For those who hoped for a just verdict on the death of Rachel Corrie, the American college student and ISM activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003 as she was defending a Palestinian home about to be demolished, last Tuesday was a sad day. Not surprising in any way, but still a sad and bitter day. The judge before whom the case was heard, Oded Gershon, absolved the army of all blame despite massive and internally contradictory testimony to the contrary, and essentially blamed Rachel for her own death, commenting that a “normal person” would have run away from the bulldozer rather than confronting it.
As both Palestinian and Israeli human rights activists know, justice cannot be obtained through the Israeli judicial system. The Haifa District Court, in which the trial was held, could not have ruled other than how the state wanted. This is because, for the past 45 years of Israeli occupation and oppression, the Supreme Court has excluded all reference to international humanitarian law, and to the Fourth Geneva Convention in particular, which protects civilians living in conflict situations and under occupation, from its rulings. Only Israeli law applies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, i.e. military law and orders, and the Court has restricted even that by declaring that in instances of “security” it defers to the military. This, as in Rachel’s case, the IDF has carte blanche to commit war crimes with impunity, with no fear of accountability or punishment.
Sending IDF American-made Caterpillar bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes in Gaza or anywhere in the Occupied Territories is a war crime, especially since, in the case of the Nasrallah family home that Rachel was protecting, the army itself admits they were merely innocent civilians who should have been protected rather than attacked. To what degree Israel ignores, violates and distorts international law is particularly evident in the testimony of Pinhas “Pinky” Zuaretz, the Brigade Commander who supervised the illegal “clearing” of Palestinian homes from that area of Gaza. “There are no civilians in military conflicts,” he testified, directly contradicting one of the most fundamental principles of international law, the duty to protect non-combatants.
When justice and law become separated as they have in Israel, the law is demeaned and becomes merely another tool of oppression. As a human rights defender, a status articulated and defended by the UN, Rachel Corrie had every right – even a responsibility – to intervene when universal human rights are being violated. It is incumbent on governments, courts and concerned individuals alike to ensure that human rights are enforced, especially when those being oppressed have no power to defend themselves. The attempt of this Israeli court to present Rachel’s death as the consequence of the irresponsible actions of a person who should not have been defending Palestinian human rights in the first place denies both the culpability of a state engaged in illegal activities and the duty of citizens to work for universal justice.
While we all would have hoped that Rachel and her family could have received justice from the Israeli legal system – something denied as well to the other human rights defenders, including Israelis, who have been killed and injured in their battle against the Israeli Occupation – the issue at stake is even larger: holding Israel accountable for its actions. By eliminating any reference to international law, the Israeli judiciary, from the local courts up to the Supreme Court, has constructed a legal system in which justice is impossible to obtain.
Universal jurisdiction requires that state courts enforce the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention, but they and their governments refrain from doing that. The International Criminal Court is yet another appropriate venue for trying Israeli military officials and their civilian superiors. That is where the Defense Minister at the time of Rachel’s death, Shaul Mofaz; the Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon (now Israel’s Deputy Premier); the Commander over Gaza, Doron Almog, “Pinky” and the driver of the bulldozer should end up. But since Israel (like the U.S. and China) is not a signatory to the ICC, that will not happen.
Until such a time that international law, human rights and justice are genuinely incorporated into national legal systems, in Israel and internationally, the rights and lives of all of us, “normative” citizens as well as the oppressed, are in jeopardy. This is what Rachel and her family have shown us so clearly. This is their genuine contribution, even if justice has been denied them. It is up to all of us to join with the Corries to carry on Rachel’s struggle for a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis – and for a world based on human rights and international law.