“Not again”: Eyewitness Joe Smith writes about the shooting of Tom Hurndall

Above: A British peace activist going only by the name Alice cries for help as she holds her hand over the headwound of British peace activist Thomas Hurndall, who had been shot in the head moments earlier, at the start of a protest, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Friday, April 11, 2003. Hurndall, age 21, from Machester, England, had been standing between Israeli troops and Palestinian children when Israeli soldiers opened fire, according to a fellow activist from the International Solidarity Movement who witnessed the scene.(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Please not again. We heard the shooting — we always hear shooting — but repeated sniper fire like that is especially disturbing. I heard the shot, I heard a scream, and turned to see the fluorescent orange lump lying on the ground, blood coming from his head. I moved back and forth a bit not knowing what to do, and within seconds my medical training clicked in. The Palestinians lifted him to move him from the area. “Set him down!” Alice, the other medic, and I screamed.

Finally we got him down on the pavement, I had my safety pads out and was trying to stop the bleeding. One doesn’t consider rubber gloves at times like these. Blood was poring out of the back of his head. I couldn’t get it to stop. Seconds later he was lifted again and pulled into a taxi. “Wait for the ambulance!” We tried to convince them, but they were hysterical, and he was torn away from us and rushed to the hospital in a brown Mercedes. The ambulance arrived on the scene minutes later, but it was too late, he was gone.

Above: Peace activist Tom Hurndall is rushed into Israel’s Soroka hospital in Beer Sheva, April 11, 2003, after he was shot and critically wounded by Israeli troops. Israeli troops shot the 21-year-old Briton as he was helping Palestinian children cross a street under gunfire Friday, fellow activists and hospital officials said. Hurndall was one of 12 members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) who Thursday went to the Rafah refugee camp on the Egyptian border to protest at continued Israeli shooting in the area, said ISM member Nick Smith. (Reuters)

I looked down to find the bloody safety pad still in my hand. I had a brief instinct to throw it down, like one does any trash on these streets, but was unable to let go of it. I held onto it while in the taxi on the way to the hospital, and still clutched it as I slouched on the ground against the stone walls surrounding his operation room.

He was dead for me from the moment he was set on the ground for us to administer treatment. Alice tried to do mouth to mouth, and I thought it pointless. He was dead for me when he was pulled from our hands and put into the car. Even when he was wheeled out of Al-Najjar Hospital and taken to Europa Hospital in Khan Younis, he was still not alive in my mind.

Now he’s on life support in Saroka Hospital in B’ersheva, brain dead but still breathing. No matter how constantly his heart still beats, I continue to speak of him in the past. It took me awhile to accept that Rachel was actually gone, and I think my mind is compensating for that loss by preparing itself for another in advance.

Above: British peace activist Thomas Hurndall, left, sits on the floor of a home with fellow activist Joseph Smith, minutes before they left to participate in a protest at which Hurndall suffered a gunshot wound to the head, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Friday, April 11, 2003. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

His name was Thomas Hurndall and he was from London. When he arrived, we already had an English guy named Tom so he chose the nickname “Tab”, and that is how I knew him. Tab was incredibly passionate about protecting people when and where they needed it most. We were in Yibna, a Rafah refugee camp right on the Egyptian border, because he was aware of the constant Israeli gunfire to which this neighbourhood is victim every day.

He’d learned about the two brothers who’d been shot the previous morning, and was dedicated to maintaining a presence there. He said that he’d gotten extremely angry and determined after listening to gunfire while lying in his bed at the doctor’s house Rachel died protecting. He wanted to be in the most dangerous areas, not out of some martyr complex to die but simply because he knew that that is where internationals are most needed.

He was prepared to stay in the house most targeted, and helped us hang large banners on it. He was all about placing a tent in an area in front of a mosque, used every night by an Israeli tank for terrorizing the neighborhood with gunfire. We were on our way to pitch the tent the day he was shot, but had abandoned the project due to the Palestinians’ discomfort with the level of gunfire.

The tank was already in its parking spot when we arrived, and was shooting into the area. A nearby security tower had also joined in, and was firing the scary sniper shots. We were positioned behind a large roadblock deciding what to do, and Laura had gone forward with some Palestinians to take a look. She was wearing our trademarked florescent orange jacket with reflective stripes, and was clearly an international.

Despite, or possibly because of this they shot around her. She said that shots were being fired on both sides of her, making it rather difficult for her to move. She had just rejoined us, when the sniper fire from the tower turned onto the roadblock behind which we were standing. There were children playing on the roadblock, as they often do, and many scattered due to the gunfire.

There was one boy, however, that Tab noticed was too frightened to move. Instinctually, he quickly removed him from the area, as he observed shots land around the small and fragile innocent. After successfully evacuating him, he was about to leave when he noticed two small girls down in front of the roadblock, right in the line of fire.

