In a seven-week period, two overseas observers were killed by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, and a third left brain dead. But has the truth yet been told?
James Miller was not the first international witness to fall silent in Rafah. He was the third. This spring, in less than seven weeks, and within a radius of less than three miles, the American human-shield activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer; the British photographer and peace activist Tom Hurndall was shot in the head and rendered brain-dead; and James Miller was shot dead.
To understand what happened to James, it made sense to investigate the killing of Rachel and the maiming of Tom, whose family are currently discussing with doctors whether or not his life-support machine should be switched off. One day we filmed Tom lying in his hospital bed at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in Putney, south-west London. On the wall was a battery of photographs showing Tom with a whole life ahead of him. The bleep-bleep of the monitor was the only sound. That afternoon, we has traveled to a Devon village to film Sophy Miller, James’s widow, and their children, Alexander, three, and Lotte, not yet one.
Making our film, When Killing Is Easy, has been the most harrowing ordeal of my professional life. But it is vital that it isevidential – and that is really tough when the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) have refused to speak to us. From mid-August we faxed and telephoned the Israelis repeatedly, asking them to explain their actions. All we got was a series of old press releases.
Rachel Corrie was the first of the three victims. She was a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). They are young idealists, mainly European and American, who offer themselves as human shields. You could call them naive, even foolish. There is no doubting their guts. They stand between the Israeli bulldozers and their targets, the Palestinians’ homes that the IDF wants to flatten.
The Israelis have their reasons. Rafah is a stronghold of Islamic extremism in Gaza. The Palestinians dig tunnels underneath the Israeli-controlled border to their relatives in Egypt. The tunnels, the Israelis say, are used to smuggle guns and bombs. It is fair to point out that few, if any, suicide bombers have come from Gaza, for the simple reason that the Israelis have made it virtually impossible for ordinary residents to leave the strip. Even so, to make the tunneling more difficult the IDF has created a Berlin Wall-style “death strip”. The ISM people come along and get in the way. The Israeli government calls them “irresponsible”, “illegal” and “terrorist sympathizers”.
All of this must be seen in the context of the second intifada, where Israeli military actions have frequently occurred in response to Palestinian suicide bombings. So far, 800 Israelis have been killed and 2,200 Palestinians.
On 16 March this year, Rachel and her friends from the ISM were defending the home of Dr Samir Nasser Allah from the bulldozers. The human shields had been successful in getting in the way. Tom Dale and Alice Coy, fellow ISM activists, watched a bulldozer rumble straight towards Rachel. She stood her ground. The bulldozer didn’t stop. Dale, an Oxford undergraduate, had a clear view of the incident. “He [the driver] knew absolutely she was there. The bulldozer waited for a few seconds over her body and it then reversed, leaving its scoop down so that if she had been under the bulldozer, it would have crushed her a second time. Only later when it was much more clear of her body did it raise its scoop.”
Rachel was able to tell Coy: “My back is broken.” She died soon afterwards. A still photograph of the scene clearly shows the ISM activists gathered around the mortally wounded Rachel. In the background is the bulldozer. Connecting the two are straight bulldozer tracks.
The Israeli pathologist Dr Yehudah Hiss noted that Rachel appeared to have been run over by a bulldozer, and found the cause of death to be “pressure to the chest”. Rachel’s shoulder blades had been crushed, her spine broken in five places and six ribs broken. Her face was apparently slashed by the blade.
The IDF produced a field report that stated that “Corrie was not run over by an engineering vehicle”, and, for good measure, that she was “hidden from view of the vehicle’s operator”. The IDF backed up its version by allowing Israeli television to do a sound-only interview with the soldier who drove the bulldozer. He said: “When I was doing the earthworks, I picked up a load of earth and pushed it along. Nobody was there at the time. Maybe she was buried there. I don’t know. I didn’t see her.” There was a second soldier in the bulldozer. What did he see? We don’t know.
The IDF report goes on to assert that Rachel “was struck by dirt and a slab of concrete, resulting in her death”. But what about the Israeli pathologist’s finding of multiple crush injuries, which is not consistent with a single slab of concrete falling on her? Curiously, when the military police later carried out a criminal investigation, they concluded that she was not “hit by a bulldozer” but had stumbled on building waste.
The family of Rachel Corrie believe the Defense force’s version of events to be a blatant fabrication. The IDF wouldn’t talk to us about Rachel’s death; the Israeli military police’s investigation is complete and no Israeli soldier has been charged with any wrongdoing.
Tom Hurndall was shot in the head on 11 April. The IDF has admitted shooting Tom, but they imply that they had good reason to do so; he was wearing camouflage fatigues and firing a gun at an IDF outpost. The IDF’s field report even provides two diagrams showing the location of the gunman firing at them.
Tom’s father, Anthony Hurndall, a City of London property lawyer, has investigated his son’s shooting. The two diagrams in the IDF report locate Tom’s position when he was shot in two different places. The sites are contradictory. Thirteen eyewitnesses and two chains of photographs locate Tom in a different place, about 100 meters further away from the death strip. The eyewitnesses say that Tom was not firing a gun at the Israelis, but helping a Palestinian toddler who had frozen under Israeli fire.
