Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Death in the Fire Zone

In April 2003 the British peace activist Tom Hurndall was fatally wounded at Rafah in the Gaza Strip. The city of Rafah was then the scene of daily attacks and clashes with Israeli forces stationed nearby, whose presence was then considered "vital to national security." (Two years later, it was decided to evacuate them  far too late for Hurndall as for too many others.

Raphael Cohen, a fellow peace activist from London, described what happened: "Palestinian homes in the area were under fire. Bullets flew over the heads of children, and hit the wall behind them, about the height of the second floor. The frightened children began to run, but some went exactly in the most dangerous direction. Tom saw it and ran toward them. He saved a little boy and took him to a sheltered spot and then returned to take two girls who were in the fire zone. Suddenly he was shot in the head and collapsed." Hurndall was taken unconscious to the hospital and never woke up again. He died nine months later.

Sergeant  Taysir Hayb, who killed Tom Hurndall, was a member of the Desert Patrol Battalion of the Israeli Defense Forces - the official name of the unit in which are concentrated most of the Bedouins who join the army, hoping (usually in vain) to come nearer to a situation of equality in the country of which they are citizens. (Recently we had a case where a Bedouin received on the same day a call-up order and a demolition order for his home...)

Sergeant Taysir Hayb did not know that he killed a British peace activist. He did know that there was a "red line" declared by the army at the edge of the town of Rafah, that anyone who passes this line enters into a "fire zone", becoming suspected of being a terrorist, and that a soldier needed no special permission before shooting at such a person. Hayb probably did that several times before the evening when he took a sniper rifle and fired through telescopic sight at the figure he saw in the evening darkness between the houses of Rafah. In his initial report Hayb stated that he had shot in self-defense at a man armed with a pistol, who threatened himself and his fellows. At that time, nobody asked very many questions.

Had it been a Palestinian who was shot, the story would have ended with another grieving family added to thousands of such families throughout the Gaza Strip, and another anonymous name added to the long, long list of casualties. But as the killed person was British, the case came up prominently in the media at London, the British government continued pressing the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem with ever more questions, the Foreign Ministry contacted the Ministry of Defense, and eventually the military police arrived at Sergeant Taysir Hayb's door and he arrived at the dock in the Southern Command's Court Martial.

The judges ruled that Taysir Hayb's testimony before them had been miserable, confused and full of contradictions, that he had lied in his initial deposition and that he had knowingly shot an unarmed man who did not threaten him. They found him guilty of killing Tom Randall and sent him to eight years in prison.

But the Israel Defense Forces still care for its own. This week, after the was forgotten and disappeared from the headlines, a military committee decided to shorten Hayb's sentence, and soon he will be set free.

Meanwhile, the IDF is no longer in Rafah. But it is still stationed in many other locations on the border of the Gaza Strip. And it still declares "red lines" the passing of which causes one to enter a "fire zone", to be suspected of being terrorist and to be liable to be shot on the spot. But the army has advanced, and the task is no longer given to the Bedouins of the Desert Patrol Battalion.

Nowadays, everything is electronically sophisticated. Throughout the Gaza border area, machine-gun positions are linked to TV cameras, and they can be shot by remote control from secure and protected command centers several kilometers away. As the army reported with more than a bit of pride a few weeks ago, the unit responsible for the whole complex is composed purely of women – truly the height of Feminism. The most talented of the eighteen-year old girls joining the army in every annual recruiting cycle are given long and arduous training. At the end they are ready to take charge of a TV screen showing the situation on one sector of the border and of the remote-control machine-gun trigger, ready to flood the "Fire Zone" near the border with a deadly barrage. They themselves are never in any danger, other than perhaps some bad dreams at night.

As reported by the army, the young women's supervision of the Gaza border area is highly successful, and they have already succeeded in killing several dozen terrorists who were plotting to infiltrate Israel. Were they really all terrorists? This will be probably be looked at after the next British victim.