Dying for Peace: The Tom Hurndall Story
by Mohammed Al Shafey
9 April 2007
London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Jocelyn finds it painful to recollect her memories when she speaks about the suffering she endured while wandering down the corridors of Beer Sheva’s Soroka hospital in search of her son after he had been shot. She is the mother of Thomas Hurndall, a British peace activist who was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper while trying to get Palestinian children out of the line of gunfire in Rafah, Gaza Strip in April 2003.
“There were many Palestinian women dressed in black inside and outside of the hospital lobbies,” Jocelyn said, “and elderly men who dressed in white.” She said that she had initially thought they had come in search of their children only to find out that they had come to check up on her son, Tom. Tom was shot while attempting to rescue Palestinian children during a demonstration in Rafah, he was felled by a bullet fired at him by a soldier from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
After lying in a coma for nine months in a London hospital Tom lost his struggle for life. His mother said, “I used to look into the faces of the elderly Palestinians around me, sometimes they would speak to me in Arabic or in silence. I would see their eyes brimming with tears and the wrinkles of suffering on their faces; with them I felt that time had stopped.” Today, she feels that Salem, the 9-year-old boy whom her son Tom had lost his life to save, is a member of her own family.
Asharq Al Awsat met with Tom’s mother, Jocelyn, in a quiet street in North West London two days after the publication of her new book ‘Defy the Stars’ which was issued on the fourth anniversary of her son’s accident. Inside the elegant and carefully arranged house are many pictures of Tom throughout the various stages of his life; as a child and a young man, a journalism and photography student at Manchester Metropolitan University and a young activist and member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) dedicated to the Palestinian cause [the ISM is a Palestinian-led group which campaigns against Israeli occupation using non-violence]. The images and memories are spread throughout each of the rooms; his mother said that many of the pictures were taken by his girlfriend Michelle.
Jocelyn talked about the difficult times she went through after Tom was shot and still vividly remembers the moment when Sophie, her daughter, rang her in the school where she works to tell her that Tom had a serious head injury after being shot while using his body as a human shield to protect children in Rafah. She recalled arriving on April 14th, 2003 at Ben Gurion International airport at half past five in the morning and was received by a British diplomat three days after the incident. At one o’clock in the afternoon she stood in front of the hill on which her son had been shot. This is where she saw the Palestinian women who were dressed in black, “I felt that we were suffering the same loss and that our grief was shared. These women lose their children in the resistance on a daily basis. I felt that Tom had become one of their heroes or one of their sons,” she said.
Although she has witnessed the manifestations of racism in South Africa, Jocelyn said it was easy for her to discern the difference and the scale to realize that what the Palestinians are being subjected to on a daily basis are severe human rights violations. At the hospital she had found an Israeli nurse crying bitterly by the door of her son’s room, apologizing for what the Israeli soldiers had done to her son. “Upon my arrival at the hospital, the doctors informed me that Tom only had a few days to live due to the severity of his injury. He was suffering from multiple skull fractures. The bullet had lodged into his brain and left residual traces that caused severe brain damage,” she said and added that, “Our lives were turned upside down after what happened to Tom. I left the school where I had worked and was about to get promoted to the position of school principle. We stayed at Tom’s bedside for two months in the Israeli hospital. Myself, my husband Anthony and my children Sophie, Billy and Freddie would alternate as we waited by his side. We were later able to move him to a hospital in Britain.
But Jocelyn said that she did not try to prevent her son from volunteering in the Palestinian territories as an ISM activist and neither did she prevent him from going to Baghdad to photograph the human shields who had volunteered to protect Iraqi civilians against the threat of the US-British aggression. While in Baghdad Tom heard about Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old American activist and member of the ISM who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent the demolition of a house in Rafah. Jocelyn explained that her son had had a special gift of foresight so that he knew what his path was in life. She knew that she could never have been able to prevent him from going to Iraq or Palestine and added, “he had control over his future and went towards it according to his own will. If I could go back in time I know I still wouldn’t be able to change anything that was his fate. Since my arrival to the hospital I felt that he might never recover. He died peacefully nine months after the accident,” she affirmed.
