Israeli officer testifies in US activist lawsuit

AP News
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Posted: Apr 03, 2011 2:13 PM
Israeli officer testifies in US activist lawsuit

An Israeli military commander testifying Sunday in a civil lawsuit over the death of American activist in the Gaza Strip eight years ago said the young woman and other activists ignored army warnings to move before she was crushed by an armored bulldozer.

Rachel Corrie, 23, of Olympia, Washington, was killed in March 2003 as she tried to block the Israeli military vehicle in a dangerous area along the Gaza-Egypt border. The activists believed the Israelis were about to demolish nearby Palestinian houses.

The border zone was the scene of some of the worst fighting in the Gaza Strip before Israel pulled its soldiers and settlers out in 2005.

The infantry major, the officer commanding the force on the day of Corrie's death, spoke as a lawsuit filed last year against Israel by Corrie's parents progressed through an Israeli court. He was the first soldier involved in the incident to appear openly in the courtroom, where previous witnesses testified from behind a screen to conceal their identities. The major's name was not made public, however, and he was identified only by his initials, S.R., according to military regulations.

The officer said Corrie and the other pro-Palestinian activists had spent hours trying to block the two military D9 bulldozers under his command from clearing vegetation and rubble near the border, ignoring repeated warnings to leave. Though the military did at times demolish houses used by gunmen or arms smugglers, he said, no houses were slated to be demolished that day.

The officer described the area as a "war zone" where Palestinian militants used abandoned homes as firing positions and exploited foreign activists like Corrie for cover. He said he was wounded there in 2002 and that one of his soldiers was killed. An operational log submitted to the court showed that the officer reported a grenade thrown at his troops about 40 minutes before Corrie's death.

Asked by the Corries' attorney why troops hadn't physically removed the protesters instead of continuing to clear ground, he said army orders forbade troops from exiting their armored vehicles. "If you put your head out for one second, you got a sniper's bullet in the head," he said.

He shouted over a megaphone for the activists to leave, he said, tried to use tear gas to disperse them and moved his troops several times.

"To my regret, after the eighth time, (Corrie) hid behind an earth embankment. The D9 operator didn't see her. She thought he saw her," he said.

The bulldozer driver has testified that he could not see Corrie, who had positioned herself in front of his blade, because of the lumbering vehicle's restricted field of vision. Corrie's family charges that the Israeli military either intentionally killed her or "failed to take appropriate and necessary measures to protect Rachel's life," according to a press release from the family. They are seeking a token $1 in damages and legal expenses.

Those present in the courtroom Sunday heard a recording of the unit's radio frequency from the minutes of Corrie's death, including the bulldozer driver's report at 5:05 p.m.: "I think I hit someone."

Corrie's father, Craig Corrie, said Sunday's witness was "the highest-ranking officer that we know about who was actually in the field, and was in charge and responsible for what went on that day."

He said he was not seeking punishment for anyone involved, only "recognition of what happened" to his daughter.

More hearings are scheduled, and no date has been given for a decision in the case.

Corrie belonged to a pro-Palestinian group called the International Solidarity Movement, whose activists enter conflict zones despite Israeli bans and attempt to interfere with the activities of Israel's military.

Corrie's death made her a symbol for pro-Palestinian activists, and a play has been written about her.