Jocelyn Hurndall

New Statesman 13 January 2009

Five years to the day after her son was killed by an IDF sniper, Jocelyn Hurndall writes on the deaths of children in Gaza as the Israeli onslaught there continues

The attacks on Gaza are taking a terrible toll on the civilian population including its children

Today, faced with the killing of more than 300 Gazan children in barely a fortnight, I can’t help but replay the image of my son, Tom, reaching out to three Palestinian toddlers sheltering from Israeli sniper fire behind a mound of rubble in Rafah.

In his Middle East journal Tom wrote, “Strange, isn’t it, that no matter what the hardship suffered by children in London, it will never compare with what is experienced in Baghdad, Cairo or Amman. The world is clearly an unfair place and the loudest call is for self-preservation. Without the sight of the suffering that exists elsewhere being forced on us, we don’t even contemplate it.”

Over the last two weeks, seldom has it been more tragically apparent that innocent children are completely unprotected when bombs start to fall. With mounds of rubble being turned into mountains, ambulances are unable to collect injured children or those buried beneath their own homes.

Other children, ordered by Israeli forces to take refuge in a school with their families, are then shelled, left to cling to the bodies of their dead mothers for days. Meanwhile, the Israelis repeat their mantra that they are taking the greatest possible pains to avoid civilian casualties. Is it difficult for Israeli pilots and artillerymen to avoid coordinates unconnected to Hamas? It is not. And yet they bomb them. We are forced to draw our own conclusions as to whether the Israeli forces are systematically inept…or callous beyond comprehension. Or both.

We each agonise over what can be done to stop this great loss of innocent life – and for those who manage to survive, the loss of their childhood innocence. It is unfathomably frustrating that we can’t seem to do more to safeguard the children of Gaza.

In the weeks following Tom’s shooting we had to make sense of what had happened emotionally, politically, diplomatically, legally, and medically. It became quickly apparent that we were going to get no help from the Israelis. We had to quickly develop an insight into the intention behind what people said, or were pointedly not saying to us. The Israelis wouldn’t meet, discuss evidence, or even gather any. Instead, they produced a report that was a fabrication and a cover up.

Right up until the moment they charged an Israeli Defence Force (IDF) smiper with shooting an unarmed civilian – my son, they insisted that they were really shooting at a gunman. The Israelis asked the British coroner for all the information we had gathered from the British pathologist and the British police before Tom’s inquest was held. In return, they refused to disclose a single shred of their own evidence.

What this experience showed us is that where their own actions are concerned the Israelis are not greatly interested in truth or justice, or even apology. For them, anyone injured or killed by their forces is de facto a militant, or a terrorist, or an associate of terrorists. Very occasionally they allow that an innocent has been caught in crossfire between their soldiers and terrorists, though often with an imputation that said victim should not have been so close to terrorists to have been caught up in the battle. In the current offensive, innocents have died in such horrific numbers that they have even stopped saying this.

I remember the journey to Be’ersheva from Ben Gurion airport back in 2003. The well-informed British Military Attache turned to me and said, “I have to warn you, don’t expect too much of the Israelis”. It made me recall the time I was Tom’s age, when I was working on a kibbutz, and a kibbutznik told me that Israel had ‘the most moral army in the world’. I’d thought at the time, why should an army of a democratic country claim morality as its badge of honour? It rang hollow even then. As everyone except the most cynical spin doctor knows, “morality” and “army” should never knowingly be uttered in the same sentence. War has rules but no morals. It would be a start if Israel even acknowledged the rules.

Yesterday, I spoke to my good friend, Erella, an Israeli who lives on a kibbutz outside Be’ersheva. I asked her about the reaction of the Israeli public to the killings in Gaza. She replied, “best not to talk about the Israeli public. More and more people are against the war, but the media is creating reality and people don’t know what’s really going on. Even though the Gazans don’t have electricity, some of the homes have their own generators and so they manage to send emails, but not many.” She can hear every bomb that falls on the Gaza Strip. While the people paying the price are innocent children she isn’t interested in who is right and who is wrong. She speaks with her friends in Gaza each day, who say, “We are sitting in our house, waiting our turn”.

With all the clarity of a young voice, Nour Kharma, from Gaza writes: “Today is the eighth day of this horrible war. To me yesterday was the worst day of all. When I woke up in the morning one of my friends called, his voice was very weird. He told me Christine died. I was in a big shock, and till now I don’t believe it. I threw the phone and started crying. Her parents did the best they can do, but it wasn’t enough so the result was dying. What if my parents couldn’t protect me and give me the support I need…will I die too? What I can say now is that my future is almost destroyed. An Israeli rocket hit my school this morning, and the school was destroyed completely. I really can’t imagine how come they’re bombing mosques, schools, and universities. In every explosion we feel our house shaking and about to be destroyed; what about the people that already lost their homes? I’m crying for the loss of one of my friends… what about the people that lost at least five of their relatives? Depression and fear are filling our souls and surrounding our homes…what’s next? I actually don’t wish for anything as much as I wish that this war will end soon and that the Palestinian people can live like any other people and Palestinian children can enjoy their childhood like any children in the world. Help us because we’re all human beings”.

I am often asked, what is it like to lose a child? It’s like this. Between the instant of receiving the news and the next instant in which you have to comprehend it, you somehow realise that every cell in your body is about to be shaken furiously, and you freeze to delay the moment of impact. Your entire existence becomes concertinaed into the space between the blow and the pain, and nothing will ever, or can ever be the same again. With vast international pressure why can’t there be agreement between all sides that Gazan children and mothers should be safely housed? That no more Gazan children shall go without their mothers, and no more Gazan mothers told that they have lost their children.

In the first instance, let us work as hard as we are able towards bringing an end to the mounting deaths of the innocent on both sides. And then hold those responsible to account…

Jocelyn Hurndall is Development Director Friends of Birzeit University