Rachel Corrie lawsuit result ‘dangerous precedent’ say human rights groups

The Guardian reports: Human rights organisations have warned of a “dangerous precedent” following an Israeli court’s dismissal of a civil lawsuit over the death of US activist Rachel Corrie, which stated that Israel could not be held responsible because its army was engaged in a combat operation.

Corrie “was accidentally killed in the framework of a ‘war-related activity’ … [and] the state bears no responsibility for the damages inflicted on the plaintiffs resulting from a war-related action,” said Judge Oded Gershon at Haifa district court.

The 23-year-old activist was crushed by a military bulldozer which she believed was intent on demolishing a Palestinian home in Rafah, southern Gaza, in March 2003. Gershon ruled that it was a “regrettable accident” that Corrie had brought upon herself. There had been no fault in the internal Israeli military investigation, which cleared the bulldozer driver of any blame, the court found. “The deceased was in a blind spot – the operator didn’t see her,” said Gershon.

Corrie had “put herself in a dangerous situation” and could have saved herself by moving out of the zone of danger, he said. The area was “the site of daily warfare” and a closed military zone, and the US government had warned its citizens not to go there.

Hussein Abu Hussein, the Corrie family’s lawyer, said the ruling sent “a very dangerous message and precedent that there are no restrictions on Israeli military behaviour in Gaza and the West Bank”. The ruling would “close the doors of justice to civilian victims”, including foreigners, and “expand a legal black hole” in which Israel seeks to evade responsibility for its actions.

The verdict, he said, was “yet another example of where impunity has prevailed over accountability and fairness. We knew from the beginning that we had an uphill battle to get truthful answers and justice, but we are convinced that this verdict distorts the strong evidence presented in court, and contradicts fundamental principles of international law with regard to protection of human rights defenders. In denying justice in Rachel Corrie’s killing, this verdict speaks to the systemic failure to hold the Israeli military accountable for continuing violations of basic human rights.”

Human Rights Watch said the ruling contravened international law, which is intended to protect non-combatants in war zones, and set “a dangerous precedent”. “The idea that there can be no fault for killing civilians in a combat operation flatly contradicts Israel’s international legal obligations to spare civilians from harm during armed conflict and to credibly investigate and punish violations by its forces,” said Bill van Esveld, a senior Middle East researcher at HRW.

Shawan Jabarin, director of the Palestinian human rights organisation, Al Haq, said: “Israel has claimed that it is not responsible for the death of a civilian in armed conflict. However, this flatly ignores international law, which stipulates that Israel is under an obligation to take all measures to ensure that no civilians will be harmed during hostilities, and must at all times distinguish between military targets and civilians.

“The presence of a civilian in a combat zone does in any way not affect their right to protection. Instead, their protected status applies regardless of their location in a conflict, and international law clearly states that they must be protected against acts of violence in all circumstances.”

Amnesty International: Amnesty International condemns an Israeli court’s verdict that the government of Israel bears no responsibility in the death of Rachel Corrie, saying the verdict continues the pattern of impunity for Israeli military violations against civilians and human rights defenders in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The verdict shields Israeli military personnel from accountability and ignores deep flaws in the Israeli military’s internal investigation of Corrie’s death.

“Rachel Corrie was a peaceful American protestor who was killed while attempting to protect a Palestinian home from the crushing force of an Israeli military bulldozer,” said Sanjeev Bery, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International USA.

“More than nine years after Corrie’s death, the Israeli authorities still have not delivered on promises to conduct a ‘thorough, credible and transparent’ investigation. Instead, an Israeli court has upheld the flawed military investigation and issued a verdict that once again shields the Israeli military from any accountability,” Bery said.

The verdict, issued by Judge Oded Gershon in the Haifa District Court, maintains that the Israeli military is not responsible for ‘damages caused’ because the D9 Caterpillar bulldozer was engaged in a combat operation in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 16, 2003.

International humanitarian law prohibits the destruction of property unless required by imperative military necessity, and requires that in any military operation, constant care is taken to protect civilians.

“Rachel Corrie was clearly identifiable as a civilian, as she was wearing a fluorescent orange vest when she was killed,” said Bery. “She and other non-violent activists had been peacefully demonstrating against the demolitions for hours when the Israeli military bulldozer ran over her.”

By upholding the flawed Israeli military investigation, completed within one month of Rachel Corrie’s death in 2003, the verdict seems to have ignored substantial evidence presented to the court, including by eyewitnesses. The full military investigation has never been made public, but US government officials have stated that they do not believe the investigation was ‘thorough, credible and transparent.’

Amnesty International has made similar criticisms of Israel’s system of military investigations for many years. For example, the organization has monitored the investigations carried out by IDF commanders and the Israeli military police into violations during Operation ‘Cast Lead’, launched by Israeli forces on December 27, 2008, in which hundreds of unarmed civilians in the Gaza Strip were killed.

Israel’s military investigations have lacked independence, impartiality, transparency, appropriate expertise and sufficient investigatory powers. The failure of both Israel and the Hamas de facto administration to conduct credible investigations into violations committed during the conflict led Amnesty International to call for the Gaza situation to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Palestinian civilians from the OPT are killed or injured by the Israeli military all too frequently, but they face significant barriers in accessing Israeli civil courts, which means that Israeli civil courts rarely examine the killings of civilians in the OPT, particularly those in Gaza. Steep court fees required of claimants before the case can begin are beyond the means of most Palestinians. As part of Israel’s continuing closure of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli authorities deny Palestinian victims or witnesses from Gaza permission to enter Israel to testify in court, lawyers from Gaza cannot represent clients before Israeli courts, and Israeli lawyers cannot enter Gaza to meet with clients.

Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned Israel’s policy of demolishing homes and other structures in the OPT, but demolitions are still routine in the occupied West Bank. Over 600 structures were demolished in 2011, resulting in the forcible eviction of almost 1,100 people. In the first seven months of 2012, the Israeli military demolished 327 structures in the West Bank, displacing 575 people, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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