However she feels that justice has not been served despite the fact that the IDF soldier, ex-sergeant Taysir Hayb, has been convicted on charges of manslaughter in June 2003 and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Still, she stated that during the trial the soldier kept repeating the same words over and again: “I was only carrying out orders.” She believes that the real perpetrator responsible for the murder of her son is the Israeli military establishment or the general in charge of training the IDF soldiers stationed in the south. That same general attended the trial and praised the Israeli soldier who had murdered her son, hailing his morals and excellent conduct. It was later revealed that this same soldier was previously imprisoned for drug abuse. She remained dissatisfied with the fact that the soldier was put on trial for the shooting while the senior officials were not subjected to any accusations. “The Israeli politicians and the military officials who trained her son’s killer are the ones who should be in prison,” she said.
Mrs. Hurndall explained that the case is still open at the office of British attorney general Lord Goldsmith pending further details from Israeli forensic medicine reports so as to enable the arrest of others and serve the long-awaited justice. “There were surveillance cameras on the site but they were directed towards the Egyptian side of the Rafah border. If only these cameras were aimed in the other direction we would have been able to find out more details about the shooting,” she said.
“To this day I still wait for British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to condemn the Israeli military establishment but despite my urging it has yet to happen. On one occasion I asked him personally and angrily to condemn the accident but it became clear that he had his own interests to protect in addition to being worried by the strong ‘Jewish Lobby’ in Britain,” she said. On an official level, the British government has not done much. Despite many officials stating that the British government exerted pressure on the Israeli government to bring about the required transparency and impartiality throughout the investigations around her son’s death, she maintains that their promises were not sincere. However, she added that a group of British representatives in the House of Commons stood by her.
After repeatedly trying and failing to meet with one Israeli official, it was on the day before they left Israel that the Hurndall family was summoned to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. They were assured that the Israeli soldiers did not see Tom as their view was blocked by buildings they said. Anthony, Tom’s father, protested saying that there was a watchtower and cameras and requested to see the recorded tapes but was told that none existed. Jocelyn continued to say that at the ministry they were given a bounced cheque worth £8,370. And although the sum was meant to cover the expenses of her son’s transfer to the UK and was only a fraction of the aforementioned expense, they still got nothing out of it.
But the Hurndalls continue to receive letters of support from all over the world, including Palestine. Tom is the third member of the ISM to have been killed or injured in the Palestinian territories within the same month. When Anthony Hurndall, a lawyer, tried to write a report comprised of the testimonies of witnesses to indicate the Israeli army’s responsibility in the death, the report issued by Israel was full of falsehoods, conflicting facts and accounts, misinformation and even a claim that it was a Palestinian who had shot his son. One of the accounts said that Tom was the sniper who opened fire. During the Israeli soldier’s trial, the Israeli army referred to a medical expert that blamed British doctors claiming that they had given Hayb a strong dose of morphine. The map included in the report was invalid; the site were Tom was struck down was wrong. There were conflicting reports over the number of bullets fired, all of which were said to have been shot to break up the demonstration.
“Generals turn a blind eye to what happens in Palestinian territories against Arab citizens,” said Jocelyn. Ex-sergeant Taysir Hayb, the soldier imprisoned for shooting her son was a Bedouin Arab whom she said appeared to have been suffering from a learning disability in addition to not being able to speak or read Hebrew. She stressed that it was known that many Bedouin Arabs join the Israeli army to improve their social status. “When the verdict was pronounced, I felt that my son was the victim of another victim because it is the military officials that should be persecuted. Her voice trembles and tears fill her eyes when she recalls the old Palestinian man who rushed to her side when she first arrived for the first time with a British diplomat at the location were Tom was shot, “Time had engraved trenches of suffering on his face. He spoke to me in Arabic and made some gestures with his hands, his eyes overflowing with tears. It was as though he wanted to tell me that we were sharing the same pain and that their sons die everyday. I was so traumatized to see how they were living and suffering such a life under the Israeli occupation. Even the elderly women, although silent, conveyed that here was a Western European family sharing the pain that they have to endure every day and the danger that they have to survive and struggle against. It was a most simple and most poignant message.”