Rory McCarthy, The Guardian
Richard Purssell describes ‘shocking event’ in Haifa court on first day of civil suit brought by Corrie family against Israel
A British witness told a court today about how he had watched an Israeli military bulldozer run over and kill the American activist Rachel Corrie while she was trying to stop Palestinians’ homes being demolished in Gaza.
Richard Purssell, who was also a volunteer activist in Rafah at the time, seven years ago, described the “shocking and dramatic event” in an Israeli court in Haifa on the first day of a civil suit brought by Corrie’s family against the Israeli state.
Twenty-three-year-old Corrie, from Olympia, Washington, in the US, went to Gaza for peace activism reasons at a time when there was intense conflict between the Israeli military and the Palestinians.
The Corrie family lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, said he would argue that her death was due either to gross negligence by the Israeli military or that it was intended. If the Israeli state were found responsible, the family would press for damages.
Purssell, a Briton, now working as a landscape gardener, said he volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to witness events in the occupied Palestinian territories for himself. In Rafah he had been hoping to prevent the Israeli military from demolishing Palestinian homes. The organisation was strictly non violent, he said. “Our role was to support Palestinian non-violent resistance.”
On the day of her death, 16 March 2003, Corrie was with seven other activists, including Purssell, in Rafah, close to the Israeli-guarded border with Egypt. They saw an Israeli military armoured Caterpillar D9 bulldozer approaching the house of a Palestinian doctor.
Purssell described how the bulldozer approached at a fast walking pace, its blade down and gathering a pile of soil in its path. When the bulldozer was 20 metres from the house Corrie, who like the others was wearing an orange fluorescent jacket, climbed on to the soil in front of it and stood “looking into the cab of the bulldozer”.
“The bulldozer continued to move forward,” Purssell said. “Rachel turned to come back down the slope. The earth is still moving and as she nears the bottom of the pile something happened which causes her to fall forward. The bulldozer continued to move forward and Rachel disappeared from view under the moving earth.”
The bulldozer continued forward four metres as the activists began to run forward and shout at the driver.
“It passed the point where Rachel fell, it stopped and reversed back along the track it first made. Rachel was lying on the earth,” Purssell said. “She was still breathing.” Corrie was severely injured and died shortly afterwards.
The Israeli military says it bears no responsibility for Corrie’s death. A month after her death the military said an investigation had determined its troops were not to blame; the driver of the bulldozer had not seen her and had not intentionally run her over. It accused Corrie and the ISM of behaviour that was “illegal, irresponsible and dangerous”.
Hussein will argue at the Haifa district court that witness evidence shows that the soldiers did see Corrie at the scene, with other activists well before the incident, and that they could have arrested her or removed her from the area before there was any risk of injury.
Before the hearing began, Craig Corrie, Rachel’s father, said the family had been on a “seven-year search for justice in Rachel’s name”. He added: “I think when the truth comes out about Rachel the truth will not wound Israel, the truth is the start of making us heal.”
Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother, said the family was still waiting for the credible, transparent investigation Israel first promised regarding her daughter’s death. “I just want to say to Rachel that our family is here today trying to just do right by her and I hope that she will be very proud of the effort we are making,” she said. She said the family had met the staff of US vice-president Joe Biden on Tuesday to talk about the case.
Three other witnesses, two more Britons and an American, who were all at the scene in Rafah when Corrie was killed will give evidence at the Israeli court. It is not clear if any Israeli military officials will speak.
The hearing is scheduled to run for at least two weeks.