… but the drama is loaded
Channel 4, Monday October 13
ON APRIL 11, 2003, Thomas Hurndall, a 21-year-old student photographer and peace activist was shot in the head and killed in the Gaza town of Rafah, near the border with Egypt. The man who pulled the trigger was Sergeant Taysir Hayb, an IDF sniper. Hayb was sentenced to eleven-and-a-half years for the manslaughter of Hurndall.
These are the basic facts. However, this is the Middle East and the facts do not begin to explain the complexity of events surrounding the killing of Hurndall. His parents, Jocelyn and Anthony, pressed the IDF for explanations — not out of revenge, they claim, but to understand what really happened to their son. This powerful drama revisited the events and their consequences.
The film, written by Simon Block and directed by Rowan Joffe, does attempt to represent all viewpoints. Hurndall saw himself as a peace activist and was attempting to rescue Palestinian children under gunfire when he was shot.
But was he an impartial bystander? The International Solidarity Movement which he represented is Palestinianfunded and is regarded by Israel and a hostile organisation. Hurndall was given two days’ training before being put in the front line of a war with high casualties on both sides. He had repeatedly photographed the watchtower from which he was killed. There was a suggestion from one character that because Palestinian casualties excited little worldwide publicity, Hurndall’s death and the attendant fallout may not have been a completely negative event for the Palestinian hierarchy.
Then there is the undisputed fact that Gaza was a terribly dangerous place to be a civilian or a soldier. Joffe was at pains to show the watchtower from whichHurndallwasshotcomingunder sustained fire by Palestinian gunmen in separate incidents. Although there was no justification for Tayb’s action, it was easy to see how soldiers could crack under those circumstances.
Tayb was quoted saying he “wanted to teach Hurndall a lesson”. He claimed he had been commanded to keep a “sterile area” around the watchtower at all costs. The fact remains that he shot an unarmed, clearly identifiable and unarmed civilian.
Despite the IDF’s prosecution of Tayb, and his conviction, the Hurndalls, played compellingly by Stephen Dillane and Kerry Fox, continued to blame IDF policy. At one point it was suggested that, because Tayb was a Bedouin Arab rather than a Jew, the Israelis may have been more keen than otherwise to offer him up as a sacrificial lamb.
Would a documentary have better served the arguments? Drama, by its very definition, seeks to interpret events, and to portray the emotions as well as the bare facts. Block’s film depicts the IDF as severe, unsympathetic and unhelpful to the Hurndalls. One could even imagine a touch of racism directed towards Tayb and his family.
In contrast, the British embassy staff come across as humane and sincere (although badly briefed: the military attaché tells Anthony Hurndall that was practically impossible to become Israeli Prime Minister without having been a decorated general. Really? Try telling that to David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres or Ehud Olmert).
Hurndall’s killing was a criminal act and tragic for his family. Yet, as Dillane, playing Anthony Hurndall, acknowledged: “Israel is a democracy”. Israel’s Attorney General ordered an independent inquiry which resulted in Tayb’s prosecution.
Meanwhile, only 19 days after the killing of a British civilian in Gaza, another British civilian, Asif Muhammad Hanif, walked into Mike’s Place bar in Tel Aviv and detonated a suicide bomb killing three Israeli civilians and injuring 50 more. He and his accomplice, Omar Khan Sharif, had dropped in on the ISM for a coffee and chat a few days before carrying out the outrage. So who exactly were the good guys here?
The Hurndalls are of course not the only family to have lost a family member following criminal action by soldiers. Only months after Hurndall’s death, an Iraqi, Saha Mousa was beaten to death by soldiers of the British Royal Military Police. Of the nine accused, all but one was acquitted.
What price a two-hour drama about the death of Saha Mousa?
Kerry Fox as Jocelyn Hurndall and Matthew McNulty as her son, Tom