He was going to help them escape when the Israeli soldier in the tower took his aim, and fired a large calibre sniper bullet directly into Tab’s head. He was in full view of the tower, and like Laura was wearing the high visibility gear. Our embassies had been informed of our presence in the area, and they had informed the Israeli military.

They knew who he was, they knew what he was, and they knew what he was doing. They knew that he was no threat to their physical safety, but they likely understood the international attention his presence was attracting, and knew how our human shield work had prevented them from adequately terrorizing the Palestinian civilians and demolishing their homes.

In this way, he was a “threat” to them, a threat to the image of Israel it portrays to the world. He was a threat to the validity of the occupation, and a threat to their unquestioned notion of these people as nothing but inhuman terrorists. The sniper couldn’t tolerate this kind of challenge, and took lethal measures to end it. We’ll only have to see how such an act will backfire.

I didn’t know Tab all that well. He’d only been here a week, but planned to stay the full month of his visa. He’d just spent a week doing refugee work in Jordan, before which he’d spent two weeks in Iraq doing human shield and relief work. He was a brilliant photographer, and was passionate about documenting the immense human rights violations being perpetrated on the Arab people.

It was his first trip to the Middle East, but his previous three weeks had made him rather well-versed in this type of work. He was mature and laid back about it all, but incredibly passionate and determined. I was quite surprised to learn that he was only 21 years old, born the same year as I.

I had spent a few hours that day taking him around Rafah to take pictures. We were trying to compile photo images of the city and our presence here for documentation and publicity purposes. The children here love a camera, and would crowd us endlessly. This bothers and overwhelms most people, but Tab thought it a little funny, and would chuckle at the rambunctious children shouting “What’s you’re name” and “How are you”. He mentioned that he’d learned some tricks already, like not pulling out his camera until the absolute last minute.

Above: Two young brothers living in the home that Tom Hurndall had chosen to protect, in a photo taken by Tom on 10 April 2003. (Tom Hurndall/ISM)

We had even had a conversation that day about the dangers of this place, and how none of us really understood them or we wouldn’t be here. I said that I still felt confident with my international status even after the recent violence against us. I believed that it was not a calculated targeting of internationals, just an increased amount of recklessness and hostility brought on by the increased effectiveness of our work. I said I wouldn’t really be intimidated until they openly target an obvious international. Not until they very intentionally kill one of us would I feel the terror experienced by Palestinians. Fate works in mysterious ways.

I don’t know if I can stay here now. I believe that internationals need to stay here, and that the Israeli military should not learn that they can intimidate ISM with such violence. I believe that it only shows how effective our work has become, and that now is the time to stay and establish an even stronger presence.

Above: Rachel Corrie confronts an Israeli bulldozer earlier on the day she was killed, 16 March 2003. (Joe Smith)

But I only have so much energy left. Rachel’s death took a lot out of me, but also inspired me to stay longer and throw myself into the Olympia Sister City project and nonviolent direct action against the Israeli occupation of Rafah. I had planned to stay through the end of May to accomplish these goals, and knew that I had at least that left in me. But this incident has aged me quickly, and makes me question if I can now handle this place and this type of work.

Who knows what’s going to happen to him now. It seems likely that his family will have to make that dreaded decision about whether or not to take him off life support. I have to leave here if he dies, I can’t do the whole shahid thing again. I also cannot participate in another military investigation. There were plenty of Palestinian and international witnesses willing to cooperate.

I’ll continue media and legal work regarding Rachel’s death, but I can’t handle two. I just can’t. Learning my limits has been a crucial part of my personal development here. I have learned to say “no”, and I’m saying it now. This statement may be used for any media or legal processes, but that’s it, khallas!

What a privilege it is for me to be able to say that. How lucky I am that I can just leave when I’ve had enough, and catalogue the event in my mental register of intense experiences. I can only leave on the condition that I return with a longer-term commitment, as my solidarity with these amazing people has only just begun.

Joe Smith is an American activist from Kansas City, Missouri, based with the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah, occupied Gaza. He was a friend of Rachel Corrie’s and was with her when she was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer on 16 March 2003.

Related Links

  • International Solidarity Movement
  • ISM: Israeli soldier shoots British ISM activist Tom Hurndall in Gaza (11 April 2003)
  • ISM Rafah statement on the shooting of Thomas Hurndall (12 April 2003)
  • Protecting Palestinian families in Rafah (11 April 2003)
  • The Brian Avery shooting: When will we realise that there can’t be this many “accidents”? (5 April 2003)
  • Photo story: Israeli bulldozer driver murders American peace activist (16 March 2003)
  • Increased targeting of International Solidarity Movement (16 March 2003)
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