The family of Rachel Corrie had a long and painful wait for the opportunity to come face to face in court with the driver of the Israeli Army bulldozer that crushed her to death in southern Gaza more than seven years ago. But yesterday they were denied the chance – listening instead to the driver's voice from behind a screen during four hours of testimony as he gave his own version of what happened on that fateful March afternoon.
They heard the 38-year-old insist repeatedly that the first time he had seen the American non-violent activist was after he had gone into reverse, she had been fatally hit and friends had rushed to her aid. "I didn't see her before the incident," the Russian-born former reservist said. "I saw people pulling the body from the earth."
The former driver, named in court only as YB after a gagging order forbidding publication of any identifying details, was visible only to the lawyers and the judge presiding over the civil suit being brought by the family against the State of Israel.
Ms Corrie had been in Rafah in 2003 as part of an International Solidarity Movement group seeking to protect Palestinians from house demolitions when she died. An army investigation concluded she was partially hidden behind a dirt mound and ruled her death was an accident. The driver and his commander were not charged or tried and no one was punished.
The driver said at one point yesterday that he heard over his headphones that he had hit a person. "I drove backwards and I didn't understand what was happening. There was a thought that something wasn't right. I wasn't sure. There was just a possibility I had hit someone."
Ms Corrie's mother Cindy said after yesterday's hearing that the family had appealed for at least herself, her husband and Rachel's sister to be allowed to see the former driver give evidence, but had been refused.
"I do feel the state of Israel is saying that Craig, Sarah and I are security risks. I am affronted by this. I wanted to see the whole person, not just hear the words."
The driver's evidence painted an at times confusing and contradictory picture which exposed apparent deviations from statements made by witnesses – including himself – to a Military Police investigation.
While two soldiers had said she was buried while standing on the far side of a mound of earth – away from the approaching bulldozer – YB declared: "I am absolutely certain that she was between me and the pile."
He said that with protective armour on the front of his 66-ton bulldozer, he had a "dead" area of vision which meant that he could see ground only from about 30 metres in front of him. When he was reminded that he had told the military police that the dead area was only three metres, he insisted: "It's not three or four metres. It's more."
On the fact that he had not gone to help Ms Corrie as she lay on the ground he said: "We are not allowed to leave our vehicles." Asked why he had not radioed for an ambulance, he said: "It was not at my level of command." He acknowledged that he knew there were foreign activists in the area.
When the family's attorney, Hussein Abu Hussein, put it to him that he had nevertheless been ordered by his commander to keep working, he insisted that he had seen no one in his path.
He added: "I told him that there are people around. Our instructions were not to stop and we can't allow them to stop us working. It was not my decision, it was the officer's. I am a soldier. You carry out orders." His unit had been told, among a "whole bunch of things", to be "careful" and that there were civilians in the area.
Asked later in his testimony if he had seen the foreign activists carrying anything that suggested they were "terrorists" he said: "They were carrying loudspeakers and a sign." Asked further if he had suspected they were dangerous, he said: "I suspect everyone."
Mrs Corrie said: "I wanted to keep Rachel's humility and compassion for everyone in my heart but it was very hard because I did not hear one word of remorse from the witness today."
She added: "My sense is that there were other people on the ground and in the rear who were giving the orders... and allowed the things that happened to Rachel and continue to happen."
In the firing line...
Tom Hurndall, a 21-year-old British photojournalism student and volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) – the same organisation for which Rachel Corrie worked – died in January 2004, nine months after being shot in Gaza by an Israel Defense Forces sniper. Taysir Hayb was convicted of manslaughter by an Israeli military court in 2005.
Just three weeks after Tom Hurndall's shooting, another Briton, the documentary-maker James Miller, was shot and killed in the Gazan city of Rafah. His film, Death in Gaza, depicted Miller and his colleagues carrying a white flag as they walked through a refugee camp. The Israeli army decided that the soldier suspected of firing the shot would not be indicted as they could not establish for certain that his shot was responsible.
Another ISM volunteer, the American Tristan Anderson, was critically injured after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops in March last year, as they tried to disperse a demonstration. Anderson underwent emergency brain surgery in Israel, where doctors had to remove part of his frontal lobe and fragments of shattered bone. Anderson's girlfriend, an American-Israeli, said he was taking photographs when the canister was fired. After more than a year in a Tel Aviv hospital, Anderson returned home to California.