Tom Hurndall died on January 13, 2004 at 7:45pm, in a hospital in his country, the UK, after spending over 8 months in a coma. He was shot in the head in April 2003, in Rafah, the Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestine, while accompanying a group of Palestinian children. He was 21. His killer, a soldier in the Israeli Army, is charged with Aggravated Assault, among other charges. A press release from Tom's family (1) notes that the soldier was sniping using a telescopic sight and hit Tom in the forehead, suggesting that a charge of attempted murder would be more appropriate than a charge of aggravated assault.
Tom Hurndall had joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), on April 5, 2003, a week before he was shot. The ISM is an organization that seeks to accompany Palestinians in nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation, to bring attention to the ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights, and to press for an end to the occupation. A few weeks before Tom was shot, Rachel Corrie, another ISM volunteer, was killed by a bulldozer, also in Gaza. No investigation has been conducted into her death, although the Israeli Army issued a curt statement stating that she had been 'acting irresponsibly' at the time that the bulldozer crushed her.
The Israeli Army's response in Tom Hurndall's case is different. Rather than examining the chain of command and the rules of engagement that have led to the killings of many hundreds of civilians, they appear to be, to use the sniper's lawyer's phrase, "hanging [the sniper] out to dry". They have released information that he is an Arab, and facing separate charges of smoking cannabis on duty. Responding to this, Tom's mother said she is "extremely sceptical at the way the Israeli army has chosen to highlight certain facts about this particular soldier - that he had previously been arrested for smoking cannabis and is an Arabâ€¦ This is a complete irrelevance and a deflection from the culture of impunity that is encouraged right along the chain of command right to the very top." (2)
The ISM has had to deal with another, very serious problem, at the same time. Just after Rachel and Tom were murdered in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Army issued a new order virtually sealing off the Gaza Strip completely. It is nearly impossible to enter or exit the strip, even for diplomatic personnel, journalists, and humanitarian workers. Those who do enter the strip are required to sign a waiver, stating more or less that the army has the right to kill them, that they will not interfere with the army, and explicitly that they have nothing to do with the ISM. This order is enforceable because the Gaza strip is already physically sealed off from the world by electric fences. As West Bank Wall (3) nears completion, the physical sealing off of the West Bank will make the same system enforceable for that occupied territory as well. And the Israeli Army has generated an order to match. According to an ISM press release: "Visitors to the West Bank and Gaza Strip are now required to apply for permission and obtain written authorization from the
Civil Administration of the Israeli Military, without which they could be deported and refused future re-entry to Israel/Palestinian Territories." The order went into effect on January 4, 2004, and visitors are being warned of it as they enter Israel.
After the similar order went into effect for Gaza, the destruction of Rafah was intensified. Thousands in Rafah were rendered homeless by the bulldozers and bombs of house demolitions. Dozens were killed by sniper fire and in bombings that 'targeted suspected terrorists' but inevitably killed civilians, including children (4).
Today, attacks on West Bank areas are being intensified. The Palestine Monitor reported on January 5, 2004 that "The West bank city of Nablus has now been under constant attack for 20 days. On Saturday, four Palestinians were killed and a fifth left brain-dead after being shot in the head with live ammunition. This brings the number of Palestinians killed in Nablus during this offensive to 14 and countingâ€¦"
"With the local population trapped in their homes, Israeli troops have set about destroying significant sections of the city's architectural heart. In the last two days, soldiers have begun dynamiting sections of the old city claiming they were searching for Palestinian militants hiding in tunnels beneath these buildings. In the process they have systematically destroyed a number a buildings of great architectural and historical value, although not a single militant was found in the old city during the search."
In the West Bank village of Budrus near Ramallah, where demonstrations against the Wall have been ongoing, the Israeli Army has been 'disappearing' nonviolent activists. The ISM reports: "Approximately one hour ago, shortly after 2:15 AM, Thursday January 15, 2004 Israeli soldiers came and took away the coordinator of the Popular Committee Against the Wall in the village of Budrus, Ayed Ahmed Hussein Morrar They also took away his brother, Na'im Ahmed Hussein Morrar who was just released from Israeli military custody yesterday. On January 2, 2004 their brother Nasir Ahmed Hussein Morrar was arrested for making a public speech against the bulldozing of village farmlands." There are three other men from Budrus at the Israeli prison of Ketziot, and six more in the Israeli prison of Ofer, all held for their nonviolent organizing against the wall.
