I spent much of yesterday in the Haifa District Court, observing the first hearing of the Rachel Corrie trial. The Corrie family is serving a civil lawsuit against the State of Israel and the Israel Defence Forces over Rachel’s death; as you recall, the internal military procedure and criminal investigation by the military police came to naught. Although the lawsuit will not result in the incarceration of the soldier who drove the D9 bulldozer over Rachel, it might win the family damages – and, much more importantly, it may bring belated justice to Rachel by having an Israeli court acknowledge the Israeli army was responsible for her death.
The news reports of the first hearing can be read in Haaretz (Fadi Eyadat) and the Independent (Donald Macintyre). Rory McCarthy‘s piece in the Guardian also has a brief video report. What I’ll try to do in the next few lines is assess the players in the lawsuit and give what view I had from the audience benches on how the first day of the fight played out.
The plaintiff’s witness statements were submitted by affidavits, so the hearing began with and was mostly spent on cross-examiniation by the State. Two eyewitnesses were cross-examined over 6 hours: Richard Purssell, then ISM activist and today a landscape gardener; and artist Tom Dale, who was also active with ISM at the time. The State was represented by two attorneys: A very young attorney Nir Gancharsky, who cross-examined Purssell, and veteran attorney Irit Calman, whose role was mostly to put sticks in the plaintiffs’ wheels and who cross-examined Dale. The judge presiding was the tough, sharp, leave-your-BS-at the door Oded Gershon. My impression he was very polite and even warm to the witnesses, but gave one hell of a time to the lawyers.
Gancharsky’s cross examination of Purssell was mind-numbing. The strategy of his questioning, if any, was to discredit Purssell’s testimony (most importantly, the infamous photographs he took before Rachel’s death and in the immediate aftermath), and to waste everybody’s time (not that trivial, when you recall the judge had only scheduled 7 hearings before going on his summer recess). Yancharsky’s monotonous, petty questioning did buy tons of time for the State, but otherwise, it was like watching ink dry on a third-rate legal thriller:
Gancharsky: Who took photograph no. 6, Mr Purcell?
Purssell: I did.
Y: Are there any houses on that photograph?
Y: So how do you mean to say the IDF was demolishing houses when you took this picture?
P: It’s a photograph. It’s very close. It doesn’t show what’s immediately to the left or to the right of the frame.
Y: Take a look at that photograph (showing a cement foundation and some pillars sticking out). You call that a house?
P: It’s an unfinished house.
Y: You mean you’d live there?
P: With a bit more work, yes.
At this point, the judge rapped Purssell for joking on the witness stand – which I suppose is fair enough. Gancharsky went on for most of the day, casting dark hints of conspiracy about the ISM activists insisting on having a lawyer present when testifying to the IDF Military Police, and going to some lengths to prove Purssell refused to be interrogated a second time (the attorney was silenced by the plaintiff lawyers, who asked to see documented proof of the alleged refusal). Neither tactic seemed to have made much of an impression on anyone in the room.
After a secondary examination (constantly interrupted by more and less reasonable objections from the State, by and large rejected by the court),Purssell was let down and Tom Dale took the stand.
Dale was examined by Calman, who amply demonstrated the difference between an impatient, junior lawyer and a seasoned, dogged attorney. She disposed of all photographic evidence in about 6 seconds (“Did you take any of those photographs, Mr Dale?” “No, I did not.” “In that case, I plead the court that none of the photographs be admissible to this witnesses’ testimony.”), and proceeded to show just how easy it is for the state to discredit a witness:
Calman [having established Dale first went to Nablus where he took part in Palestinian protests]: Mr Dale, what did you tell the border control officer when you entered Israel through Ben Guriou Airport?
Dale: I’m afraid I can’t recall the exact words.
C: Did you tell them “Hello, I’m Tom Dale, I’m with the ISM and I’m heading to Nablus to demonstrate against the IDF?”
C: But you did say something else.
C: So it would be fair to say you stated something other than the purpose for which you arrived.
