HAIFA // Seven years ago, Cindy and Craig Corrie lost their daughter, Rachel, when an Israeli bulldozer flattened her into the ground as she tried to guard the home of a Palestinian family she had lived with for two months in the Gaza Strip.
"[Rachel] knew that those children were behind that wall, she knew that both those families were in that house," Mrs Corrie said, speaking to The National from an apartment in Haifa, where the couple are staying for the duration of a civil trial which is looking into the 23-year-old's death in March 2003. "Knowing that they were back there, was she supposed to step aside and let the bulldozer go? "She slept on the floor of the parents' bedroom with these children. They couldn't sleep in their own bedroom because of the shooting from the Israeli military into the house at night. These are human beings and Rachel grew to know and love them - I couldn't have asked her to do anything less than what she did.
"I know in my heart that she also believed that bulldozer was going to stop. It had on other occasions. She didn't expect to die that day." But she did. And on Wednesday, an Israeli judge began hearing a civil suit brought by the Corries, including testimony from a fellow activist with the pro-Palestinian, non-violent, International Solidarity Movement, who said he watched a bulldozer run Rachel over twice, after she had looked into the driver's eyes.
The Corries launched their legal challenge in 2005, two years after an army investigation cleared the soldiers involved in the incident of any wrongdoing and accused Rachel of "illegal, irresponsible and dangerous behaviour". The couple, from Washington state, and their lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, say this initial investigation lacked transparency and was not thorough. The civil suit, which claims that Rachel's death occurred because of the Israeli army's intent or negligence and seeks unspecified damages, is an attempt to shed light on how she died.
The couple say they hope the proceedings will bring "truth and some resolution". "The verdict is the ability to get some sort of accountability [and] responsibility. It's the only way to do it," Mr Corrie said. "[Steven] Plaut [a right-wing Israeli commentator] compared our coming here and going to court to having the rockets come in on Haifa," he said. "I feel just the opposite way. Rather than taking a court case as something that's an attack, I think it's the first step in healing."
The Corries are quick to add that they are grateful for the support they have received from Israelis, including an Israeli volunteer who is translating for them. But the language barrier remains worrisome, especially as the key witnesses on the Corries' side are from the UK and the US. "They all speak English, they don't speak Hebrew and for the Israeli court everything that's said that's going to go into the record has to be said in Hebrew in the court."
After numerous mistranslations were noted, the judge requested a new translator but finished the day with an interpreter the Corries and Mr Abu Hussein felt was inadequate. "Our concerns, of course, are that we're dealing with the need for very specific details and information and the need for it to be clear," Mrs Corrie said. The family is anxious to hear the expert witness who will testify on the army's manuals that govern the use of bulldozers, like the one that killed their daughter. "According to our attorney, if there are any civilians or any people around, you're not supposed to operate," said Mr Corrie, who spent a year in South East Asia during the Vietnam war, manning a bulldozer to clear away jungle. "You watch what's in front of that blade," he said.
The family, however, was disappointed to learn that the judge would hear testimony from the soldier who operated the bulldozer, a man they still have not met, at a separate time. "If he could find a way to mourn our loss, and understand what our loss is, I could mourn his loss - I believe he lost his humanity at that time - and that's when we could start to heal," Mr Corrie said. For the Corries, the court case is also an opportunity to highlight a wider issue, the one which their daughter believed so strongly in.
"The broader picture is important to me," Mrs Corrie said. "I feel we are in a privileged position. We've had a great deal of support by many people to be able to bring this case here - We definitely want people to make the link between what's happening here and the lack of accessibility the Palestinians have to the courts and what that means in terms of how the military is able to operate in the West Bank and Gaza."
An Israeli non-governmental group, Yesh Din, reports that Israeli soldiers are prosecuted in less than six per cent of cases in which they stand accused of a criminal offence, including unlawful shooting that led to injury or death of a Palestinian or foreigner. The Corries, who maintain a close relationship with the Nasrallahs, the Gazan family who Rachel tried to protect, also hope to highlight human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories.
"The attack and the blockade there is horrendous, you look at these kids - and Kareem, the oldest, is now halfway through college, he just switched last spring his major to English. But what's going to happen to him? He's in a prison. What's going to happen to this young man? You look at the incredible devastation of their infrastructure, the civilian, the governing infrastructure, miles of homes, destroyed."
The Corries kept in touch with the Nasrallahs and called them during operation Cast Lead, the three-week Israeli assault on Gaza last year that left 1,400 Palestinians dead. "The attacks were happening on these families," Mr Corrie said, "and we were talking to Khaled [Nasrallah] who had taken his family to a [bomb shelter] under a school and he was saying the same thing to us that Rachel said when she was first in his house. Khaled said to me, 'Can you hear that? It's the bombs.' With Rachel it was a large machinegun on a tank."
The Corries found their daughter's calls and letters to be terrifying. "When Rachel first went," Mr Corrie said, "I was frightened for her and concerned. I wanted her to volunteer in a soup kitchen somewhere. I remember calling her the day before she was to leave and I said, 'Rachel, you know you don't have to do this.' She said, 'I know I don't. But I think I can and I know I have to try.'" "And then she gets to Rafah," Mr Corrie said, "and she starts writing about the bullets coming through the windows of houses people are still living in and I get terribly frightened at that point because I realise this is a military out of control."
Mr Corrie admits that he was so overcome by fear for his daughter's safety that he was unable to write to her until a week before her death. "I don't know how Cindy did it, writing without knowing if the person you're writing to is still alive. "I wrote once, the week before she was killed," he said, "I talked to her about how proud of her I am. Thank God I did." * The National