Rachel Corrie: Blaming the victim

This article originally appeared in Haaretz on 9/2/2012.  It can be viewed here.

-Hussein Abu Hussein

On Tuesday, Judge Oded Gershon of the Haifa District Court dismissed the civil lawsuit I brought on behalf of Rachel Corrie’s family against the State of Israel for the unlawful killing of their daughter, an American peace activist and human rights defender who legally entered Gaza to live with Palestinian families in Rafah whose homes were threatened by demolition.

While not surprising, the verdict is yet another example of impunity prevailing over accountability and fairness and it flies in the face of the fundamental principle of international humanitarian law – that in a time of war, military forces are obligated to take all measures to avoid harm to both civilians and their property.

It is not the first time courts have denied victims of Israeli military actions the right to effective remedy. Just ask the many Palestinians who have faced a myriad of legal hurdles and fought for decades simply to have their day in court. Thousands of legitimate claims continue to be denied based on the controversial legal theory – which Judge Gershon adopted – that soldiers should be absolved of civil liability because they were engaged in military operational activities in a war zone.

Rachel’s case is unique because she was the first foreign national to be killed while protesting Israeli occupation, though she was hardly the last. Tom Hurndall, a British peace activist, was shot in the head and killed by an Israeli sniper less than three weeks after Rachel was killed. And less than a month after that, James Miller, a British cameraman was also shot and killed by the IDF in Rafah.

In reaching his decision in Rachel’s case, Judge Gershon accepted virtually all of the government’s legal arguments and either ignored or distorted critical facts in order to reach his decision. For example, he concluded that Rafah was a closed military zone, as declared by the Israeli military’s southern command (never mind that no such order was presented in court, and the ground unit commander testified he was unaware of the area’s designation as a closed zone). And that conclusion had implications.

When the former Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade Commander Colonel Pinhas (Pinky) Zuaretz, who was in charge in 2003, testified, he confirmed that the rules of engagement at the time Rachel was killed were to “shoot to kill any adult person on the [Philadelphi] route.” As another Israeli colonel who testified put it: “There are no civilians in a war zone.” By accepting the testimony of Zuaretz and others, Judge Gershon essentially accepted that the “shoot to kill” order was acceptable, which violates the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law, mandating that soldiers distinguish between combatants and civilians.

We knew from the beginning that it would be an uphill battle to find truth and justice, but we are convinced that this verdict not only distorts the strong evidence presented in court, but also contradicts fundamental principles of international law with regard to protection of human rights defenders. In denying justice in Rachel Corrie’s killing, this verdict is part of a systemic failure to hold the Israeli military accountable for continuing violations of basic human rights. As former U.S. President Jimmy Carter put it: “The court’s decision confirms a climate of impunity, which facilitates Israeli human rights violations against Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territory.”

The Corrie family has always stressed that the purpose of this lawsuit was larger than compensation for their loss. For them, it was about understanding exactly what happened to Rachel and exposing the injustices their daughter and her friends in the International Solidarity Movement stood against. They filed suit on advice of Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who, on behalf of the State Department, told the family in 2004 that the United States did not consider the investigation into Rachel’s death to be “thorough, credible and transparent.”

The U.S. government has repeatedly reiterated its position regarding the failed investigation, and after nearly seven years of mounting evidence since the case was initially filed, it has become even clearer that the military conducted its investigation not to uncover the truth of what happened, but rather, to exonerate itself of any blame.

In his decision, Judge Gershon concluded that because Rachel put herself in harm’s way, she is to be blamed for her own death. That conclusion puts at serious risk the lives of human rights defenders and it creates yet another dangerous precedent regarding the protection of civilians in war. Not surprisingly, the court avoided any analysis of international law obligations.

The verdict ensures that the Israeli culture of impunity will continue unchecked. Rachel Corrie lost her life standing non-violently with those who have been subject to Israel’s systematic policy of destruction and demonization. Like the Freedom Riders in the United States who, during the civil rights movement, joined oppressed black communities in their struggle for equality, Rachel and her friends in the ISM presented a new challenge and model of non-violent activism, solidarity and resistance to the longest military occupation in modern history.

