Show Hide image

Life after Tom Hurndall

Jocelyn Hurndall - whose son Tom was unlawfully killed by the Israeli Defence Forces as he tried to

I first visited Israel more than three decades ago in 1971. A carefree 21 year-old, I worked as a volunteer for a couple of months on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, right on the border with Lebanon.

Today, I can still vividly recall landing at what was then called Lod airport with a group of other volunteers and being driven north for several hours through the clear starry night.

As we approached our destination there was a change of speed and a sense of getting higher and higher. We had to hold on to the sides of the lorry as it revved and manoeuvred round the bumpy U-bends.

Around midnight we stopped on the border road with Lebanon and I could hear voices talking in Hebrew, shouting orders.

Glaring lights outlined armed soldiers milling around a parked tank and other military vehicles were silhouetted against the pitch-black. "There’s a curfew," someone explained. "It starts at seven o’clock in the evening. So the military will have to escort us along the road to the kibbutz." I had never been in a society controlled by the military before; it felt strange and mildly alarming.

Throughout the whole time that I was there working alongside young kibbutzniks picking peaches within yards of the wire fence that marked the Lebanese border, I never once thought to ask why we needed soldiers standing guard at the corners of the field. I gasp now at my early politically naivety, though I could never in a million years have foreseen how my family would later become so caught up in one of the world’s most complex and intractable conflicts.

Thirty-two years later my son, Tom, was the same age when, as a photo-journalist wanting to make a difference, he travelled down to Rafah after the killing of peace activist, Rachel Corrie and UN project Manager, Iain Hook, a few weeks earlier.

I can imagine my curious son after having met with a family two days before and learning of the shooting of two civilian Palestinians joining a Palestinian demonstration against IDF violence. That day three children came under fire from an Israeli position and Tom ran forward to carry a little boy to safety. As he returned for the two remaining girls he was shot in the head and died following 9 months in a coma.

In the wake of Tom's death, Jocelyn Hurndall has devoted herself to the cause of Palestinian education

As happens after such life-changing moments, a line was drawn. The span of my life was abruptly dislocated and past, present and future no longer seemed to bear any relation to each other. In the months that followed our small family was to take on Israel’s most powerful institution, the Israeli Defence Forces, in a search for the facts about the shooting of our son.

Although I have since been re-stringing my life the feeling of disorientation lasted until I at last found a way of piecing the fragments together in a job. A particular job. In April 2008 I became Development Director of Friends of Birzeit University, which has been supporting education in the West Bank since 1978. As a former teacher and Head of Learning Support, I am acutely aware of the right of young Palestinians to education, which is being severely jeopardised at a time when the creation of future leaders has never been more vital.

In my new position, my past interest in education inclusion has merged with a cause from which I am now inseparable.

At the beginning of June, I visited the University to see for myself the effects of the Occupation on the lives of ordinary students and staff. Since Tom was shot I have crossed many checkpoints but this was different. There was no hint of tension as the Palestinian taxi driver drove me alongside the 16-foot high concrete slabs forming the backdrop to the approach to Ramallah and all seemed quiet as we passed smoothly through the 'upgraded' Qalandiya checkpoint from Jerusalem into the West Bank. The wall on the ‘Israeli’ side has been overlaid with attractive brickwork and night-lighting and the crossing was so seamless that I only realized we’d passed through because of the sudden disintegration of the road surface and the swirl of dust in the air.

I had anticipated the bored, uninterested looks and occasional unprovoked harassment of the young Israeli soldiers. In the past, my British passport and the circumstances of my visits to Gaza had afforded no protection, but I knew any harassment I faced now would be nothing in comparison to the intimidation experienced by the students I was soon to meet.

Previously I had been concerned with the rules of engagement, now I was entering another sphere of human rights – the right to education.

This was a time for gathering facts and I was interested to learn from Rajai Zidat, the Scholarships Officer, of recent student detentions and harassment. I discovered that in December 2007 Fadi Ahmad, the Head of Birzeit University’s Student Council, had been charged with belonging to and ‘holding a position of responsibility’ in an ‘illegal organization’. He is currently in Ofer prison and will be incarcerated for at least a year on what appears to be a legalistic means to punish young Palestinians engaged in political activity.

Between January and March alone, one employee and eight students were arrested, including Fadi’s replacement, Abdullah Owais, who is being held on similar grounds but is still awaiting trial.

The process of Administrative Detention is a system of imprisonment without charge. Secret evidence from Israeli intelligence is shown to the military judge and used to justify incarceration for a period up to six months, on a renewable basis. The reasons given are not communicated to the student or his lawyer and one Birzeit undergraduate has been held in Administrative Detention for three years.

Many students, regardless of whether they’re involved in student activities, undergo arbitrary questioning and if they object they are harassed at checkpoints, denied work permits and exposed to house invasions. A shocking 30 per cent of the student population living in Birzeit village are subjected to such 'interviews'.

And it is not only the students who are suffering. I met with the warm Dr Liza Taraki, Dean of Graduate Studies, who described to me the hardships experienced by lecturers and their lack of professional development, which is resulting in a brain drain.

What she told me endorsed all I had learnt about the state of Israel’s de facto control over which students and teachers can access the University. Since the beginning of 2006, many thousands of Palestinians with foreign passports and other foreign nationals have been denied entry to visit, work or study in the OPTs or are being threatened with deportation. Israel holds responsibility for these areas under the Geneva conventions, but flouts agreements of reciprocity in diplomacy and immigration rules with other states.

The university is struggling to thrive against all odds and when I met its president, Dr Nabil Kassis, I was struck by his dignity, calmness and quiet conviction. Here was someone who was fully aware of the conflict between students’ right to education on the one hand and the prohibitions brought about by the Occupation on the other - and the need for international intervention.

During our meeting, there was a commotion outside and as he reached to close the window he said, “A student was shot last year. This week the students are remembering him. Everyone is affected when such tragedies happen.”

The University usually receives around USD$1.5m from the Palestinian Authority (PA) every year as part of the normal package given to all universities proportional to their size. However, during the economic blockade of the Hamas government after the Parliamentary elections in 2006, the PA could only transfer a mere drop of these funds, leaving the University short of USD$1.2m.

As a former teacher it was hard to take on board the fact that staff salaries were halved for two months, 3,000 students were unable to pay fees and went on strike, and the annual budget was severely affected. As Dr Kassis observed, “It’s contrary to everything you expect in the academic world. You expect the possibility of open-mindedness and this goes to the core of the principle of academic freedom”.

On my final day, I attended a morning of impressive professional training of the Schools Counsellors, who give excellent practical and psychological support to many students at Birzeit who have suffered from harassment and poverty and as my first visit to the University came to an end, I felt more strongly than ever that the three areas that should never be politicised – health, education and the civilian judiciary system – had indeed become deeply entangled.

Tom’s courage brought me here. We learn much from risk-takers and personal tragedy can bring great creativity – but how many risk-takers will there need to be before the international community is provoked into upholding international law with regard to the education rights of young Palestinians?

Show Hide image

Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood