and a hospital room were secured together on the right side of the courtroom. Following a court order granting the request of the State of Israel for protective measures, the bulldozer driver would testify from behind to hide his identity from the court's visitors—including the Corrie family. An Israeli journalist who regularly covers court proceedings involving the military remarked that she had never seen anyone testify under such measures.
Because of the screen, the lawyers' and the judge's gaze and attention was focused on a part of the courtroom that only they could see. We, in the audience, felt very much "outside" of the proceedings, privy to only half of the story.
These extraordinary protective measures granted to the witness known only as "Y.F." denied the public the opportunity to assess the credibility of the witness as he testified to what happened on March 16, 2003, the day Rachel was killed. It also denied the Corrie family the opportunity to see the bulldozer driver's facial expressions and body language as he testified, allowing them only to hear a muffled voice speaking words that they heard through a translator. Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother, said that one of the saddest aspects of the day was the words that she heard expressed no sign of remorse.
Credible? Y.F.'s testimony was often confused and at points lacked credibility. A 38-year-old who immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1995 and said he learned Hebrew on his own after he arrived, Y.F. appeared to have difficulty with Hebrew and struggled to read the affidavit he signed less than six months ago. He also said he could not remember basic facts, such as the date of Rachel's killing or time of day it happened.
At times during the lengthy cross-examination by the Corries' lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, Y.F. contradicted his own testimony, contradicted statements he had made to the military police in 2003, contradicted his signed affidavit and contradicted testimony given by other witnesses called by Israel.
Notably, however, Y.F. confirmed on multiple occasions that Rachel's body was between his bulldozer and a mound of dirt—and not hidden behind the mound of dirt. This testimony corroborates testimony about the location of Rachel's body after she was killed given by four international witnesses in March, and it is also consistent with photographic evidence.
Thorough? What struck me was how often Y.F. said "I wasn't asked that" when asked by Abu Hussein why an important piece of the information he testified to was not in any of the former statements he gave or the affidavit he signed. Many questions—key questions, it seemed—were not asked of Y.F. by the military police investigators charged with conducting a "thorough" investigation.
I appreciate having had the opportunity to witness the often chaotic rhythm of the proceedings and the way in which they unfolded: the detail pressed for in the cross-examinations and the answers given, the demeanor of the judge and manner in which he conducted the proceedings, the lawyering styles of the attorneys representing Israel. But my experience at the Haifa District Court was ultimately a very frustrating one. I left the courtroom convinced that the military investigation that led to the swift conclusion that Rachel's death was an accident for which no one should be held accountable was anything but "thorough, credible and transparent." I also left the courthouse deeply skeptical about the prospects for meaningful accountability anytime soon. And this is of great concern in light of the many civilian deaths in the occupied Palestinian territories and other violations of international law that have so far been met with impunity, rather than accountability.
The Corrie case is scheduled to continue on Nov. 4. In the stop-start of a case that has lasted five and a half years, and has had testimony heard over the course of seven months (though only 11 actual court dates), the Corries will remain in Israel through at least the next court date currently scheduled after that—Nov. 15. The court will decide on Nov. 4 whether it will hear the final days of testimony in close succession, thereby minimizing the emotional and financial costs incurred by the Corrie family by the drawn-out schedule.
Katherine Gallagher, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), was in Haifa to observe proceedings in the civil case filed by the family of Rachel Corrie against the State of Israel. She also was part of the legal team in Corrie v. Caterpillar, in which CCR represented Corrie’s parents and Palestinian families. For more information on the on-going trial in Israel, visit <http://rachelcorriefoundation.org/trial>.