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The inquiry into Rachel Corrie’s death – latest

In a small courtroom on the sixth floor of Haifa’s District Court, a colonel in the Israeli engineering corps who wrote a manual for the bulldozer units that razed the Rafah Refugee Camp in 2003 offered his opinion on the killing of the American activist Rachel Corrie.

“There are no civilians during wartime,” Yossi declared under oath.

Yossi made his remarkable statement under withering cross examination by Hussein Abu Hussein, the lawyer for the family of Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah on March 17, 2003. In the back of the courtroom were Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy, and her sister, Sarah, back in Israel for the second round of hearings in their civil suit against the state of Israel. They were joined by supporters, friends and a handful of reporters, including me (see Nora Barrows-Friedman’s report for more). No one from the Israeli media was present — the case has been virtually ignored inside Israel.

In the immediate wake of Corrie’s killing, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, then the chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, instructed Corrie’s parents to demand a “thorough, fair and transparent investigation” from the Israeli government. Since then, the Israelis have stonewalled them, refusing to provide key details of their investigation, which was corrupted from the start by the investigators’ apparent attempts to find evidence that a bulldozer did not in fact kill Rachel.

A 2003 bill introduced in the House International Relations Committee calling for a thorough Israeli investigation in Corrie’s killing and for American efforts to prevent such killings from happening again garnered 78 signatures in support (Rahm Emanuel was the only Jewish signer). However, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the Israel lobby’s closest allies in Congress, prevented the bill from getting out of the committee. President George W. Bush could have pressed for a full floor vote on the bill but he did nothing. The bill died as a result.

Having been obstructed by the Israelis’ opaque investigation and betrayed by their own government (with notable exceptions like former Rep. Brian Baird), the Corries have been forced to take matters into their own hands. And so they have filed suit against the Israeli government for criminal negligence. Whether or not they will be able to secure the ruling they seek, Rachel Corrie’s family has already elicited a number of damning revelations about the Israeli army’s abuses in Gaza in 2003 and the machinations it has relied on to obscure evidence of its criminal conduct.

“I think we are in a situation similar to South Africa. What we are trying to make clear is that the truth has to be pursued diligently or we won’t make it to the point of reconciliation,” Craig Corrie told me, referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that enabled South Africa to peacefully transition from an apartheid system to representative democracy. “We need to understand and acknowledge the truth first.”

So far, the truth has not been easy to come by. The Corries are saddled with a judge who is said to have never ruled in favor of any plaintiff in a civil rights-related suit. And the defense has claimed unspecified state security concerns in its successful bid to avoid revealing the full contents of the investigation into Rachel Corrie’s killing — the family’s lawyers have only been allowed to view a summary. But the Corries’ legal efforts have not been in vain.

On the first day of hearings, the Corries’ lawyers were able to confirm through testimony from “Oded,” one of the investigators of Rachel Corrie’s killing, that Major General Doron Almog, then the head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command, had attempted to stop the military investigators from questioning the bulldozer operators who killed Rachel. When asked why he did not challenge Almog’s apparently illegal intervention, Oded stated that he was only 20-years-old at the time, with no college education and only a few months of training as an investigator. He was intimidated by the high-ranking officer who stormed into the room and menaced him and the other investigators. (Almog once canceled a trip to Britain after being warned that he would be arrested on arrival for ordering the destruction of 59 homes in the Rafah refugee camp in 2002).

Among the most disturbing aspects of Corrie’s case is the abuse of her body by Israeli authorities after she was killed. Craig Corrie recalled to me a panicked phone conversation he had with Will Hewitt, a friend and former classmate of Rachel Corrie who had just witnessed her killing.

“It’s getting dark over here and there are no refrigeration units for her body in Gaza,” Hewitt told Craig Corrie.

“Just leave it until tomorrow,” Craig replied. “We don’t want you or anyone else to get killed.”

“But her body is starting to smell,” Hewitt pleaded.

Somehow Hewitt and his fellow activists from the International Solidarity Movement were able to get Rachel Corrie’s body out of Gaza. But first Hewitt was ordered by Israeli troops to remove the body from the casket and carry it across a border checkpoint. Only Hewitt was allowed to escort Corrie’s body in the ambulance; the rest of the activists who witnessed her death were forced to hitchhike home in the desert. Finally, Corrie’s body was transported to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv where the notorious Dr. Yehuda Hiss autopsied her.

Who is Dr. Hiss? The chief pathologist of Israel for a decade and a half, Hiss was implicated by a 2001 investigation by the Israeli Health Ministry of stealing body parts ranging from legs to testicles to ovaries from bodies without permission from family members then selling them to research institutes. Bodies plundered by Hiss included those of Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. He was finally removed from his post in 2004 when the body of a teenage boy killed in a traffic accident was discovered to have been thoroughly gnawed on by a rat in Hiss’s laboratory. In an interview with researcher Nancy Schepper-Hughes, Hiss admitted that he harvested organs if he was confident relatives would not discover that they were missing. He added that he often used glue to close eyelids to hide missing corneas.

When Craig and Cindy Corrie learned that Hiss would perform an autopsy on their daughter, they stipulated that they would only allow the doctor to go forward if an official from the American consulate was present throughout the entire procedure. An Israeli military police report stated that an American official did indeed witness the autopsy. However, when the Corries asked American diplomatic officials including former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzner if the report was true, they were informed that no American was present at all. The Israelis had lied to them, and apparently fixed their own report to deceive the American government.

On March 14, during the first round of hearings in the Corries’ civil suit, Hiss admitted under oath that he had lied about the presence of an American official during the autopsy of Rachel Corrie. He also conceded to taking “samples” from Corrie’s body for “histological testing” without informing her family. Just which parts of Corrie’s body Hiss took remains unclear; despite Hiss’s claim that he “buried” the samples, her family has not confirmed the whereabouts of her missing body parts.

