A former IDF soldier who was found guilty of manslaughter in the 2003 shooting death of British peace activist Thomas Hurndall in the Gaza Strip will be released early from prison next month.
Taysir Heib was sentenced in 2005 to eight years in prison for manslaughter as well as obstruction of justice and giving false testimony. The decision to shorten his sentence was made by an army committee, against the advice of Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit.
Hurndall, a 22-year-old student, was shot in the head in April 2003 as he was photographing the work of International Solidarity Movement activists. Witnesses said Hurndall had been helping Palestinian children avoid IDF tanks.
In his investigation, Heib initially claimed he had fired on an armed Palestinian, enlisting supporting testimony from another soldier in his unit. A few months later, however, the second soldier told Military Police investigators that he had not witnessed the incident.
In the verdict, the judges upheld all the arguments of the military prosecution, outlining and emphasizing the series of false and contradictory versions of the incident provided by Heib throughout the investigation.
The judges found that Heib had shot Hurndall with a sniper's rifle, using a telescopic sight, and that Heib had given a "confused and pathetic" version of events to the court.
The court also referred to a confession by the defendant in which he said he had wanted to teach Hurndall a lesson for entering a forbidden zone. Heib admitted to aiming 10 centimeters to the left of Hurndall's head to frighten him and inadvertently shooting the activist.
ISM members often place themselves between IDF troops and Palestinians in an effort to prevent military operations.
Sophie Hurndall, Tom's older sister, said the family had not been informed by Israeli authorities about the early release, but rather found out about it when someone from the British foreign office called with the news.
“We have not had time to regroup or work out what is going on. We have barely had time to process the news and we all feel angry and shocked,” she said, adding that they had long feared such a thing would happen. “We have had to deal with cover ups and lies and a total lack of accountability throughout - and this is in line with that. It's symptomatic.”
Hurndall said the family’s anger is not focused on Heib himself, but rather on the IDF and Israel as a whole.
“To be honest, it’s about the system. Not the man himself. This man who shot Tom was the same age as him. He is both the victim and the killer. He is part of a system that proactively encouraged soldier to target civilian," she said.
As Hunrdall sees it, the early release sends a message from Israeli to its young soldiers, "telling them 'do what you want. We have your back.’”
Israel, she concluded, simply does not care what people think of it in the international community: “So many innocent [people] killed in so many horrific ways. They just don’t seem to care about anyone.”
Hurndall also criticized her own government, which, under the leadership of then-prime minister Tony Blair, did not come out, she claims, strongly against the killing and now has had a muted response as well.
“It's incredibly sad. One of the things that happened to me since my brother was killed is that I have lost faith in humanity. I cannot believe that people can do such things, and that my own government can sit by and keep quiet," she said.
The British Foreign Office issued an official statement in response, saying "we note the court's decision today to release Taysir Heib and recognize the grief this decision will cause to the Hurndall family. We have the deepest of sympathies for the Hurndall family. Tom's death was a tragedy."
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