Immediately after Tom was shot, he was moved out of the firing line by two Palestinian youths to a safer place where he could be given first aid. Two photographers took a series of stills showing Tom being picked up. Blood is spurting from his head, so you can tell the pictures were taken within seconds of him being shot. In the background of both sets of photographs are some distinctive Hamas graffiti, nailing the site of Tom’s shooting to the location identified by the eyewitnesses.
The IDF field report asserts that Tom was wearing camouflage fatigues. ISM activists deliberately wear bright fluorescent jackets, to identify themselves and to distinguish themselves from Palestinian terror groups. The South African photographer Garth Stead took black-and-white pictures, but one of them shows clearly that Tom is wearing a distinctive jacket. The second set of stills and an amateur video recording prove the jacket to be, not camouflage fatigues, but orange. I asked Stead whether it would be possible to mistake orange for camouflage. He replied: “Not unless he was an orange-picker.”
The family of Tom Hurndall also believes the IDF’s version of events to be a fabrication. His father, after six weeks of investigation, reluctantly came to the conclusion that “this is a case of attempted murder. If Tom dies, and that is a likelihood, then it will be murder.” A military investigation continues.
James Miller was shot on 2 May. He had been in Rafah for more than two weeks, for a good part of the time basing himself in a private home that the IDF called “the house of the journalists”. On the last night of filming there had been some gunfire, mainly or exclusively from the Israeli armored personnel carriers, at Palestinian targets.
Quiet followed, and then the troops in the personnel carriers addressed James and his reporter Saira Shah. (The pair had made two stunningly successful films in Afghanistan, winning many awards.) James’s camera recorded that the Israeli troops were calling out to them, not in Hebrew, but in Arabic. It is believed that they were from the Bedouin Desert Patrol Unit; Arab volunteers who fight for the Israelis for money. The Bedouin are not nervous Israeli reservists but battle-hardened volunteers who serve in Rafah for long periods of time.
They called out in Arabic: “Do you like Fairuz?” (a Lebanese folk singer) and: “Do you wear perfume?” – a catchphrase from an Egyptian sitcom. Saira Shah thought them so outspoken that they might have been high on something.
There were two cameras recording the scene; James’s and that of a Palestinian stringer working for Associated Press TV News (APTN). Two personnel carriers that had been in the area shut off their engines and switched off their lights. It’s an old soldier’s trick; to see in the dark you douse your lights and your natural night vision improves dramatically. You can see them; they can’t see you. Moreover, thanks to American military aid, the IDF has some of the best night-vision equipment in the world. The armored personnel carriers in Rafah routinely carry two rifles equipped with Aquila night-sights, which draw in the available light and give fourfold magnification. James and his team were sitting in a well-lit veranda. The soldiers in the personnel carrier would have seen them clearly with their natural night vision and brilliantly through their night-sights.
The IDF field report into James’s death remains confidential, but we have seen a leaked version. It clearly states that, after some shooting, the night fell quiet.
James had been filming in the hope of recording the Israelis dynamiting one of the abandoned homes on the edge of the death strip, but it looked as though the IDF had stopped work for the night. The team decided to leave the house from where they had been filming and return to their (much safer) flat in the center of Rafah. It was the last day of filming.
They decided to be open and straightforward; to approach one of the personnel carriers directly and ask for safe passage. James, Saira and their local fixer Aboud headed directly for the vehicle, shouting in English and Arabic. Saira was holding a British passport, Aboud held a white flag on to which James was shining a torch. From the veranda, the APTN cameraman filmed the scene. On tape you can clearly hear that the night is deathly quiet. There is no sound of crossfire. Had there been any, the team would not have taken the risk.
They had walked about 20 meters from the veranda when the first shot rang out. The team froze. For 13 seconds, there is silence broken only by Saira’s cry: “We are British journalists.” Then comes the second shot, which killed James. He was shot in the front of his neck. The bullet was Israeli issue, fired, according to a forensic expert, from less than 200 meters away.
Immediately after the shooting, the IDF said that James had been shot in the back during crossfire. It later retracted the assertion about where in his body he was shot, but until today it has maintained that he was shot during crossfire. There was no crossfire on the APTN tape.
The Israeli Defense Force and the government of Israel chose not to talk to us about James Miller’s case. A military investigation continues.
Since the start of the second intifada, 2,200 Palestinians have been killed. Nine Israeli soldiers have been indicted for various offenses, but none has been convicted of unlawful killing. But this, from the killing fields of the Occupied Territories, is something new: the killing and maiming of Western journalists and peace activists. And, unlike the Palestinians, the families of the international victims have been able to bring pressure to bear. They have, however, had precious few satisfactory answers.
We showed the APTN film of James’s shooting to a serving Israeli soldier. He noted that the television team did not look like Islamic terrorists and concluded: “That’s murder.”
Written By: John Sweeney