Sgt. Taysir Hayb in court in 2005. Inset, the activist Thomas Hurndall in Gaza in 2003.
Sgt. Taysir Hayb Photo by David Bachar
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The Israel Defense Forces soldier found guilty of manslaughter in the 2003 death of a British peace activist will be released next month after serving three quarters of his sentence. Sgt. Taysir Hayb's early release was secured yesterday, after a military committee overruled the Military Advocate General's opinion and ordered the soldier's release. He has served six years of the eight-year sentence he received in 2005.

Thomas Hurndall, then 22, was shot in April 2003 while photographing an International Solidarity Movement protest in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah, where Hayb was stationed in a watchtower as part of the Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion. Hurndall died the following year after a nine-month coma.

A military court found Hayb, now 27, had violated orders in shooting the activist. In addition to manslaughter, he was convicted of obstruction of justice and false testimony.

Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit opposed Hayb's early release, citing the potential damage such a move could cause to Israel's relations with Great Britain.

Nonetheless, a Southern Command military tribunal headed by Col. Erez Porat decided to release Hayb after all three panel members ruled that he had been sufficiently rehabilitated. The same committee had rejected several prior requests for Hayb's early release.

"We welcome the ruling and are pleased that the committee viewed Hayb's rehabilitation as the decisive factor, rather than military or diplomatic considerations, which are irrelevant to this case," the soldier's attorney said.

The British Foreign Office said yesterday in a statement, "We note the court's decision today to release Taysir Hayb 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."

In London, Hurndall's older sister Sophie said the family had not been informed about the soldier's early release and only learned of it upon receiving a call from a Foreign Office representative.

"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 Hayb would receive an early release. "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 Hayb himself, but rather with 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 soldiers to target civilians," Sophie Hurndall said. She added that the soldier's early release sends a message to young soldiers to "'Do what you want - we have your back.'"

Hurndall said she believes Israelis have stopped caring about their image in the international community. "So many innocent killed in so many horrific ways. They just don't seem to care about anyone," she said.

She went on to criticize her own government, which she said under the leadership of then-prime minister Tony Blair did not condemn the killing strongly enough, and whose response to the latest news she also believes is insufficient.

"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," she said. "I cannot believe that people can do such things, and that my own government can sit by and keep quiet."

Danna Harman reported from London.