By Cindy Corrie
Our family’s civil lawsuit in Israel in the case of our daughter Rachel opened March 10th with testimony from four international eyewitnesses, an autopsy doctor, an expert on heavy machinery, and a military police investigator. On March 24th, the trial recessed while the State identified military personnel to testify and the court broke for summer vacation. Proceedings resumed in Haifa District Court September 5th with five sessions spread over two months, the last being November 4th. Nine members of the Israeli military (including the driver and commander of the bulldozer that killed Rachel) testified for the Israeli Ministry of Defense. A Company Commander, Deputy Battalion Commander, and a Battalion Commander are among six to testify when the trial resumes. Because of an attorneys’ strike in the State Prosecutor’s Office, previously scheduled December court dates are now in question.
There are numerous revealing dimensions to this trial, but the spotlight on conduct of Israeli military investigations – both internal operational inquiries and those by military police – may be the most relevant to broader issues. Our attorney Hussein abu Hussein commented,
This civil trial is an important step to hold accountable not only those who failed to protect Rachel’s life but also the flawed system of military investigations which is neither impartial nor thorough.
Shalom Michaeli, lead investigator and head of the Israeli Military Police Special Investigations Unit, testified that he believed the Israeli army was “at war” with everyone in Gaza, including peace activists. An internal investigation of Michaeli’s investigating unit found that unprofessional conduct and negligence in investigation of the 2004 killing of a 13-year-old Gazan school girl was partly responsible for acquittal of the soldier charged. In a recent report, Void of Responsibility, the Israeli Human Rights organization B’tselem presents an indictment of Israeli military investigations:
B’Tselem protests the sweeping classification of the situation in the Occupied Territories as an ‘armed conflict,’ which effectively grants immunity to soldiers and officers, with the result that soldiers who kill Palestinians not taking part in hostilities are almost never held accountable for their misdeeds. By acting in this way, the army fails to meet its obligation to take all feasible measures to reduce injury to civilians, and its obligation prescribed by international law to investigate injuries to civilians.
Sworn testimony in Rachel’s case reveals that two out of three military police investigators were completing compulsory service and had three months or less of investigative training. While Michaeli stood by his 2003 investigation, he testified that he did not go to the site of the killing, that he failed to order a full transcript of radio transmissions from the event and considered them unimportant, and that he never interviewed Palestinian witnesses – including medical personnel who first examined Rachel. Michaeli did only an external inspection of the D9 bulldozer, strictly to see if there was blood or other indication that the bulldozer hit Rachel. He found no blood but testifed that the bulldozer could have been washed or “even painted” before he inspected it the day after the incident. Though Michaeli knew a video camera recorded the area round the clock, he failed to secure videotape from March 16th until a week later and testified that it had been taken by senior commanders. When questioned about failure to interrogate the camera operator, who panned away from the scene minutes before Rachel was killed, he said he did not think this relevant. Asked whether he questioned bulldozer crews about a military manual that states bulldozers are not to be operated near people, Michaeli said the manuals were not relevant.
All three investigators confirmed that on March 17, 2003, testimonies by the driver and commander of the bulldozer were interrupted by officers who stated that Doron Almog, head of the IDF Southern Command, instructed the soldiers to stop talking, not to sign anything, and not to cooperate with the investigation.
Questions remain about unresolved conflicting testimony taken from soldiers in 2003, the problematic interface of a strictly internal operational investigation with the military police investigation, and how information from these inquiries was used and seemingly manipulated to appease U.S. officials. The position of the U.S. Government remains that there has not been a “thorough, credible, and transparent”
Israeli investigation into Rachel ‘s killing, as was promised to President Bush by Prime Minister Sharon and was pursued by officials at the highest levels of the U.S. Government.
Our family continues to be shocked by the failure of military police investigators to look for evidence, to secure evidence, to resolve conflicting evidence, and to turn evidence over to the Israeli court. We are struck at how efforts of the investigating team and of those enlisted to support them were aimed at exonerating the military rather than impartially determining what happened on March 16, 2003. This is not what we and the U.S. government were promised by the Israeli government when Rachel was killed, and it is not what we accept now.
Representatives from the American Embassy-Tel Aviv have been in court each day and reportedly provide detailed accounts to Embassy and Department of State officials. Representatives of human rights and legal organizations (Al Haq, Adalah, Arab Association for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights, and National Lawyers Guild) have observed trial proceedings. Our family members attend all sessions. Bi-lingual volunteers translate the Hebrew proceedings for us and other English-speaking observers.
As challenging as the process is for our family, these are necessary and significant steps to take for Rachel and for others. The experience would be more difficult without the encouragement and both physical and emotional support we receive from a diverse group of friends.