At the end of August, a civil suit brought by the family of Rachel Corrie came to an end with a Haifa judge ruling that the State of Israel bore no responsibility for the death of the American activist in 2003. Despite the judge’s decision, the case – including key testimonies – was widely believed to have “shed light on Israel’s grave breaches of human rights and the impunity enjoyed by its military”.
Rachel Corrie is not the only international to have been killed by Israel since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000. Three British citizens were shot dead by Israeli soldiers over a six month period in 2002-2003, crimes that almost a decade on are a reminder of the UK government’s reluctance to hold its ally to account.
Iain Hook was working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in Jenin when he was shot dead by an Israeli sniper in November 2002. Israeli sources initially spread doubt over who had shot Hook, with British media citing officials who “stressed that it was not known if he was killed by Israeli or Palestinian fire”. IDF Spokesperson Olivier Rafowicz said, “Palestinians should check their own ammunition”.
Israeli authorities also claimed that Hook “was shot outside the compound while standing among Palestinians”, before the story was changed to the sniper mistaking the UN worker for a Palestinian fighter and “his mobile phone for a gun or grenade”.
The then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and International Development Secretary Clare Short issued a joint statement in which they promised to “do everything possible to ensure that there is a full investigation”. Six months later, it already appeared that the UK was letting the matter slide.
In December 2005, a UK inquest found that Hook was unlawfully killed. The BBC reported that “jurors unanimously agreed” the UN worker “had been the victim of a ‘deliberate’ killing”. It was confirmed in 2007 that the Israeli government had “agreed a financial settlement with members of Mr Hook’s family”, but with the IDF emphasising that “no criminal act had been committed”.
Tom Hurndall was a photography student and activist when he was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper in April 2003 while volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Gaza Strip. As described by Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “the original IDF Southern Command inquiry did not identify soldiers responsible for the shooting”, and it was only after “pressure exerted by Hurndall’s family” that the IDF agreed “to open a new inquiry into the shooting”.
The soldier in question, Taysir Hayb, testified initially that “he had shot at a man in military fatigues who was firing at the soldiers with a pistol”, a story he subsequently changed in the face of incontrovertible evidence. Hayb was convicted of manslaughter and jailed (he ended up serving six years of an eight year sentence). During the trial, Hayb had told the court that he only did what he was “supposed to”, adding: “They tell us all the time to fire; that there is approval.” The jury in a subsequent inquest in London ruled that Hurndall had been “intentionally killed”.
Tom’s father, Anthony Hurndall, was angered by the British response to the killing: “The government viewed Israel as a close ally who they did not want to put out in any way.”
James Miller, a successful and well-respected cameraman, was shot dead by an Israeli soldier while filming a documentary in Rafah in May 2003. Miller was hit in the front of the neck from 200m while standing with two colleagues. The Israeli military made out at the beginning that Miller had been “shot in the back during crossfire”.
Almost two years later, Israel announced that there would be no prosecution for the killing of Miller – only “disciplinary measures against the officer for misuse of firearms”. A Foreign Office Minister at the time, Baroness Symons, said she was “dismayed” with the decision, committing the British government to “continu[ing] to raise James’ case with the Government of Israel”. Before the disciplinary hearing took place, the soldier was acquitted by the IDF’s head of southern command.
In April 2006, a UK inquest jury found Miller had been murdered. The family alleged “that Foreign Office officials had tried to pressure them into giving in to Israeli demands”, and Miller’s father described the British government as “totally supine and ineffective”.
Following pressure in the light of the inquest verdict, there were signs that the government would take seriously the need to secure a criminal investigation by the Israeli authorities. This came to nothing. In February 2009, Miller’s family “accepted a reported £1.5m payout from Israel”, which, in their words, was “probably the closest (we) will get to an admission of guilt”.
In an article for The Guardian in July 2003, Chris McGreal interviewed Israeli military officials about the killing of civilians. At the end, he wrote:
I ask to be able to name the commander in Gaza. The army refuses. ‘He has admitted his soldiers were responsible for at least some of those killings,’ says an army spokesman who sat in on the interview. ‘In this day and age that raises the prospect of war crimes, not here but if he travels abroad he could be arrested some time in the future. Some people might think there is something wrong here.’
That commander was (the now retired) Colonel Pinhas (Pinky) Zuaretz, in charge in Gaza when James Miller, Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie were killed. The fear expressed of future prosecution is a reminder that the British government has tried to make it harder for suspected war criminals to be detained in the UK – a change brought about purely because of pressure from Israel.
The message is as clear as it is disturbing: not only are there no serious consequences for killing British citizens, but the government will also change legislation to protect Israelis with a case to answer for war crimes. It is a microcosm of the UK approach, where routine breaches of international law are criticised in statements, but without any kind of enforcement or sanction.
The deaths of Iain Hook, Tom Hurndall and James Miller, terrible as they were, reflect Israeli policies that have created thousands of Palestinian victims and bereaved families; as Miller’s mother said, “We’ve managed to rally enough resources to fight this, but Palestinians can’t fight this, and there’ve been hundreds of Palestinian deaths.” This is all the motivation we need to fight for our own government to treat Israel’s routine criminality appropriately.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.