Tulkarem refugee camp in the West Bank was invaded on January 12. The ISM's update of a day later reported: "Starting shortly before 11 am on Monday, January 12, all residents in three neighborhoods of the Tul Karem refugee camp were rounded up at a centrally located day care center. The men were separated out from the women and children and taken away in military trucks. At the end of the first day, over 230 men had been handcuffed, blindfolded and taken out of the camp to an unknown locationâ€¦
"A day and one half after the invasion began, 12 men had been officially arrested, three homes had sustained significant fire damage, over 30 homes sustained major damage including man sized holes in walls, holes in floors and complete destruction of personal property. Almost all windows in this section of the camp were destroyed by bullets and explosions. In one home, in a room next to the bathroom, a pile of excrement was found that had been rubbed into the rug."
Israelis have reacted to these events in varying ways. When an Israeli activist was shot and severely wounded in late December by the Israeli Army at a demonstration against the wall in Mas'Ha, it prompted a high-ranking Israeli soldier, Eytan Ronel, to return his rank to the Israeli Army Chief of Staff in a public letter (5), saying "A state whose army breaks up civilian demonstrations with live fire is not a democratic state. An army that educates its soldiers that it is possible to contemplate such a crime has lost [sight of its] limitsâ€¦ If I had had confidence in you, I would have said to you 'clean up the stables or accept the responsibility. Resign.' But the confidence in you is lost. You failed. You and your predecessors corrupted the military. I do not wish to take part in such army. You awarded me my rank; to you I return it."
A number of other 'refusenik' youths have been sentenced to a year in prison for their refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories. Before sentencing, one of them, Matan Kaminer, responded to charges that their refusal endangered Israel's security by saying: "We're doing a service to Israelis and Palestinians. We want to end this bloodbath.' That helps everyone's security, even the judge's."
Many in Israeli society have expressed similar sentiments, from journalists, academics, and activists, to former directors of Israeli intelligence agencies and even the very Chief of Staff Eytan Ronel wrote his letter to, Moshe Ya'alon, who apparently said in October that ""There is no hope, no expectations for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip,
nor in Bethlehem and Jerichoâ€¦ In our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our
strategic interestâ€¦ [increasing] hatred for Israel and strengthen[ing] the terror organizations." But they have been unable to stop the onslaught against Palestinians.
The crackdown on the Palestinian population has been unable to stop the suicide bombers as well. While the past few months have seen what the media call a 'relative calm', a technical term which means that only Palestinians are being killed, a suicide bombing at a Gaza checkpoint killed 4 Israeli military personnel (6).
The violence in Israel/Palestine continues to escalate, with more devastating effects for the Palestinians at each turn of the spiral, but with devastating effects for Israeli society as well. If the refuseniks are not heeded, and soon, the dynamic identified by Eytan Ronel in his letter will only deepen: "Step by step, the value of life diminishes. Step by step, the soldiers, the commanders, and the entire nation are corrupted. The values with which we were raised - the 'purity of the arms,' the value of life, respect for man who was created in God's image - have become a ridiculous joke."
(1) See http://www.tomhurndall.co.uk/
(2) Quoted by Chris McGreal, "British peace activist shot by Israeli soldier dies", The Guardian, January 14, 2003.
(3) Please see www.stopthewall.org for the campaign against this abomination
(4) Take a look at this excellent photo exhibit on Rafah
(5) Ronel's letter is very important. Please read it
(6) From Amos Harel, Ha'aretz, January 15, 2004, 'Security establishment to open Erez checkpoint on Sunday': "Reem Salah Riashi, the mother of two young children, became the first female Hamas member to carry out a suicide attack when she detonated her bomb at the checkpoint that served thousands of Palestinians entering Israel to workâ€¦ The fatalities were identified as Border Police Staff Sergeant Vladimir Trostiansky, 22, of Rehovot; Israel Defense Forces Staff Sergeant Tzur Or, 20, of Rishon Letzion; IDF Corporal Andrei Kegeles, 19, of Nahariya; and security guard Gal Shapira, 28, from Ashkelon."