JERUSALEM — In any other week, the death of Rachel Corrie would have touched off furious international shock waves. A blond, attractive 23-year-old American college student, Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer last Sunday while she stood with a group of fellow peace activists trying to stop a home demolition in Gaza.
The army called her death a “regrettable accident,” claiming the bulldozer driver had not seen her through his narrow windshield. Her fellow activists rejected the claim, insisting she had been standing on a mound of earth and was clearly visible to the driver, who rolled his massive machine back and forth over her body before halting. Some eyewitness reports indicated she had slipped and fallen at a moment when the driver may have been looking behind him.
At Corrie’s home in Olympia, Wash., where she was a student at Evergreen State College, there were vigils and calls for an international investigation. A columnist in The Seattle Times called her a “martyr,” comparing her to the students who died at Kent State and Tiananmen Square. Amnesty International called for an independent probe, and Democratic Rep. Brian Baird, of Washington, said that Corrie’s death “doesn’t seem to be an accident” and announced he would introduce a resolution in Congress calling for an American investigation of the incident. The State Department has expressed confidence that Israel’s own investigators would uncover the truth.
By Wednesday, however, the story had all but disappeared from the world press, dwarfed by the approaching war in Iraq. An angry chatter continued on the Internet, where pro-Palestinian activists continued to rail against what they called the “murder” of Corrie. For the rest of the world, it seemed Corrie would be remembered as just one more casualty in the increasingly violent, worldwide war against terrorism.
For Israelis, however, Corrie’s death was something else: the latest in a growing number of signs that Israel’s own war has taken a new and worrying turn in recent days. Just days earlier, two Israeli security guards outside the P’nei Hever settlement, near Hebron, had been killed by troops who mistook them for terrorists. Within 24 hours after Corrie’s death, Israeli anti-terrorism sweeps had resulted in 13 new Palestinian deaths, including a 2-year-old toddler.
Figures published this week by the army indicate that some 18% of the Palestinians killed since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000 have been civilians with no connection whatsoever to terrorism.
The study, undertaken by the defense establishment itself, shows that of the estimated 1,945 Palestinians killed, 365 were people in no way connected with terrorist activities; of the total killed, 130 (7%) were children under the age of 16 and 235 (11%) were adults unconnected with terrorism, many of them women and elderly people. The army’s figures of the number of people killed are lower than figures compiled by Palestinian organizations, which set the number of Palestinian deaths in the intifada at 2,181.
The deaths of the two Israeli guards, however, seemed to many Israelis to represent something new, bringing home the relentless toll of blood in a way that other deaths had not. One of the two was killed in a hail of Israeli bullets when army sharpshooters saw the pair squatting on a barren hillside and opened fire without asking questions. The other managed to escape the bullets, only to be killed by a missile fired from a helicopter gunship.
The deaths of the two young Israelis, Yoav Doron and Yehuda Ben-Yosef, stayed in the headlines for days, prompting rounds of soul-searching and finger-pointing over how Israel’s vaunted soldiers could have made such a mistake.
That soul-searching, in turn, became itself a topic of soul-searching. “Had yesterday’s incident near the settlement of P’nei Hever ended with the death of two Palestinians, the story would probably not have merited more than a few lines in this morning’s papers,” wrote Amos Harel, the respected military analyst of the daily Ha’aretz newspaper.
By this week, after the death of Corrie and the bloody 24 hours that followed, more questions were being asked. “The IDF,” Ha’aretz wrote in an editorial this week, “which brought up generations of soldiers on the myth of purity of arms and educated its commanders with the idea of the moral, deliberating soldier, who takes tough decisions, while thinking of humane considerations, is turning into a killing machine whose efficiency is awe-inspiring, yet shocking.”
For the vast majority of Israelis, such questions are beside the point. Most Israelis retain a steadfast faith in their military’s basic good will. “I know for a fact that we try to prevent these mistakes,” said Asa Kasher, a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and the author of Israel’s military code of ethics. “And when they do happen, we learn from them and regret them endlessly. A member of the army’s general staff told me this week that they didn’t sleep at night after these things — those two guys and the American.”
Kasher said the army has strict procedures in place to ensure that such mistakes are kept to a minimum. “Any hit against people who are not involved with terror ends up with an investigation delivered personally to the chief of staff,” he said. “It is that serious.”
But the army’s statistics do not necessarily bear out that confidence. According to information provided by the army spokesman’s office and published in Ha’aretz last October, two years after the outbreak of the intifada, some 1,600 Palestinian deaths up to that point had resulted in just 220 Military Police investigations being opened, including only 30 probes involving improper use of weapons by soldiers. Eleven Israeli soldiers had been convicted on such weapons charges, resulting in jail terms, suspended sentences or demotions.
Avshalom Vilan, a former commando now serving as a Knesset member representing the left-wing Meretz party, says he is worried that something has gone wrong. “I think,” he told the Forward, “that we have gotten light on the trigger.”
“The fight against terror is difficult,” Vilan said. “But I think we are becoming hardhearted. We are helping to create the next generation of terrorists. We send tanks into refugee camps, and there are children who remain traumatized whom we will meet in 10 or 15 years as terrorists.”
For most Israelis, however, the requirements of the war against terrorism make such considerations seem petty. “These are defensive acts, preventive acts,” said senior defense expert David Ivry, a former ambassador to Washington. “There is never, ever an intent to attack innocent people. That is the difference between terror and acts which are not terror.”
The mounting death tolls have not resulted in the once-common Israeli anxiety that international pressure will be directed against it. To the contrary, said a source familiar with American-Israeli contacts at the highest level, “that would have been true before 9/11, but it just isn’t part of the picture now.”
Ivry, who served as ambassador in Washington at the time of the terrorist attacks there and in New York, confirmed that a “very significant change took place.”
“Before 9/11 the issue of targeted killings, for example, was critiqued in the administration,” Ivry said. “Following the attacks, I can’t remember a single person complaining. They began to understand that the only war against terror is a preventive war.”