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Remembering Tom Hurndall

The Hurndall family, especially Tom’s mother Jocelyn and Sophie, continue to be active in the Palestine solidarity movement, along with his close friends.

January 13, 2024 at 9:00 am

On this day in 2004, British photography student Tom Hurndall died in a hospital in London, having never regained consciousness after being shot in the head by an Israeli sniper nine months earlier while volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Gaza Strip.

What: Death of Tom Hurndall

Where: London

When: 13 January, 2004

Who was Tom Hurndall?

Born on 27 November 1981, in London, Tom Hurndall was a photography student at Manchester Metropolitan University, ISM volunteer and an activist against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. His photographs and journal entries capture the often distressing and occasionally inspiring moments he witnessed and lived through while staying with local families in Iraq, in a Jordanian refugee camp, and in the Gaza Strip.

In early 2003, Hurndall joined the anti-war movement against the Iraq invasion, relocating there before moving to Jordan to contribute to medical aid for Iraqi refugees. It was during this time that he discovered the ISM, an organisation advocating non-violent protest against the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

What happened?

On 6 April, 2003, Tom moved to Rafah in the Gaza Strip, hoping to document the oppressive living conditions of the Palestinians. His journals reflect a dramatic change in tone upon his arrival in Palestine as he began emailing images of the Israel Defence Forces and Palestinians back to his family. “No one could say I wasn’t seeing what needs to be seen now,” he wrote.

He even noted the death of 23-year-old Rachel Corrie, who had been crushed to death on 16 March 2003 by an Israeli armoured bulldozer while trying to stop a Palestinian home from being destroyed. “I wonder how few or many people heard it on the news and just counted it as another death, just another number…”

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On 11 April, Hurndall, along with fellow ISM activists, aimed to set up a peace tent on a road in Rafah to impede IDF tank patrols. It was then that Israeli snipers began shooting. As they sought cover, the young man noticed a group of children in the line of the fire. Some had run for cover, but three children stood paralysed with fear.

He sprinted to where the children were, picked one up and carried her to safety. When he went to collect a second child, he was shot in the head by an IDF soldier, Taysir Al-Hayb.

Bleeding on the ground, less than a week after his move to Palestine, Tom Hurndall was unarmed when he was shot, wearing a bright orange jacket identifying him as an international volunteer (as was Rachel Corrie when she was killed), and was plainly visible to Israeli sniper towers. According to other ISM activists, “There was no shooting or resistance coming from the Palestinian side at all.”

Palestinian children protest and hold a poster of British peace activist Thomas Hurndall on January 16, 2004 in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip. [Abid Katib/Getty Images]

Palestinian children protest and hold a poster of British peace activist Thomas Hurndall on January 16, 2004 in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip. [Abid Katib/Getty Images]

It was reported that an ambulance came very quickly to where Hurndall lay, about two minutes after the shooting. However, it was then delayed by the Israelis for up to two hours.

What happened next?

Hurndall was taken to a hospital in Rafah, where he was declared to be clinically dead. Transferred by the IDF to a hospital in Beersheba, he was kept on a ventilator and operated on. From there he was flown six weeks later to the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London. The brain damage was irreversible and, after nine months in a persistent vegetative state, he died on 13 January, 2004. He was 22 years old.

Meanwhile, the IDF’s initial “routine internal inquiry” claimed that Hurndall was “accidentally shot in the crossfire” and implied that his ISM group served as “human shields”. However, this account was contested by witnesses, who insisted that he was struck by a rifle bullet while attempting to protect Palestinian children, rather than being caught in any crossfire.

The Hurndall family applied pressure on the Israeli and British governments, prompting the then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to order an additional investigation in October 2003.

Eventually, in 2005, sniper Al-Hayb was convicted of manslaughter by an Israeli court and sentenced to eight years in prison, of which he served six and a half years, it being declared that he “no longer poses any danger.” During his trial, the soldier claimed that a policy of shooting unarmed civilians was in place at the time.

“On the very street where Tom was shot, two children had been shot just days before,” said human rights activist Raphael Cohen, who was with Tom Hurndall on the day that he was shot. “This is why he and the rest of the group went to that spot, to protest against the shooting of children as they played outside their homes. There has never been any investigation into the shootings of those children.” Indeed, the killing of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers and police, and illegal settlers, rarely leads to convictions.

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According to the Telegraph, Hurndall’s sister Sophie said that her family wasn’t informed by the Israeli authorities about Al-Hayb’s release. Instead, the news was delivered by the British foreign office.

“We have not had time to regroup or work out what is going on. We have barely had time to process the news and we all feel angry and shocked,” she said, adding that they had long feared such a thing would happen. “We have had to deal with cover ups and lies and a total lack of accountability throughout – and this is in line with that. It’s symptomatic.”

She added that the family was not so much angry about Hayb’s actions, but rather the IDF’s and Israeli authorities’ casual attitude when it comes to harming Palestinian civilians. “To be honest, it’s about the system. Not the man himself. This man who shot Tom was the same age as him. He is both the victim and the killer. He is part of a system that proactively encourages soldiers to target [Palestinian] civilians.”

The soldier’s early release, she added, sent a message to Israeli soldiers that they can act with impunity. “So many innocent people were killed in so many horrific ways. They just don’t seem to care about anyone.”

Tom Hurndall’s sister expressed her anger at and disappointment in her own government and Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. “It’s incredibly sad. One of the things that happened to me since my brother was killed is that I have lost faith in humanity. I cannot believe that people can do such things, and that my own government can sit by and keep quiet.”

The Hurndall family, especially Tom’s mother Jocelyn and Sophie, continue to be active in the Palestine solidarity movement, along with his close friends. His contribution to the cause has been honoured through conferences, a film and a book.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.