Parents of British campaigner killed by Israeli sniper seek justice against a murderous ethos

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The Independent Online

In the stifling, barren confines of the small military court room in Ashkelon, Jocelyn and Anthony Hurndall strained to hear above the noisy air conditioning as their son's killer boasted about his accuracy as an army marksman.

They watched the Israeli soldier, clad in jeans and a t-shirt and restricted by leg irons and handcuffs, walk casually around the court.

"He did occasionally look at me but I avoided any sort of eye contact. He was just a tiny flea in the whole process of getting justice," Mrs Hurndall said yesterday. "The responsibility goes above this soldier's head. My anger is addressed at the chain of command."

One split second decision by Sergeant Taysir Hayb - to take aim through telescopic sites and fire a high velocity bullet into the Palestinian refugee camp below - had irrevocably changed the lives of a family thousands of miles away in a comfortable home in North London.

Tom Hurndall, 22, a photojournalism student, first set out for Iraq, before travelling to Palestine. He had been in Gaza five days when he was hit in the head as he tried to rescue children from the line of fire. He never regained consciousness and died nine months later.

Hayb, a Bedouin Arab, claimed he had intended to fire a warning shot 10cm away. He was, he said, simply a scapegoat of the system. But he was convicted of manslaughter and obstruction of justice, and sentenced to eight years.

Back in London, surrounded by photographs of their dead son looking mischievously at the lens, the Hurndalls have taken on Tom's passion to champion the persecuted.

The couple even talk passionately about the plight of the Bedouin Arabs within the Israel Defence Force, how they are abused, brutalised and desensitised, driven to drugs by inhuman conditions.

Mr Hurndall, a corporate lawyer, said he feels pity for his son's killer, who he sees as a mere product of his environment. The family's argument is not with what they see as a pawn in the game, but with those who promote an ethos where Israeli soldiers can kill civilians with little threat of prosecution.

"Our view is this soldier was doing no more than what was expected of him. It has become very clear to me that shooting civilians was a regular army activity in that area," Mr Hurndall said.

Tom's death was not an isolated event. Apart from the thousands of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost their lives since the beginning of the intifada, American peace activist Rachel Corrie, 23, was killed by a bulldozer less than a month before Tom was shot, while British cameraman James Miller, 34, was gunned down three weeks later. And Brit Ian Hook, 50, was leading a house reconstruction programme in Jenin the previous November when he was killed.

The Hurndalls have battled deception, indifference and constant barriers for the past three years, and now have a greater cause in mind. In an appropriate legacy to their son, they want to bring about a sea change in Gaza.

This week, they won another battle in their long war. The London inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing on Tom's death, and decreed that he had been intentionally murdered. Coroner Andrew Reid said he would be writing to the Attorney General. Yesterday, the family received a copy of the letter, in which Dr Reid asked Lord Goldsmith to use his powers to seek remedy under the Geneva Convention.

"The wider command structure within the Southern Area Command ... and the Israeli Defence Force generally raise in Mr Hurndall's case the same issues that arose in Mr Miller's case about aiding and abetting breaches of scheduled conventions," he wrote.

The family want those in command that day to be prosecuted either in Israel or in Britain. They hope it will start a process that will bring to an end the casual shooting of civilians with impunity.

For Mrs Hurndall, it is a long way from the day her son announced he was off to Baghdad to photograph and write about human shields. "I was frozen with fear. The words hanging in the air were 'not on your life, over my dead body'," she said.

From the days when his prep school headmaster praised him for battling bullies, through his years at one of the country's best public schools, Winchester College, Tom had shown a desire to champion the weak. "For 21 years I had tried to quell his adventurous spirit. But I knew nothing there was I could say that would change his mind," she said.

Mr Hurndall recalled yesterday his last words to his son as they stood at Heathrow airport: "I said simply 'Come back with some good photographs' and he just smiled."

That day, just weeks before he was shot, he was quoted in The Independent, defending the Western human shields in Iraq.

After leaving Baghdad, Tom moved to Jordan where he met a group from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and followed them to Rafah.

The day after two Palestinian teenagers were shot and killed for no apparent reason - 11 April 2003 - the ISM team were trying to set up a tent to block Israeli tanks when Tom was shot.

It was not until his sister Sophie received a call from a newspaper informing them that he had been mortally wounded that they realised he was in Rafah.

For the next nine months they stayed by his London hospital bedside. Anthony Hurndall recounted Arsenal's progress in the Premiership with his unconscious son. They read to him and massaged his hands and feet.

"It was a nightmare. You would wake up in the night and picture Tom in your mind. You felt you had to be there every moment of the day to work out whether he was in pain," said Mrs Hurndall.

On 13 January 2004, Tom died. The loss of their son took the couple from their protected environment into a far crueller world. The past three years, they agreed, has proved a painful eye opener.

Mrs Hurndall said: "You imagine there is a justice for all. It has made me question the human condition. It is quite depressing that somehow we have to be tinged with some kind of suffering before we can act. That was the very question Tom asked - 'Why don't we act?'"