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Israeli court shields soldier who ran over U.S. activist in 2003

Rachel Corrie’s family didn’t look her killer in the eye because his identity was concealed in court. From left are her sister Sarah Corrie Simpson and parents Cindy and Craig Corrie.

Associated Press

Rachel Corrie’s family didn’t look her killer in the eye because his identity was concealed in court. From left are her sister Sarah Corrie Simpson and parents Cindy and Craig Corrie.

HAIFA, Israel — The bulldozer driver who crushed to death American activist Rachel Corrie seven years ago struggled Thursday just to recall her name.

"It's Rachel-something," he testified in a Haifa courtroom. "Carrie?"

The former Israeli reservist's courtroom appearance, his first public comments since the college student's 2003 death, was expected to be the dramatic climax of the Corrie family's long-running lawsuit against the Israeli government. But during more than four hours of testimony, the 38-year-old Russian immigrant, speaking from behind a screen to hide his identity, said he remembered little about that day and the young woman he ran over.

He said he thought she was American. But he noted that he never followed the news coverage of Corrie's death and only learned six months ago he would have to testify in the family's wrongful-death lawsuit.

The Israeli government has maintained that Rachel Corrie and her fellow international activists were responsible for the incident, saying protesters entered a "war zone" and put themselves at risk by attempting to prevent Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip. A military inquiry concluded no disciplinary actions should be taken against the driver, who now works as an equipment supervisor for an Israeli food company.

The driver insisted he never saw the 23-year-old Washington state resident until her friends rushed over to dig her body out of the dirt. He said he couldn't remember the time of day when his bulldozer rolled over Corrie and then backed up over her a second time.

The Corries' attorney, Hussein abu Hussein, prodded the man's memory. Perhaps you recall someone fitting her description? She was about 5 feet 8 and 140 pounds, the attorney said. Fair-skinned. Attractive. Wearing a bright orange safety jacket?

The reservist, identified only as Y, responded, "I don't remember. I saw all kinds of people."

Corrie's parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, said his vague, sometimes flippant, responses were hard for them to take.

"He sounds like he has not given much thought to this in the past seven years," said Cindy Corrie, her voice cracking slightly and tears welling up in her eyes. "That's hard to hear, since for us, Rachel is in every day, every hour, every moment. How could you not remember the time of day? If I killed somebody, I would surely know when it happened."

It's not that the family expected the driver's testimony would bring comfort or solace, Corrie said. But for years the family has anticipated — and simultaneously dreaded — the day when they would finally hear directly from the man who ran over their youngest child.

"It's hard to articulate why it's something the family needs," said Rachel's sister, Sarah Corrie Simpson. "It just is. Ultimately it comes down to my sister and the individual on the other side of this act, looking at us in the eye and telling his story."

At the government's request, the bulldozer driver was visible only to the judge and attorneys. State prosecutors said the former soldier's life could be at risk if he were identified publicly.

Israeli court shields soldier who ran over U.S. activist in 2003 10/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 22, 2010 12:09am]
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