A jury has ruled that a British activist shot while trying to protect small children from Israeli gunfire in the Gaza Strip was "intentionally killed" by Israeli forces. The ruling comes just a week after a similar verdict on the killing of British journalist James Miller, who was killed in the same area of Gaza in 2003, just three weeks before Hurndall was shot. Israel boycotted the trial.
Tom Hurndall, from north London, was wearing an orange jacket to mark him out as a peace activist when he was killed in Rafah in 2003. He was killed one month after American peace activist Rachel Corrie was run over by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to protect a Palestinian home from being demolished. Both were volunteers with the International Solidarity Movement, a coalition of international and Palestinian peace activists that put themselves in harms way to protect children and other non-combatants, and keep watch at checkpoints for abuses by the Israeli military.
The 22-year-old had been trying to move young Palestinian children from the line of fire when he was hit in the head. He was left in a coma and died nine months later.
Just two weeks after Hurndall was shot, the Israeli military launched a massive offensive into Rafah refugee camp, where Hurndall had been killed, leading fellow peace activists to believe that the killing of Hurndall and Corrie (also killed in Rafah) were intentional acts by the Israeli military to get rid of the international presence in Rafah, in order to move ahead with the attack. British journalist James Miller was also killed in the same area just three weeks before Hurndall was killed. No internationals or foreign media were present in Rafah during the invasion, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed and over 50 homes destroyed.
Speaking after Monday’s hearing, the Hurndall family representative, Michael Mansfield QC, said the family was delighted with the verdict. However, he stressed there was still work to be done. "Make no mistake about it, the Israeli defense forces have today been found culpable by this jury of murder," he said.
The family accused the Israeli authorities of a "cover-up", calling on the British government to take action under the Geneva convention. They said the British government should investigate, and if necessary extradite, the five Israeli officers they believe made up the a chain of command which led to Mr. Hurndall being shot.
Hurndall’s mother had earlier criticized the government for not speaking out about her son’s death. "We are astonished to this day that Tony Blair has never publicly condemned the shooting of Tom," Joyce Hurndall said. "It is necessary for the Israelis to hear condemnation from him."
She said the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, had never seemed to "expect an apology" from the Israelis over the shooting.
Initially, the Israeli army denied a soldier from an army watchtower had shot Mr Hurndall, but witnesses at the demonstration in the Palestinian town of Rafah said he had been hit by a rifle bullet while trying to shield the children. The initial report from the Israeli military after the shooting stated that Hurndall had been carrying a weapon, and the mass media reported this is fact, but the military later had to retract this false statement, as dozens of witnesses testified that Hurndall was unarmed, wearing a fluorescent jacket, and attempting to move small children who were being shot at by Israeli soldiers.
Following a hard-fought campaign by the peace activist’s family, ex-sergeant Taysir Hayb was convicted at an Israeli military court of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison last year. He was the first soldier to be convicted over the death of a foreign national during recent Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The inquest heard how Mr Hurndall, who had been taking photographs in Iraq before going to the Gaza Strip with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist group, had contemplated what it would be like to be hit by a bullet.
Ms Hurndall said she had received an email from Tom on April 11, just hours before the shooting. He reported being "shot at, gassed and chased" by soldiers during the five days he was in Rafah and described the danger that both he and the Palestinians were facing.
She also described what she thought had been her son’s last words. Around half an hour before he was shot, he had been talking to a Palestinian man, who had been telling him how difficult life was for residents in Rafah, she told the hearing.
"Tom put his hand on his shoulder and said: ‘We want to make a difference’," she said. "Really, those were his last words."
Mr. Hurndall’s father, Anthony, told the hearing that his son and other activists from the ISM had gone out to try and block tanks that had been shooting into houses at random. He said Tom had seen a group of ten to 15 children playing on a mound of sand, and noticed that bullets were hitting the ground between them. The children fled, but several were overcome with fear and could not move.
"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."
Anthony Hurndall said the Israelis had initially admitted someone had been shot, but claimed it had been a gunman who had opened fire first.
After photographs of Tom having been shot in the head emerged, the Israeli military later admitted that Hayb – a sentry who had won prizes for marksmanship – had shot him using telescopic sights.
"They just lied continuously," Mr Hurndall’s father said. "It was a case of them shooting civilians and then making up a story. And they were not used to being challenged."
There had been a "general policy" for soldiers to be able to shoot civilians in that area without fear of reprisals, he added.
Although Hayb had been sentenced, the issue of the "culture" within the Israeli army had not been addressed, he said. "This goes much higher up the chain."
The ten-person jury at the inquest into the death of Mr. Hurndall,also expressed its "dismay with the lack of cooperation from the Israeli authorities".
Mr. Hurndall was shot a mile away from where the award-winning cameraman James Miller had died three weeks beforehand. Last week, a jury ruled the Israeli defense force had deliberately killed the 34-year-old during the incident in May 2003.
The coroner, Dr Andrew Reid, said he would be writing to the attorney general to see whether there was any further legal action that could be taken in relation to the deaths.