Thu, Oct 23, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The first casualty of Israel's war

They want the truth -- but the families of British and American victims are faced with lies and inventions as they struggle to find out how their loved ones died at the hands of the Israeli army

By Chris McGreal  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

The family of a British peace activist shot in the head by an Israeli soldier is considering applying to the courts for permission to turn off his life support machine.

Doctors in Britain have told Tom Hurndall's family that he does not feel a thing. But his family find that hard to believe as they watch the twisting body and contorted face of the 22-year-old who is in a "vegetative state" after being shot in April.

"Tom can move, he flails, he turns his head from side to side from his shoulders upwards and grimaces," said his 24-year-old sister, Sophie.

"He looks like he is in agony. He looks like he is in hell. It is the most heart-rending and torturous thing to watch," she said.

She said the family may seek a court order aiming to end Tom's life. It could take up to six months to obtain, and then a further 14 days for him to die.

"For me, Tom has already died but there's still no closure," Sophie said. "At the same time, it causes so much suffering and pain going in to see him. It's just an innate instinct to help him, to stop him suffering."

The Hurndalls, from Tufnell Park, north London, are one of three British and American families struggling to extract from the Israeli government and military the truth about how loved ones were killed or horrendously wounded by soldiers.

All three families have accused the authorities of fabricating evidence, suppressing investigations and covering up deliberate killings.

Tom Hurndall's mother, Jocelyn, wrote to British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week demanding he exert more pressure on Israel to hold a transparent inquiry.

The three victims were all shot in Rafah, a refugee camp in southern Gaza which the Israelis call a war zone.

Tom Hurndall, a student photographer volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement, was shot as he tried to protect children under fire from Israeli soldiers.

James Miller, a 34-year-old British television cameraman, was killed a month later. His relatives are traveling to Israel next week to put pressure on the military to make its inquiry public and to admit it lied about the circumstances of his death.

Rachel Corrie, a young American peace activist, was crushed to death by an army bulldozer in March. Her parents are still trying to obtain a copy of the military investigation which cleared the driver.

The Corries had been told the report was secret until they found that Israel had been covertly distributing it among members of the US Congress to prevent an independent investigation.

In only one case has there been a proper investigation: the death of Iain Hook from Felixstowe, England. He was head of the UN rebuilding program in Jenin when he was shot by an Israeli sniper last November.

The army falsely claimed he was shot while standing among Palestinian gunmen in the UN compound. Israel paid compensation to Hook's family but attached confidentiality clauses which suppressed a public admission of culpability for what some of the UN worker's colleagues have called "cold-blooded murder."

All four families have carried out their own investigations after swiftly losing faith in the Israeli authorities.

"Sincerity isn't a word I would use in conjunction with the Israeli military," said James Miller's brother, John. "I have absolutely no confidence in what they tell me. I think the Israelis operate a war of attrition that just grinds you down in the hope you'll give up."

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