C: So on or around October or November 2002, you deliberately misled the authorities to gain entry into the State of Israel…
C: And where did you go from Rafah?
D: I went to Egypt.
C: How did you go to Egypt?
D: Through the southern border crossing.
C [elated]: Illegally? You crossed the the border illegally? It’s illegal to cross between Rafah and Egypt!
D: Err, no, I first went to Israel, and then crossed through a border crossing to Egypt.
C: Oh. And where did you go in Egypt?
D: I went to Cairo and then to Dahab.
C: You went all the way to Cairo and then back to Sinai?
Plaintiff: We object, Your Honour- what is my learned friend trying to prove and how does it link to the heart of the matter at hand?
Court: The State will reply.
C: If it pleases the court, it links very much directly to the matter at hand – it’s about the witness’s credibility.
Court: Hm. Next question.
Calman then checked if Dale recalls hearing of a particular Palestinian suicide bombing that occurred when he was in the West Bank, and went on:
C: When you were in Nablus, did you see the IDF engage in counterterrorism activities meant to defend Israeli lives from Palestinian terror?
D: Erm, no.
C: What do you mean, “no.”
D: I mean, I saw troops, jeeps, tanks and checkpoints, and other instruments of occupation, but I couldn’t discern any direct connection between those and saving Israeli lives.
Plaintiff: We object, the State is taking the case to somewhere it really doesn’t need to go. This is an ordinary damages case, which seeks to establish responsibility for the untimely death of a young woman.
Court: Objection overruled. If the honourable gentleman had read the statement for the defence, he will surely recall the principal argument of the state is that the soldiers were doing what they were doing as part of defending Israeli civilians against terrorism. As this is their main line, I’m going to allow it. [To Kalman]: You were asking the witness about military activities and occupation.
Calman [startled]: I did not say the word ‘Occupation.’That’s the witness’s words.
The main obstacle to the process, and, perhaps luckily, the main lightning rod for everyone’s tension and frustration, was the interpreter. Israel’s two official languages are Arabic and Hebrew, and for anything to be entered into record it needs to be spoken in one of the languages. Since neither party can be counted on to provide unbiased translation, the court provides an interpreter.
In that case, the translator was an elderly gentleman, slightly deaf (he endearingly addressed Purssell as “Mr. Person” throughout), with rather poor control of English and Hebrew, or at least the links between the two. Although the spectacle was somewhere between pitiful and comical (the judge would often stop the interpreter, correct the translation, and then demand the interpreter to repeat it so that it may be entered into the record; the audience tut-tutted loudly and shouted corrections), it was mostly infuriating, because the mistakes were often fairly grave.
When Purssell said the bulldozer drove towards Corrie with his blade “in the earth,” the interpreter heard and translated it “in the air” (he was corrected later); when the State asked Purcell if Corrie climbed on the blade of the bulldozer, and Purssell said “no, she climbed on the pile of earth [in front of the bulldozer],” it almost went into the record as “she climbed on the pile of earth inside the blade.” The difference here is more than semantic – climbing on a pile of earth in a bulldozer’s path was dangerous, but not remotely near-suicidal like climbing into a blade of a moving D9; the question of guilt could well be decided on this particular occurrence in the incident. Although no significant errors seem to have made it into the record, all this monstrously prolonged the hearings, and certainly bought time for the State.
When all the dust and legal scuffles settle down, however, the sentence will remain ringing out from yesterday’s hearing will be the one uttered by Purssell: “Rachel climbed onto the pile of earth,” he said, “and looked into the driver’s cabin.” He implied that not only did her killer see a fluorescent, gesticulating blob far on the ground below – he looked the young woman in the eye.
The Corrie family will screen the film “Rachel” and hold a talk at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque tomorrow (Friday 12 March), at 1pm. The next hearings in the case are scheduled to take place on March 14, 15, 17, 21, 22 and 24, at the Haifa District Court. The official blog is here.
Update 23:20 It seems the State thought it performed so poorly it now prefers to appeal and get the case thrown out of court. A bit late for it, innit?