HAIFA, Israel (AP) — An Israeli court on Tuesday cleared the military of wrongdoing in the death of a young American activist who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer during a protest in the Gaza Strip nearly a decade ago, rejecting claims by her parents that the driver acted recklessly.
The verdict came after a seven-year legal battle waged by the family of Rachel Corrie, whose death remains a powerful symbol on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For pro-Palestinian activists, Corrie has become a rallying cry and vivid image of what they say is Israel’s harsh repression of the Palestinians. In Israel, she is viewed as a tragic, manipulated figure who naively put herself into harm’s way in a fit of idealism.
The family said it was considering an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court but wanted to examine the full verdict before deciding.
Corrie, who was 23, was crushed to death in March 2003 as she tried to block an Israeli military bulldozer in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. The incident occurred at the height of a Palestinian uprising, a time of heavy fighting between the military and Palestinian militants.
Corrie’s parents filed their civil suit two years later after an internal army investigation ruled the death an accident and said the bulldozer driver and other military personnel in the area acted properly. Corrie’s supporters have said the investigation was poorly handled and the driver acted recklessly, perhaps even intentionally running her over.
In Tuesday’s verdict, Judge Oded Gershon backed the military’s version of events. Corrie “put herself in a dangerous situation,” calling her death “the result of an accident she brought upon herself.” He also said the military investigation was handled properly.
In Washington, the U.S. administration called Corrie’s death “tragic.”
“We understand the family’s disappointment with the outcome of the trial,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. She declined to say whether the U.S. shared that feeling.
Corrie’s family, from Olympia, Wash., appeared devastated by the verdict.
“We are, of course, deeply saddened and deeply troubled by what we heard today,” said her mother, Cindy, 64, a homemaker and musician. “The state has worked extremely hard to make sure the full truth about my daughter is not exposed, and those responsible for killing her are not accountable.”
Her husband, Craig, 65, held the microphone for his wife, whose voice wavered as she read a letter written by her daughter to a Palestinian friend before her death.
“Life is very difficult. Human beings can be kind, brave and strong, even in the most difficult of circumstances,” the letter said. “Thank you for existing, for showing how good people can be, despite great hardship.”
The family sought a symbolic $1 judgment, in addition to the $200,000 they say they have spent on legal expenses over the years.
The trial stretched over 15 hearings and heard testimony from 23 witnesses. None was more important than the driver, who has never been publicly identified. The family’s hopes of confronting him face to face were dashed when the man was permitted to testify from behind a curtain.
The driver has always said he did not see Corrie, and the military investigation ruled the death accidental. He was operating a heavily armored bulldozer with small slits for vision, protection against Palestinian explosives and firebombs.
Prosecutors also argued the young woman knowingly entered a closed military zone and area of violent conflict.
Corrie belonged to the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement, whose activists enter conflict zones and try to interfere with activities of Israel’s military in the West Bank and Gaza, territories the Palestinians claim for their state.
Several members have been killed or maimed in confrontations with the military, which accuses them of behaving recklessly in dangerous, chaotic situations, often in areas where civilians were barred.
Friends who were with her have said they believed the Caterpillar D9 bulldozer they were blocking was about to demolish the nearby home of a Palestinian family that Corrie was living with at the time.
The Israeli army had been undertaking systematic house demotions in the densely populated, violent area along the Egyptian border. It said the homes were used for cover by militants to attack soldiers and Jewish settlers.
The demolitions left some 17,000 Palestinians homeless, according to U.N. reports. The policy of razing homes sparked international condemnation at the time.
Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, and Palestinians took control. Since then, Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets at Israel, triggering cross-border raids and a three-week war in 2008.
The judge said soldiers had moved their bulldozers several times to avoid the activists, but the young woman ultimately ended up in “a dead zone” where the driver could not see her.
An activist who was with her, Tom Dale, said in an emailed statement that Corrie “could not have been more visible: standing, on a clear day, in the open ground, wearing a high visibility vest.”
The Corries have been more cautious, saying they believe the driver saw their daughter but stopping short of calling the death intentional.
The state prosecutor’s office said three different investigations were conducted into Corrie’s death, all concluding that the driver could not see Corrie.
“The death of Rachel Corrie is without a doubt a tragic accident,” the prosecution said in a statement. “The driver of the bulldozer and his commander had a very limited field of vision, such that they had no possibility of seeing Ms. Corrie and thus are exonerated of any blame for negligence.”
The Corrie case was the first civil lawsuit over a foreigner harmed by the military to end in a verdict after a full trial.
Several documentaries have been made about her life and death, along with a play performed in Britain and the U.S. A book of her writing was published, and in 2010, a group of international activists who tried to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip sailed on a ship called the “Rachel Corrie.”
The Corries said they have found it particularly difficult to see their daughter reduced to what they believe is a caricature of a reckless activist.
Craig Corrie said his daughter was simply trying to do the right thing when she defended the home.
“How could she not?” he said. “She knew that family. She slept on the floor of the parent’s bedroom. They talk in court as if it’s crazy. I think it’s brave.”