Rachel Corrie trial: The driver testifies

YB, the driver who ran over ISM activist Rachel Corrie seven years ago, took his first public stand yesterday, appearing as a key witness in the Corrie family lawsuit against the State of Israel. Well, almost public: He spoke from behind a tight screen, placed despite the Corrie family’s protest. His full name, and any biographical detail that came to light during the hearing, is under a strict gag order.

Most of the hearing at the Haifa District Court was spent nitpicking through the driver’s testimony and the numerous contradictions he had between his own statements given at different times, and the contradictions with the testimony of the commander sitting above him in the D9 bulldozer. Interestingly, Corrie family attorney Hussein Abu Hussein did not spend much time arguing with the driver whether he could or could not see Rachel from the heavily fortified cabin; I suppose here the plaintiffs will resort more to expert testimony heard earlier in the trial. Abu Hussein concentrated instead on destroying the driver’s credibility as a witness, and not without success:

  • – After making absolutely sure the driver insists he has only given testimony once before, on the day of Rachel’s death (March 16, 2003) Abu Hussein produced signed testimonies of the driver, proving his first testimony was on March 17th, and that he testified at least once more, to a military inquest of “big ones” on April 3 of the same year.
    – After making sure the driver insists the “dead zone” around the bulldozer (i.e. the area he couldn’t see) was 20-30 meters around the vehicle, Abu Hussein produced the driver’s own earlier statements, putting the “dead zone” at 2-3 meters.
  • – Apparently, the driver has never read the minutes of his own testimony to the military police, because he “can’t understand the handwriting”. He signed them after the interrogator read it out to him out loud.
  • – The driver reaffirmed that while the safety instructions clearly prohibited operating the vehicle within 10 meters of unprotected pedestrians, the specific instruction given by the military regarding the possibility of unarmed protestors, was for the bulldozer to avoid pedestrians but keep working; in other words, even if there were people close to the vehicle, the driver was under the instruction to drive away from them and keep working, even though this clearly meant risking injury or worse.
  • – The most remarkable gap between the testimonies of the driver and the commander concerns Rachel’s location after she had been hit. Throughout the day, the driver insisted that he first saw Rachel being lifted by her friends out of the pile of dirt he had been pushing, in front of the bulldozer, in between the blade and the pile. In a crude diagram, where B is bulldozer, r is Rachel and P is pile, he describe the scene immediately after the hit like this: B r /p\. Having established that this was indeed the case, and supported it with several photographs taken on the day, Abu Hussein produced an earlier testimony by the bulldozer commander, who insisted Rachel was taken out from the other side of the pile; in other words, the scene immediately after the hit was like this: B /p\ r . Abu Hussein then asked YB whether he recanted his testimony to this court. YB answered in the negative: He is absolutely sure Rachel was between the bulldozer and the pile when she was taken out. This means one of  the two are lying. It also changes the mental image at least I had of the incident, and makes it seem Rachel was sucked into the pile of dirt, and then dragged through it by the blade, which makes the bulldozer’s decision to drive in reverse after she was hit even more crucial than the original impact.

This is also where the most interesting facts pertaining to the actual events were revealed. Earlier in the day, the driver said that he drove forward, building up the pile of dirt in front of him as he went, and then, in what he said was standard procedure, switched to reverse. When he drove back some 30 meters, he  either saw, or was told by his commander, that people were running toward the bulldozer, gesticulating and taking picture; they understood they may have hit someone; and stopped the vehicle. Yesterday, however, a part of an earlier testimony was read out, in which YB said that already some 3 meters away from the pile, the commander told him: “I think something might’ve happened… keep moving back,” before finally stopping some 30 meters away. This is absolutely crucial: If the operator of a heavy machinery thinks something might’ve happened, the immediate instinct, safety maxim, axiom, is to stop the machine at once; if you’re operating a thresher and you hear someone has his hand inside, you stop the machine at once- you don’t reverse its operation.

The Corrie family is suing the state of Israel for 1$ in damages plus legal expenses. They’re not trying to prove the driver deliberately ran their daughter over; the general direction, as I understand it, is establishing the army guilty of gross negligence and manslaughter. Therefore, legally it would seem the two most important moments of the testimony were the affirmation the IDF violated the safety instructions for use of the D9; and that the commander instructed the driver to move back a littler further more, even after his initial hunch that something might’ve happened.

Cindy Corrie said yesterday she didn’t hear the driver express any remorse for what had happened. On reflection, I think this may not be as clear cut. While he certainly didn’t apologize, voice any regret or in any way reacted to the Corries’ presence in the same room with him, I was struck how he avoided using the first person when referring to Rachel’s death; asked to affirm his identity and role on the day, he said, “I was the driver of the bulldozer on the day she.. the girl.. was run over.” He maintained this alienation throughout the day; the closest he came to acknowledging his direct, personal role, was in the repeated phrase, “I understood I may have hit someone.” Perhaps this is just wishful thinking on my part, but I couldn’t avoid thinking this alienation signalled that like many a combatant, in some place within him, the driver understands exactly what he has done, and perhaps wishes that things have turned out otherwise; while distant, he certainly didn’t sound blasé.

One more word about the screen. State attorney Irit Kalman told AP’s Tia Goldenberg the screen was meant to make the witness feel safe enough to testify. To me, on the gut level, the state’s insistence feels obscene. There is very little likelihood Cindy and Craig Corrie, two of the most movingly committed humanists I had the privilege to meet, would do anything to hurt the driver. But it’s more than that: For seven years, the Corries courageously exposed their loss, pain, and grief to the world, as they sought justice for their daughter. Craig Corrie even testified in the same court last May,  being bitingly and aggressively cross-examined by the very same Irit Kalman (not, to my impression at the time, from any personal malice; she was just using a certain technique to undermine his reliability, as is her job). He didn’t have a screen to protect him and hide the indignation and pain as he was berated  – by the same state responsible for Rachel’s death – for letting her go to Gaza in the same place.

But the soldiers, the state seemed to have silently mouthed yesterday, are demi-gods. They will wreck lives, sow havoc, kill and mutilate, escaping with impunity in nine cases out of ten; and their faces shall be obscured by clouds, never to be glanced upon by mere, civilan mortals.

By doing so, the state turns the soldiers from human players in a conflict into faceless monsters. Craig Corrie spoke out against this dehumanisation of both victim and perpetrator after the hearing yesterday:

“I think the screen is emblematic of one of the big problems we have in this area, which is not being able to recognise the humanity of each other… Palestinians in Gaza never see the Israelis, they just see these machines moving around, and you could hear from the language in court and how the Israelis keep talking about the terrorists, the terrorists, that they don’t see the human beings either. We couldn’t see the human being behind this screen.”

And Cindy Corrie said:

“I’m really disappointed, because I wanted to see the whole human being. All of his language; not just his words… I heard an unreliable witness, who had spend considerable time with different people in government during different investigations, and not one word of remorse. And that saddens, because it’s hard to feel empathy when this doesn’t come through.”

The hearings will continue in November.