|Parents fight to learn why Israeli sniper shot their son|
As trial is shaken by claims of cover-up, family fears activist`s death will never be explained
Sunday January 30, 2005
Tom Hurndall thought he might be shot, but hoped he wouldn`t be too severely injured. In the final reckoning, the 22-year-old`s premonition was fatally realised.
Hurndall was hit in the forehead by a high-velocity bullet fired by an Israeli soldier as he worked as a peace activist in the Gaza Strip 20 months ago. The bullet entered cleanly enough, but then splintered into hundreds of tiny pieces. Hurndall never regained consciousness, dying nine months later and 2,200 miles away in a London hospital.
Now the trial into the shooting of the `Britisher` is about to reach its conclusion, bringing to an end an episode that has strained diplomatic relations between Britain and Israel and raised fresh concern over Israeli policies towards the Occupied Territories.
It is a concern that has refused to fade away. An Observer investigation into the shooting has uncovered allegations of missing evidence, fabricated testimony and a military cover-up.
Disquiet is mounting among British government officials whose repeated requests for evidence that could determine if Hurndall was shot deliberately have been rejected. The missing documents, understood to include an Israeli military police inquiry, could mean a manslaughter charge for the man who shot Hurndall being upgraded to murder.
In addition, the North London coroner, Dr Andrew Reid, whose inquest into Hurndall`s death has been adjourned until the trial is over, has said he is `outraged` that an agreement to share vital evidence with Israeli authorities was broken.
After passing on his findings, including detailed pathology reports, to Israeli officials, he was told that nothing would be given in return. Similarly, a Metropolitan Police investigation to determine the wider events surrounding Hurndall`s death - whether there was systematic shooting at civilians in the Occupied Territories - has been refused permission to extend its inquiries into Israel.
The sergeant who fired the shot that killed Hurndall was today due to take the stand in a bleak military court on the edge of the desert between Tel Aviv and Beer Sheba.
Hurndall`s death could lead to the first Israeli soldier being convicted of such a crime in a conflict that has seen thousands killed.
Last Friday, however, the nine-month trial took another twist, with the events of 11 April 2003, now threatening to suck in the entire chain of command of the Israeli Defence Force, as well as provoking new questions over their handling of the intifada.
Senior officers, including the brigadier in command of the southern region of the Gaza Strip, are now preparing to face three weeks` cross-examination. Sergeant Wahid Taysir, the sniper who killed Hurndall, has already said a policy of shooting at unarmed civilians existed at the time.
Hurndall`s mother, Jocelyn, fears as much. Last week, she watched Israeli gunships sweep low over the desert on their way to Rafah, on the border with Egypt. Speaking from the relative calm of a kibbutz near where her son died, she said: `They say the Israeli sky is not innocent. It`s just that, from here you can`t hear the gunships, the violence.`
She also visited the hospital where, for three weeks after her son was shot, doctors kept him alive in intensive care. But she can`t visit the square in Rafah where Hurndall was shot as he leant forward to pick up a child. `I have a mother`s need to go down there and to see the people, to hear the stories again,` she said.
As Hurndall wandered among the ruins of Rafah on the day he died, foremost on his mind was Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American activist who had been crushed to death by an Israeli armoured bulldozer a month earlier. He wanted to photograph the bulldozer, which had returned for the first time since her death.
The young photographer had joined a group of peace volunteers known as the International Solidarity Movement. Just after 5pm, gunfire from a military watchtower 60 metres away raked over an exposed patch of land near the border. A group of children playing on a mound of earth froze in terror.
Days earlier, Hurndall had seen a youngster shot. Fearing the worse, he ran through the line of fire and dragged Salem Baroum to safety. Then he went back for two girls. Witnesses recall a single crack of gunfire, then saw him stagger and fall. Hurndall then slipped into the coma in which he would remain until January 2004.
In his original testimony, Taysir claimed he had shot at a man in military fatigues who was firing at the soldiers with a pistol, in the no-go security zone. Later evidence, however, challenged his version. Photos clearly show Hurndall wearing a bright orange jacket denoting he was a foreigner; the graffiti that can be seen behind him is 100m from the secure zone.
Hurndall`s death has also raised the issue of whether young and stressed men should even be on the front line. Taysir is even younger than Hurndall and has admitted to being highly stressed as he patrolled a region suspected of harbouring Pales tinian terrorists.
Taysir 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`.
Another Israeli solder has already been jailed after he admitted lying to investigators. Yet it is the missing evidence that continues to frustrate those attempting to piece together the events that led to Hurndall`s death. So far, only a 20-page report by the IDF has been released, of which there are only four cursory references to Hurndall. Attempts by the Foreign Office to secure the potentially vital documents have failed.
Last week saw fresh allegations of obstruction, denied by the Israeli authorities, after the Hurndalls` lawyer, Avigdor Fernland, said his permit allowing him access to IDF evidence had been revoked.
Those who have studied the Hurndall case are aware that the trial only ever came about because of an investigation by Hurndall`s father, Anthony, who left his job as a City lawyer to interview 13 witnesses. Their evidence formed the main tranche of a 50-page report challenging the Israeli version of events.
For Palestinians, Hurndall is yet another martyr. For young Western peace campaigners he has become a potent symbol of the dangers faced in the name of activism. Hurndall was normal: he liked a beer and a cigarette; Romeo and Juliet was his favourite play. He was no head-in-the-clouds hippy: he was adamant that he wanted to portray activists as real people, not `tree huggers`.
Principally, however, Hurndall was a photographer who hoped to emulate his hero, the war photographer Don McCullin. A glimpse of his early talent will be unveiled at an exhibition at London`s Frontline Club a week on Wednesday.