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Jocelyn Hurndall, The FT Weekend

“There was still blood on the ground, Tom’s blood.”

On April 11 2003, in Rafah on the Gaza Strip, Tom Hurndall was shot through the head. It left him brain dead. Hurndall died nine months later, aged 22, in the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in Putney, London. It was January 13, his mother Jocelyn’s birthday.

On June 27 2005, a military court sentenced Sergeant Taysir Walid Heib of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to eight years for Hurndall’s manslaughter and four charges related to obstructing justice. The trial only happened through the persistence of Hurndall’s family: his parents Jocelyn and Anthony, his older sister Sophie and younger brother Billy. (His youngest brother Fred was 12 but still flew to his bedside in Israel.)

Jocelyn Hurndall and I talk in the ordered drawing room of her Tufnell Park home. She sits in an armchair by the fire. Her grey cat Morph snoozes by cream curtains.

What enabled the family to be so persistent? After a long pause, she says: “Our love for Tom.” She pauses again, then says, “And the kind of incomprehension that there was not the force for good you might expect a state to have at the senior level. That was new to me. The death of your child is something you have to deal with. But the discovery, at state level, that people didn’t want to uncover the truth. It shook the pillars upon which you base your life.”

“I now understand there is a ‘terrible beauty’. I understand that poem better [Easter, 1916, W.B. Yeats]. There is a terrible beauty in the energy which comes when you know a terrible wrong has been done. You have to turn it into an energy for good.”

Before her son’s shooting, Hurndall was not particularly political. She was head of learning support at an inner London comprehensive. She had married Anthony, a commercial property lawyer, in 1975, although they divorced some years ago. Their son Tom, a photography student, was in Rafah as an International Solidarity Movement volunteer. He was protesting against the demolition of Palestinian houses on the Gaza-Egypt border and taking photographs. He was lanky and handsome, passionate and irreverent.

On that April day, wearing a bright orange volunteer jacket, he was heading towards a small demonstration outside a Rafah mosque where a tank, which had recently injured two boys, was stationed. But the demonstration was abandoned: shooting had started. The shots came closer, down Kir Street where Tom was, and lower, towards three children. Tom carried a boy to safety, went back, lifted a girl, and was shot. The family flew to see Tom, comatose in Be’ersheva’s Soroka Hospital.

On the day she arrived, after visiting Tom, Hurndall went to Rafah with Anthony. It was bleak. “The lack of water, the lack of vegetation. This arid atmosphere. It was chilling. I remember feeling, ‘There is no way, if it is left to the Israelis and Palestinians, that they will sort this out themselves.’ ”

Hurndall had been in Israel before, in 1972, when she spent a student holiday on a kibbutz near Lebanon. “It was a carefree time, picking peaches, doing gardening, getting sunstroke.” The casual approach to guns shocked her but “within days you got used to it. You accepted you were going to be guarded by soldiers with guns while you were picking fruit trees.”

In Rafah, in 2003, she found an affinity with Palestinians, partly due to her expatriate childhood in Mauritius. “When I came back to England at 11, I was not really English, probably more Mauritian in some ways. So to go to school in Winchester was quite a leap… I think there was [in Rafah] an extremely strong empathy with this feeling of exclusion.”

She believes her work with children, whose learning difficulties exclude them from the mainstream, increased that empathy. As did the memory of her childhood visits to South Africa, whose apartheid policies she compares to Israel’s.

The Hurndalls went to Kir Street in Rafah, where, says Jocelyn, “There was still blood on the ground: Tom’s blood”.  Anthony set to work: taking witness statements, photographing the scene, calculating the line of fire from an IDF watchtower.

“Anthony concentrated on the legal things. I concentrated on communications: with the media, diplomatically and medically.”

