UK envoys held at gunpoint by Israelis

Israeli forces opened fire above a British embassy convoy and held it at gunpoint in Gaza while it was carrying diplomats and the family of an English peace activist left in a coma by an Israeli bullet.

Two armoured Range Rovers with diplomatic plates were forced to halt as they drove through the Abu Houli crossing on Sunday, even though British officials had notified Israeli forces of their arrival 10 minutes earlier.

The group was en route to the Rafah refugee camp where Tom Hurndall, 21, was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper last month as he tried to protect a five-year-old girl.

During the standoff one of the diplomats, Andrew Whitaker, emerged from one car with his hands above his head to try to talk to soldiers hidden behind concrete pillboxes, while the British defence attache to Tel Aviv, Colonel Tom Fitzallen Howard, phoned the army for an explanation.

“There’s a complete lack of control. They fire without warning,” said Tom Hurndall’s father, Anthony, who was in one car with his wife and 12-year-old son. “As we passed the first pillbox a shot was fired over the cars. We weren’t clear why, or what was happening. Nobody came out, we couldn’t tell if we were supposed to get out or go on.

“The political officer from Jerusalem bravely got out of the car and had to put his hands over his head not knowing if they viewed us as hostile. They wouldn’t let us move from under their guns.”

After several minutes a hand emerged from one of the pillboxes and waved on the vehicles without explanation.

Mr Hurndall said Col Fitzallen Howard immediately called the army contact he had spoken to minutes earlier.

“His immediate reaction was to say he didn’t get the message down in time. The colonel said: ‘Regardless of that, why did you fire at us? You shot at official embassy cars for no reason.’ The Israeli’s excuse was that we didn’t stop. He said we were supposed to go through one by one but that is simply not true,” Mr Hurndall said. “Then they tried to say they did it to check our documents but they never did.”

The incident reflects the increased suspicion of foreigners since an attack on a Tel Aviv bar last week by two British suicide bombers who had recently visited Gaza. One of the Britons died but the other fled when his explosive failed to detonate. A few days later a British news cameraman was shot dead by the Israeli army in Gaza.

The British embassy has laid a formal complaint about the convoy incident. The Foreign Office said it was seeking an explanation from Israel but declined to discuss it further. “I can confirm that a single warning shot was fired as staff from the embassy in Tel Aviv and consulate in Jerusalem crossed the Abu Houli checkpoint in Gaza. No one was hurt,” a spokesman said.

The Israeli army said the British vehicles had “failed to follow the instructions given to them by the soldiers to drive slower and approach the checkpoint in a manner ordered by the soldiers”.

The Hurndall family had gone to Gaza to gather information about Tom’s shooting. Doctors say he is severely brain damaged and unlikely to emerge from a coma.

His father says the army has not been cooperative.

“We wanted to meet the relevant officers who were there on the day to get some sort of proper explanation of why they shot him, how this came about. But they say they are carrying out their own inquiry and they are not willing to talk to us until it is over,” he said.

“The Israelis say Tom was caught in crossfire. I’ve taken statements from eight or nine people now, all of which are almost identical in saying it was a single shot from the sniper from the tower. Yet the Israelis have not begun to ask us anything about that and we’ve no idea what their version is beyond the initial statement.”