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Rachel Corrie's family takes case to court in Israel

Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to protect Palestinian homes. Her family has been met with hostility while pursuing a civil suit after calling the investigation a 'whitewash.'

March 30, 2010|By Edmund Sanders

Reporting from Haifa, Israel — The American parents sit stoically in a sky-lit courtroom, listening to testimony about how an Israeli military bulldozer crushed their daughter to death seven years ago.

They hear about the dangerous game of chicken played for several hours that winter afternoon in 2003, between bulldozers and international activists trying to protect Palestinian homes, before Rachel Corrie disappeared under a creeping mound of dirt.

Now her parents, calling an Israeli investigation that found no fault a "whitewash" and suspecting that the bulldozer driver deliberately ran over their daughter, are pursuing a civil lawsuit against the government. It opened this month in Haifa.

"We need to know what really happened," said Cindy Corrie, mother of the 23-year-old college student from Olympia, Wash.

But it's a cause that has been met in Israel with indifference or, more often, hostility.

When the Corries arrived for the trial opening, University of Haifa professor Steve Plaut called them a "two-person anti-Israel SWAT team." On his website, the right-wing commentator likened Rachel Corrie to a Nazi sympathizer and accused her parents of exploiting the "suicide death of their clueless daughter" to launch a "pogrom" against Israel.

One newspaper columnist called Rachel Corrie a "propaganda treasure." Most Israeli media have ignored the trial altogether.

On the streets outside the courtroom, there's little sympathy. People point to the many Israelis who also have died, from suicide attacks and rockets.

Foreign activists "live in a bubble," said Haifa student Yehuda Efraim, 26. "They romanticize reality. But they don't live in our reality."

Even in the U.S., pro-Israel activists sometimes picket the family's public appearances. Last summer, opponents lobbied unsuccessfully to cancel Cindy Corrie's participation in a panel at the San Francisco screening of the documentary "Rachel." A New York production of the play "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" was delayed because of protests.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who represents the Olympia area, said the family had been subjected to an ugly counter-campaign for pursuing their daughter's case. He and others say it's a pattern that's increasingly common.

"Any questioning of Israel is met with hostility, no matter who asks the questions -- a congressman, a journalist or even the president of the United States," said Baird, adding that his support of the Corrie family had cost him campaign donations.

Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, said much of the criticism in Israel is directed at the International Solidarity Movement, the pro-Palestinian protest group with which Rachel Corrie worked.

"It's more about ISM, not about her," he said. "The idea that they would send young activists into ground zero of a war zone is criminally reprehensible. But of course, no one is taking them to trial."

In fact, some of the Israeli hostility toward the case may reflect how Palestinians have embraced the young woman as a hero. They dedicated a street in her name. Her parents started a foundation to support Palestinian causes.

Baird compared her courage to that of the Tiananmen Square protester who faced down a Chinese tank in 1989.

Many thought Corrie's death would be settled out of court, given the close U.S.-Israeli relations and disturbing circumstances. But diplomatic efforts to resolve the case failed and Israel's government insists that it bears no responsibility. An internal military inquiry concluded that the driver did not see Corrie and that the young woman should never have put herself in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Corries accuse the Israeli government of stonewalling their case. The full military report, including video evidence, has never been publicly released, they say. This month, they learned that an Israeli autopsy doctor took tissue samples from Corrie's body without authorization and then lost track of them.

U.S. officials had to intervene when the Israeli government refused to allow key witnesses to enter the country to testify, officials said. Last week, the family learned that legal proceedings might be delayed until next year.

"Our family never wanted to file a lawsuit," said Sarah Corrie Simpson, Rachel's sister. "But we need some level of accountability taken by the Israeli government for what happened to Rachel."

Family members say Israel has never apologized. Shortly after the incident, an Israeli consul in the U.S. phoned the family and offered condolences, Cindy Corrie said. A few days later, he called to retract them, clarifying that he was speaking only personally.

For Cindy Corrie, the hardest part has been the vilification of her daughter by critics who often portray the woman as an anti-Semitic supporter of violence.

Simpson, who first learned about her sister's death from a television news ticker, said the family tries to take the verbal attacks in stride. "My sister being killed is the worst pain you could ever give to this family," she said. "Everything else that is said or done just pales in comparison."

edmund.sanders @latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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