According to a report by the IDF, a man wearing camouflage near Tom Hurndall fired at the watchtower and Hurndall was accidentally shot when a soldier fired back (once). That report also put Tom 80 yards from where Anthony Hurndall calculated that his son fell. In July 2003 the report that Anthony had compiled using the evidence of 14 witnesses, maps, photographs and transcripts of IDF versions of the shooting, was presented to Baroness Symons, then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, and passed on to Israel’s Advocate General.

“You couldn’t argue with it. There were senior [Israeli] politicians and people in the IDF who had a meeting, about 12 of them. Everyone looked at the report and thought, ‘Well, we really have to take this further’. There was only one dissenting voice, a four-star general.”

Still, the struggle took time – more than two years from the shooting to Heib’s conviction, with Anthony concentrating on the legal side, Jocelyn on communications and Sophie and Billy speaking to the media and at rallies.

Hurndall is keen to share credit. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like not to have people like Richard Burden [MP, Chair of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliament group], Liz Symons, Imran Khan, Michael Mansfield, diplomats, military attachés, the media. The night Tom died, I e-mailed Richard and said ‘We’ve lost Tom’. I wanted to scream to the world and Richard in our House of Commons was the closest I could get.”

When Taysir Walid Heib was found guilty, “I tried to think what would it have been like if he hadn’t been found guilty and when I think that, it is just so awful. But we were thinking beyond this soldier. He was just the bottom of the pit. This was the responsibility of people who’d made it possible for such loose rules of engagement.”

As to the IDF’s concern about her son’s shooting, “I don’t think it mattered a bit to them. If Tom didn’t have a family, nothing would have happened, not even a blip on the skyline.”

What about the organisation Tom had volunteered for? Does she think Hamas and Fatah allow the International Solidarity Movement to operate because foreigners’ deaths get bigger headlines?

“It presupposes that Hamas and Fatah have influence over the Movement, which I don’t think is the case. But it is true that when an international dies or is shot, it makes headlines. No one takes any notice of a Palestinian who dies. It’s not an indictment of Hamas or Fatah. It’s an indictment of our society.”

Jocelyn is used to being depicted as an enemy of Israel – she tells of how disappointed one Israeli journalist was when she condemned suicide-bombing. So I feel awkward as I point out a photograph of a Movement demonstration in her book about her son’s shooting and its aftermath, Defy The Stars. In the corner, on what could be a roadside sign or a banner, a graffito equates the swastika and Star of David. She holds the book up, peering closely.

“Oh yes… Well, I have no time for that. I wish I’d noticed that. I wish I’d noticed that.” Her voice is troubled. “I would absolutely condemn that. Shocking, really shocking.”

She hopes her book will help people “approach the Arab-Israeli conflict with open eyes. To feel what it must be like in a society where one’s home can be demolished. We have no idea of the horror, the devastation, the terror in which children are brought up in places like Gaza.”

She sensed when her son’s end had come. “You just know. You really know.” Father Hubert, her Roman Catholic parish priest, came from Tufnell Park and gave the last rites. Two hours later, Tom was gone. Did what happened to him undermine her belief in goodness?

“No, not that. What did affect a belief in the goodness of the world was the untruths we were told at state level. But what countered that was the justice process. And politicians who supported us over here. Our experience with individual Israelis was very different. Huge humanity.”

The shooting ended Hurndall’s teaching career. “I was about to embark on the leadership training for headteachers. But it became very apparent that this was all-consuming. It’s been difficult for Tom’s friends too and his girlfriend,” Kay-Paris Fernandes, also a photographer. The affectionate portrait of Tom on the cover of Defy The Stars is her work.

Today the Hurndalls are busy. Anthony has left property law to launch a dispute resolution service, an alternative to civil courts. Sophie works for the Media Trust, helping charities understand the media. Billy is doing a foundation course at Leeds University prior to reading physics. Fred is at school.

For Hurndall, “Life is less complicated. The book helped sort things out.” She follows her instincts. “I found myself buying a willow tree without thinking why. I only realised as I planted it that it was this tall, skinny tree and every time you brush past, you think of Tom.”

30 March 2007

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