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Israeli judge rules American’s bulldozer death accidental

Protester’s family disputes decision on Gaza episode

Rachel Corrie died in 2003 after a military bulldozer in Gaza ran her over during a protest. She was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

DENNY STERNSTEIN/REUTERS

Rachel Corrie died in 2003 after a military bulldozer in Gaza ran her over during a protest. She was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

JERUSALEM — An Israeli judge ruled Tuesday that the state bore no responsibility for the death of Rachel Corrie, the young American woman who was run over by a military bulldozer in 2003 as she protested the demolition of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip.

The lengthy verdict in the civil case, read in part to a courtroom in Haifa packed with supporters of Corrie’s family, called the death a ‘‘regrettable accident,’’ a characterization that Corrie’s allies disputed.

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‘‘She chose to put herself in danger,’’ said the judge, Oded Gershon. ‘‘She could have easily distanced herself from the danger like any reasonable person would.’’

Since her death, Corrie has become an international symbol of the Palestinian resistance. A play based on her writings has been performed in 10 countries, and a ship in an attempted aid flotilla to Gaza bore her name. Books, documentaries, and songs have recounted how Corrie, a 23-year-old student, dressed in an orange vest and wielding a bullhorn, stood between a bulldozer and the home of a Palestinian family in March 2003 during the height of the second intifada, or uprising.

Hussein Abu Hussein, the lawyer who brought the wrongful death suit on the Corrie family’s behalf, said he would appeal the ruling within 45 days to Israel’s Supreme Court. At a news conference after the verdict, he showed pictures of Corrie taken the day of her death, saying ‘‘anyone could have seen’’ her bright garb.

‘‘It’s a black day for activists of human rights and people who believe in values of dignity,’’ Hussein said. ‘‘We believe this decision is a bad decision for all of us — civilians first of all, and peace activists.’’

In his ruling, Gershon said the military’s mission that day ‘‘was not, in any way, to destroy homes,’’ but to clear brush and explosives ‘‘to prevent acts of hatred and terror.’’ He said the bulldozer was moving slowly, about 1 kilometer per hour, and that the driver could not have seen Corrie, finding ‘‘no base to the plaintiff’s claim that the bulldozer hit her on purpose.’’

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Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, called the verdict a ‘‘vindication’’ of the nation’s military and court systems.

‘‘I empathize for the family, they’ve lost a loved one, who as the judge said was killed in a tragic accident,’’ Regev said. ‘‘But the charges that the Israeli courts are not independent, impartial, and hold the highest professional standards are simply without foundation.’’

Corrie, a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., joined the International Solidarity Movement in January 2003 and spent the last weeks of her life in Rafah, the Gaza town that borders Egypt.

In a Feb. 27, 2003, e-mail home, she wrote that 600 homes had been destroyed there since the start of the intifada. On March 16 she and seven other US and British activists acted as human shields, dropping to their knees between the bulldozers and a home they believed was marked for destruction.

The verdict came more than a year after the last of 15 sessions of testimony, which began in March 2010. Some of the witnesses, including the drivers and commanders of two bulldozers that were operating in the area that day, testified from behind a screen to protect their identities. Corrie’s parents or sister attended every session of the trial, spending some $200,000 on travel, translating some 2,000 pages of documents, and other expenses.

‘‘A lawsuit is not a substitute for a legal investigation, which we never had,’’ Corrie’s mother, Cindy Corrie, said at Tuesday’s news conference. ‘‘The diplomatic process between the United States and Israel failed us.’’ The US Embassy, which sent a representative to the oral testimony sessions, declined to comment on the verdict. In June 2004, a representative of the secretary of state wrote to the Corrie family saying the United States agreed with them that the military’s investigation was not ‘‘thorough, credible, and transparent.’’

The US State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said, ‘‘We understand the family’s disappointment with the outcome of the trial,’’ and noted US diplomats ‘‘have worked with the family all through this process’’ and that they would continue to do so.

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