Exactly 9 years ago from today, on January 13th, 2004, Tom Hurndall succumbed to his injuries from a gunshot wound to the head which was inflicted by an Israeli Defense Forces Sniper.
Thomas “Tom” Hurndall was a British photography student, a volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), and an activist against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In December 2002 Kenneth O’Keefe, an ex-US Marine and Gulf War veteran, posted a call to action for large numbers of western citizens to migrate to Iraq and deploy themselves as “Human Shields”. The Human shield action to Iraq was a group of people who traveled to Iraq to act as human shields with the purpose of preventing the U.S.-led coalition troops from bombing certain locations during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
At the age of 21 Tom Hurndall took a break from his degree course in photojournalism and joined the human shields in Iraq before the start of the 2003 Iraq war.
The volunteers eventually ran out of money and the start of a war became inevitable. Tom then moved to Jordan and donated £500 to medical supplies for refugees from Iraq. It was in Jordan that Tom encountered the International Solidarity Movement and decided to make a visit to Palestine.
He arrived in the town of Rafah on April 6th, 2004 and began emailing images of the IDF and the Palestinians back to his family. In his Guardian obituary it says “the tone of his journals changed dramatically” with his arrival in Palestine.
Tom even wrote of the death of Rachel Corrie, who had been crushed to death by an Israeli defence force bulldozer while acting as a human shield near the Rafah refugee camp.
“I wonder how few or many people heard it on the news and just counted it as another death, just another number … ” wrote Tom.
In April 2003, the IDF were on a mission in the Gaza border town of Rafah. Hurndall and a group of activists were in the area with the intention of setting up a peace tent on one of the nearby roads to block the IDF tank patrols, it was then that Israeli Soldiers began shooting. Everyone ran for safety, however, Tom’s father told a British inquest that, according to ISM and Palestinian witnesses, Tom had seen a group of children playing and had noticed that bullets were hitting the ground between them. Several children had run away but some were “paralysed with fear” and Hurndall went to help them. Hurndall’s father told the inquest: “Tom went to take one girl out of the line of fire, which he did successfully, but when he went back, as he knelt down [to collect another], he was shot.
At the time of the shooting Tom was in plain view of the sniper towers and was wearing a bright orange fluorescent jacket with reflective stripes and was clearly unarmed. According to other ISM activists “there was no shooting or resistance coming from the Palestinian side at all.” It is also reported that an ambulance came very quickly, about 2 minutes after the shooting.
Hurndall’s parents demanded an investigation of their son’s death and in October 2003 Israel’s Judge Advocate General, Menachem Finkelstein, ordered the IDF to open a further military police investigation into Hurndall’s death.
Israeli soldier, 20 year old Idier Wahid Taysir Hayb, claimed, he had shot at a man in military fatigues, however, photographic evidence clearly showed Hurndall was wearing a bright orange jacket indicating he was a foreigner. Hayb was an award-winning marksman and his rifle had a telescopic sight. He claimed to have aimed four inches from Hurndall’s head, “but he moved”.
The defence in the trial of Sergeant Hayb attempted to raise doubts as to what ultimately caused Hurndall’s death. Chen Kugel, an Israeli forensic pathologist appearing for the defence, attempted to convince the court that Hurndall died of pneumonia, he stated that the pneumonia had not been properly treated and “the large amounts of morphine” Hurndall was receiving contributed to his death. The court, however, rejected these false claims.
On 1 January 2004, Sergeant Hayb appeared in court to have his custody extended. Hayb was arrested in late December 2003 and an IDF press release said that he had “admitted to firing in proximity to an unarmed civilian as a deterrent.” Hayb initially admitted to shooting, what he described, as a man wearing a uniform of a Palestinian faction and armed with a pistol. After further interrogation he changed his story and said that he had fired a shot near an unarmed civilians as a warning, but ended up hitting him by mistake.
Hayb was indicated on six charges : Aggravated Assault; two counts of Obstruction of Justice; Incitement to False Testimony; False Testimony; and Improper Conduct.
On 27 June 2005, Hayb was convicted of manslaughter, obstruction of justice, giving false testimony and inducing comrades in his unit to bear false witness; and, on 11 August 2005, he was sentenced to eleven and a half years for manslaughter by a military court, of which he was to serve eight years in prison.
Hayb was released on September 8, 2010, only having served six and a half years of his sentence after an army committe concluded that he “no longer posed any threat to society in their view.”
Tom Hurndall died on January 13th 2004 at the tender age of 22 on a Tuesday night in a London hospital due to complications with pneumonia. After being shot he spent 9 months in a coma while in a vegetative state.
Tom Hurndall’s family and their legal team were denied any access to the military police report which led to the trial. After an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court the state prosecution offered the legal team access to the report, but not to the Hurndall family. According to a spokesman for the Tom Hurndall Foundation this will allow them to decide whether Hayb could be indicted for the more serious charge of murder, and to find out if responsibility for Hurndall’s death lies higher up the chain of command.
On 10 April 2006, a British inquest jury at St Pancras coroner’s court in London found that Hurndall had been “unlawfully killed”. Hurndall’s father told reporters that there had been a “general policy” to shoot civilians in the area without fear of retaliation, as stated by the soldier who fired the shot, Taysir Hayb. Hayb had earlier told a military tribunal that the Israeli army “fires freely in Rafah.”
“They shot our son but they can’t kill his spirit.”– Tom’s parents, Anthony and Jocelyn Hurndall, during a 2008 interview with The Observer.
Also, on January 10th, 2004, Jocelyn Hurndall, Tom’s mother, wrote a commentary in The Guardian, which stated:
“It seems that life is cheap in the occupied territories. Different value attached to life depends on whether the victim happens to be Israeli, international or Palestinian.”
“What do I want from this life? What makes you happy is not enough. All the things that satisfy our instincts only satisfy the animal in us. I want to be proud of myself. I want more. I want to look up to myself and when I die, I want to smile because of the things I have done, not cry for the things I haven’t done.”
Tom Hurndall is a true Palestinian hero.
His memory will live on forever.