“It’s so hard to know that Rachel’s body wasn’t respected,” Rachel’s sister, Sarah, told me. “Doctor Hiss and the Israeli government knew what our family’s wishes were. The fact that our wishes were disregarded and a judge hasn’t done anything is absolutely horrifying.”

The treatment of Rachel Corrie’s body is peripheral to her family’s lawsuit. But it demonstrates the degree to which she and those whose homes she died defending have been dehumanized — “there are no civilians during wartime,” as Colonel Yossi declared. Rachel Corrie’s family is seeking only one dollar in symbolic punitive damages from the Israeli government. Their real goal is to force a country in a perpetual state of warfare to treat its innocent victims as human beings, and to be held accountable if it does not.

“It is incredibly expensive for us to carry this case on both emotionally and financially,” Craig Corrie remarked. “It is a whole lot to ask of a private citizen. But as a family we still have the ability to do a lot, so we are going to carry this cause on for everyone who cannot.”


TimeIsrael’s Military on the Spot Over Activist’s Death
By Karl Vick / Haifa 9 September 2010

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The day after the American activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by the armored Israeli bulldozer she was trying to stop from destroying a Palestinian home, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised U.S. President George W. Bush “a thorough, credible and transparent investigation.” It was the least that could be expected after the death of a U.S. citizen at the hands of its closest ally.

Seven years, two Prime Ministers and one President later, Corrie’s parents sat in the front row of Haifa District Court on Sunday, a white-haired couple struggling to get to the bottom of their daughter’s death. Corrie v. the State of Israel, a civil suit, is also putting a withering spotlight on Israel’s conduct since March 16, 2003. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

“She was hurt by a grenade; this is the information that was given to us,” said Oded (his last name was withheld for security reasons), one of the three military police investigators who conducted the official inquiry into the death — an effort the testimony painted as slipshod at best. “I don’t remember who said it.”

“How many grenades were there?” asked Hussein Abu Hussein, an attorney for the Corrie family.

Oded: “I don’t remember.”

Hussein: “You didn’t record it?”

Oded: “I don’t know.”

Hussein: “Who threw the grenade?”

Oded: “I believe hostile forces, but I don’t know.”

As the attorney bore down, Oded shot a look at the table where two lawyers for the state of Israel sat. The look said, Can you believe this? But with a wave of his hand, the judge spared the witness from digging through the case file for answers. “No,” said Judge Oded Gershon from the bench, “we know that it is untrue that a grenade was thrown.”

What, then, do we know is true? Neither thorough nor credible, and every bit as transparent as a sandstorm, Israel’s investigation of Corrie’s death sheds little light on what happened — the grenade story apparently came out of thin air — but is providing a great deal of fodder for her family’s case against the state. Heard intermittently in the manner of Israel’s court system, the case may not conclude until November. But it has already validated anew Richard Nixon’s timeless observation that it is the cover-up that does you in.

“What, did you kill him?” a soldier asked after Corrie disappeared beneath the blade of a D9R Caterpillar, wreathed in armor for use by the Israel Defense Forces. “May God have mercy on him,” came the reply. The striking exchange, between Israeli soldiers speaking in Arabic, was not included in the report’s transcript of radio transmissions, the former investigator acknowledged on the stand. He said he didn’t think it was important.

Oded testified that the interview of the bulldozer driver was halted on the order of a senior commander. He also testified that investigators waited a week to retrieve from another unit the only known videotape of the incident; failed to interview non-military eyewitnesses; ignored the ambulance workers, doctors and other Palestinians who treated her; and did not even visit the scene of her death. That was a neighborhood in the Gaza Strip where a handful of foreign-born protesters with the International Solidarity Movement tried to do what Palestinians could not do themselves if they expected to survive: turn themselves into human shields between Israeli bulldozers and the Palestinian homes the bulldozers were trying to tear down on the grounds that they provided cover for gunmen and tunnels.

The army maintains that Corrie’s death was an accident: because of the armored plating around the cab, the driver, who is scheduled to testify next month, could not see her, even in a fluorescent orange vest. But on Monday the expert witness whose study of sightlines backed up that claim confirmed on the stand that he in fact set out to support the army’s narrative.

Afterward, Craig Corrie despaired at how easily the contradictions were coming.

“It was really depressing, because my impression was the people were making statements that indicated they never expected to be questioned,” Rachel’s father told TIME. “The lies were like the lies of a 7-year-old.”

Composed and genial, the Corries cut an impressive figure in the sun-drenched Haifa courthouse. After quitting his job as an insurance actuary, Craig and his wife Cindy made full-time work of ascertaining the truth about their daughter’s death. That meant immersing themselves, as she had done, in the situation of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. Although the imminent invasion of Iraq had kept her story, and the plight of the Gazans, largely out of the headlines at the time, the recent Israeli raid that killed nine Turkish activists aboard a boat intent on breaking Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled coastal strip has put it back in the spotlight. Weeks later another boat filled with Irish activists approached; its name: the MV Rachel Corrie.

“Like a lot of Americans, we were really removed from what was going on there,” said Cindy of life before her daughter’s death. The education that had begun with Rachel’s e-mails deepened profoundly when they met residents of Gaza in person, making new friends and worrying for their lives, too, during Israel’s massive military offensive against Gaza in January 2009 in response to Hamas rocket fire.

“We’d call a Palestinian friend to see how he was doing,” Craig said. “And he’d say, ‘Listen to this,’ and hold the phone out. It was just what Rachel used to do: ‘Listen to this.’ And you’d hear the explosions.”

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