Monday, October 20, 2008

channel 4 premiers 'the shooting of thomas hurndall'

Tragedy on tape
Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette October 20 2008

The shooting in the head of 21-year-old British humanitarian volunteer Tom Hurndall by an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sniper in Rafah, Gaza in April 2003 was a tragedy that changed the lives of his parents, sister and two brothers forever. Tom was left brain dead and remained in a coma until his death nine months later in The Royal Free Hospital, London.

Compounding the family’s distress was the obstructiveness of the Israeli authorities and IDF over attempts to establish the exact circumstances of the shooting of Tom, a photography student at Manchester Metropolitan University. He had been shot as he tried to rescue three children during sniping from an IDF watchtower, and was targeted despite wearing a fluorescent orange jacket that clearly identified him as an unarmed International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteer.

Tom’s lawyer father Anthony and the family were resolute in their efforts to uncover the truth. Their persistence culminated in a military court’s jailing of IDF sniper Taysir Hayb to eight years in prison on August 11 2005, after he was found guilty of Tom’s manslaughter and of obstructing the course of justice.

The Hurndalls’ fight for justice for Tom has now been made into a two-hour feature film, “The Shooting of Tom Hurndall”, which was premiered on Britain’s Channel 4 TV last week. The film is directed by Rowan Joffé and was written by Simon Block, with Charles Furneaux as executive producer.

Joffé denies that the film is anti-Israeli. “Our feeling is that Israel’s democratic spirit is strong enough to accept a degree of self-awareness and self-criticism. To assume that this film is anti-Israeli is to so belittle Israel’s ability to reflect on itself that you’re doing exactly what you’re charging your opponents with.”

The power of the film owes much to the strength of its two lead performances: Stephen Dillane as Anthony, and New Zealander Kerry Fox as Tom’s teacher mother Jocelyn. Tom’s parents had been divorced for six years when he was shot, and a sense of discord and glimmers of a possible reconciliation underlie their interactions. Anthony is a self-contained character, with his English understatement and dry humor, but Dillane also taps into his emotions of heartbreak over his son and anger over the IDF’s lack of cooperation. He is dogged in pursuing his investigations into the shooting.

Fox portrays Jocelyn as a warm, attractive, compassionate woman who had not wanted Tom to set off on his journey to the Middle East and is haunted by the fact that she did not say did not say goodbye to him properly before he left.

Tom is played by Matthew McNulty, and at several points in the film we see again the sniping that felled him during a demonstration by Palestinian civilians. Tom, who had been taking photographs, had gone to the aid of three terrified children when he was shot.

The family dynamics are sensitively conveyed. The younger of Tom’s brothers, 12-year-old Freddy (Gus Lewis), idolizes Tom and struggles to come to terms with what has happened to him. Eighteen-year-old Billy (Harry Treadaway), has a fierce loyalty to Tom, and sleeps on the floor outside his hospital room in Israel. Tom’s sensible yet vulnerable sister Sophie is played by Jodie Whittaker.

The Hurndalls find a valuable ally at the British Embassy – defense attaché Tom Fitzalan Howard (Mark Bazeley). He warns them from the beginning that they are unlikely to get anywhere with the Israelis, but is supportive of their endeavors to establish the truth.

The first IDF report on the shooting is a whitewash, based on a statement cooked up by Hayb (a taut performance from Ziad Backry) and his commanding officer in which Hayb claims that a gunman, whom he had assumed was a Palestinian militiaman, had fired on him. He was given permission by radio to return fire, and fired a single shot.

Some British Embassy officials warn Anthony against going the media. One warns him that the Israelis will claim he is “anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist”. Anthony retorts:. “If you or they think that we are going to be silenced by this, then you are very much mistaken. “ As he storms off, one of the officials says sarcastically; “One loose cannon against the entire Israeli army; that’s just what we need.”

Anthony embarks on his own investigation, taking photographs and measurements at the scene of the shooting and gathering affidavits from witnesses. Eventually he is granted an audience with the IDF, and complains at the length of time it has taken them to meet him. The Foreign Office then says it wants to present his report to the Israelis, and gives it full backing. The Judge Advocate General’s office of the IDF sends investigators to question Hayb about the discrepancies between his account of what happened and Anthony Hurndall’s thoroughly-researched report.

Hayb is arrested and complains to the Judge Advocate General’s investigators that his mother was strip searched when she came to visit him. He has asked a military policeman if the mothers of arrested Jewish soldiers were also strip searched, but received no answer.

Asked why he shot at Tom when he knew he was unarmed, Hayb says he recognized Tom as the person who had been taking photographs of the Israeli post, and that he had been teaching Tom a lesson. He says it had been his job to keep the area clear. “Anyone who came into the sterile zone it was my job to clear them out. Palestinians, ISM, anyone.” The implication is that it was considered OK to shoot at unarmed civilians. At the end of the interview Hayb loses his temper and is hauled off kicking and screaming, shouting that he has done everything by the book and followed regulations.
The film humanizes Hayb, a decorated sniper in Gaza, and looks at his position as a Bedouin Arab within the overwhelmingly Jewish IDF. He had volunteered to join the IDF; “I wanted to know why,” says Roland Joffé. “Why is an Arab Israeli firing at Palestinians? The complexity of that was something I started looking at immediately. In some senses it’s the story we are telling – a war story, so it’s more compelling if you tell it from both sides of the battle lines.” One scene shows Hayb at home with his mother and siblings, who can tell that something is troubling him.

Jocelyn sees some parallels between Tom and Hayb. As Tom lies in his coma she tells him about Taysir, “20 years old, a boy, like you. Two brothers and a sister like you. A mother and a father, like you. His whole damned life ahead of him.”

The Hurndalls suspect that because Hayb is an Arab Israeli he has been dealt with much more harshly than an Israeli Jewish soldier would have been. At the end of the film its is noted that his sentence was more than four times longer than any sentence previously imposed on an IDF soldier for shooting an unarmed civilian in the occupied territories.

The killing of Tom has had a lasting impact on the Hurndalls. The film states at its conclusion: “Anthony, Jocelyn and Sophie Hurndall continue to campaign for IDF accountability for the unlawful killing of civilians in Palestine.”

Jocelyn’s moving book, “Defy the Stars: The Life and Tragic Death of Tom Hurndall” was published by Bloomsbury last year. Today she is the Development Director of the London-based registered charity Friends of Birzeit University, campaigning for funds and support for the beleaguered university in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Tom’s sister Sophie is also working for a UK Palestinian charity: she is Events Manager at Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).

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