In a country in which the judicial system has enabled the occupation for almost 50 years, I suppose it’s not surprising that the judicial system blamed the victim for her own death.

Hussein Abu Hussein is a human rights lawyer and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. He represented the Corrie family in their case against the Israeli government and the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Rachel Corrie trial verdict a failed attempt to criminalize solidarity

This article was posted originally on Electronic Intifada on 8/31/2012.  It can be viewed here.

This week the Haifa District Court rejected the Corrie family’s appeal to the state of Israel for its responsibility in the death of their daughter, Rachel. Rachel was killed in 2003 by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Rafah area of the Gaza Strip. International and local media have covered the ruling extensively; their focus has brought back to the surface issues of human rights violations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

From a human rights perspective, this verdict highlights three major issues. These are not restricted to the specific case of Rachel Corrie, but also display the low status that international law and principles of human rights have in the Israeli political and legal institutions.

The first issue is the attempt to undermine the group Rachel belonged to. Judge Oded Gershon opened his verdict with an attack on the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), of which Rachel Corrie was a member. Members of the ISM travel to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where they attempt to prevent human rights violations using their physical presence. The ISM ethos dictates that a civilian and nonviolent presence will, first of all, provide an eyewitness, and second, that the physical presence of their members will prevent the violation from occurring in the first place.

Yet the verdict states: “The ISM provided physical, logistical and moral support to the Palestinians, including the terrorists and their families.” It adds: “This movement manipulates human rights and moral standards to cover their violent actions.” By condemning the ISM in this manner, the Israeli legal system joins the wider political effort to demonize this international, peaceful presence. This effort is part of broader campaign which validates and legitimizes the attacks on, and even the killings of activists and journalists (such as Tom Hurndall and James Miller) who are seen by this verdict as “members of a terrorist organization” or “supporting terrorists.”

Israeli courts undermine international law

The second issue was major holes in the verdict. Firstly, it makes absolutely no reference to international law, human rights conventions, or universal values. This absence is not an accident, neither is it a result of Gershon’s personal views. Rather, it is a manifestation of the political, military and legal culture that dominates all Israeli institutions. The prevailing majority belief is that international law does not apply to Israel and its activities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The verdict shows that universal values do not constitute a credible reference as far as the Israeli legal system is concerned.

Also absent in the verdict is any sympathy towards the Corrie family, who had dutifully attended every hearing of the case and deserved human and moral consideration for the loss of their daughter. The verdict essentially says to the family bluntly that their daughter was a part of an organization that “supports terrorists” and that by entering a “military area” she took full responsibility for her own death.

The third issue brought up by the verdict is a re-emphasis of a decades-old attitude that has prevailed in the Israeli courts. The courts enforce no accountability on the army and they maintain impunity for Israel’s security and military infrastructure. The army operates without fear of consequence for their crimes and human rights violations. The verdict not only provides legal legitimization for the actions under review, but also a sense of understanding for the conspicuous efforts undertaken to destroy evidence relating to the case.

Evidence that “simply do[es] not exist anymore”

There were audio cassettes recorded during the autopsy, but Judge Gershon accepted the state explanation which claimed that “The tapes simply do not exist anymore because of financial problems at the Institute of Forensic Medicine.” The fact that evidence from this important trial could be lost to simple malpractice calls into question the priorities of the institute. All tapes that contain critical information for ongoing legal proceedings should be exempt from the apparently strict recycling policies.

But the verdict has failed to accomplish the goals of its underlying motive — the attempt to criminalize the ISM failed to prevent expressions of international solidarity. In fact, solidarity grew despite the killing. Also, in failing to perform its sole function of providing justice, the Israeli legal system has created the necessity for appeals to international forums where there is no statute of limitation on war crimes.

To the Corrie family we say: your nine-year struggle to follow the case has been an inspiration to the Palestinians and people around the world striving for justice and defending human rights. The efforts to silence your voices and deny you justice will only galvanize your supporters, inspiring greater efforts to the cause your daughter stood and died for.

Mohammad Zeidan is the General Director of the Arab Association for Human Rights.