Only the most naive observers would be surprised by the verdict from an Israeli court on the civil case brought by the parents of Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed in 2003 at the hands of the Israeli military. The court ruled this week that Israel was not responsible for the death of the 23-year-old student, referring to it as a “regrettable accident” that Corrie herself could have prevented by staying out of the area. But while this latest official Israeli whitewashing is not unexpected, it does raise important questions about the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and how far Israel can go in dealing so cavalierly with inconvenient Americans — and, indeed, with the United States.
Corrie’s story has become a case study of the impunity with which the Israeli political and legal system treats its adversaries. She was in southern Gaza during the Second Intifada with the International Solidarity Movement, an organization that stages nonviolent protests against the Israeli occupation and was then engaged in a campaign to protect Palestinian wells and homes from destruction. She was killed when she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer as she was trying to protect the home of a Gazan pharmacist, Samir Nasrallah. The official Israeli investigation claims that the whole thing was a dreadful accident and that she had been killed by a blow to the head by a hard object, “probably a slab of concrete which was moved or slid down.”
Israel’s official autopsy of her death has never been released, but Human Rights Watch says the report concluded she was killed by blows to her chest, fractures of her ribs and vertebrae, and tears in her right lung. Such injuries are consistent with the damage that might be caused to a person by a bulldozer — contradicting Israel’s version of the story.
The Israeli investigation added that she had placed herself and others in danger by being in a combat zone and that she was essentially responsible for her own death. This claim was echoed by the court, and its ruling was blasted out to the public by Ofir Gendelman, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tweeted that because the “tragic accident took place during ‘combat activities in war’ … the state is therefore not responsible.”
The U.S. government has gone on record with its dissatisfaction with the official Israeli narrative, on which the court verdict was almost entirely based. “For seven years, we have pressed the government of Israel at the highest levels to conduct a thorough, transparent, and credible investigation of the circumstances of her death,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro recently complained. However, he added, Israel considers “this case closed.”
The only thing unusual about this whitewash is that the victim is an American. Israeli courts and investigations have a longstanding history of either covering up abuses against Palestinians, foreign activists, and journalists in the occupied Palestinian territories, or imposing only symbolic and pro forma penalties on military personnel found to have engaged in misconduct. And unfortunately, the U.S. government has proved itself willing to offer little more than highly attenuated criticisms of Israeli actions when they result in the death of Americans perceived to be siding with Palestinians.
Another such incident was the killing of Turkish-American Furkan Dogan, who was shot five times by Israeli troops during the storming of the Mavi Marmara during the Gaza flotilla raid on May 31, 2010. Again, the United States expressed official concern but did nothing to hold Israel accountable or ensure that Israel held its forces accountable.
In both of these instances, as well as others, unarmed U.S. citizens were killed by Israeli forces and subsequently accused by Israel and its supporters of being responsible for their own deaths — in effect, of being terrorism-supporting malefactors who deserved what they got. And in both of these cases, the American reaction has been limited to expressions of concern — pro forma in the case of Dogan and stronger but still purely rhetorical in the case of Corrie.
The sad reality is that there is a limited reserve of sympathy for the likes of Dogan and Corrie in American society, and especially American political life. Israel and its supporters have succeeded in painting them as supporters of terrorism and interloping troublemakers. As a result, these killings get nothing like the traction they ought to in U.S. public and policy discourse.
The Corrie verdict, of course, will not change that. Even if there were more of an outcry about the killing of unarmed American activists by Israeli forces, the U.S.-Israel “special relationship” is so deep-rooted that it still probably wouldn’t be enough to change matters. After all, the relationship has persisted despite far greater strains in the past.
Take the June 8, 1967, Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, which left 34 American sailors dead. It has successfully been chalked up as an accident — or an “unfortunate” occurrence — for which there is, therefore, no plausible remedy. The incident quickly faded from the collective national memory, and efforts to raise questions about the attack have proved completely ineffective for more than 40 years.
These incidents may have not been able to dent the “special relationship,” but the calculation may change if Israel is perceived as having dragged Washington into a full-fledged regional war. And that is the possibility currently looming on the horizon: If an Israeli first strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities leads the United States to enter a conflict that most U.S. citizens and policymakers regard as premature and unwise, it could finally force the re-evaluation of the U.S.-Israel relationship that Corrie’s death was never able to.
Ironically, the very depth of the special relationship is what makes such a scenario plausible. It would be extremely difficult for the United States to allow Israel to muddle through alone if Israel faced a powerful and effective Iranian response — and extremely easy for Washington to find itself in over its head after entering the conflict. It’s conceivable that the same set of political imperatives that would force America’s hand in such a contingency would be severely undermined, or even undone, if things went dreadfully badly in the war.
But it really will take something as dramatic as a war to shake the zone of impunity that hovers around Israeli misconduct toward American activists, and even toward the United States itself. As things stand, the United States has an ally and a client in the Middle East with a level of discretion that is unusual — if not unparalleled — in U.S. history. And there is, as of yet, no real space to debate that reality in the American policy conversation. The Rachel Corrie verdict ought to provide an opportunity for that — but the unfortunate reality is that it will be wasted.