by Eli Sanders

For a few hours last week, I thought Tom Dale was dead.

Tom Dale was the British activist I met three weeks ago while I was in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah to report on the death of Olympia resident Rachel Corrie. On March 16, Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to protect a Palestinian home in Rafah from demolition ["Was This House Worth Her Life?" Eli Sanders, April 3].

Last Friday, April 11, news reports were saying that a young British activist named Tom had been shot in the head by Israeli troops while working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Rafah. The ISM is the same group that Corrie was working with when she was killed. While I was interviewing ISMers in Rafah--a dicey city along the southern border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt--there was only one British ISM member named Tom. He was 18 years old.

Tom had been my door into the ISM, a group of young internationals who act as human shields in an effort to protect Palestinians from what they call "the Israeli Army of Occupation." It was Tom who I spoke with by phone from Seattle while first trying to arrange the trip, Tom who greeted me after I had passed through border crossings and a heavily armed checkpoint and dusty roads to finally arrive at the ISM Rafah offices, Tom who I stayed with one restless night in Rafah as he guarded a Palestinian home.

The bullet-riddled house sat along the edge of a heavily patrolled Israeli "buffer zone" between the city of Rafah and the border with Egypt. ISM activists believed the home was slated for demolition. We slept on thin cushions in a room that already had bullet holes in its walls, and the night was punctured regularly by machine-gun fire. We stayed up talking about what to do if the bullets started flying our way.

I wasn't the only one who heard the April 11 news reports about a wounded ISMer and assumed Tom Dale had been shot. His father came to the same conclusion and placed a quick call to his son's cell phone--it was the first time Tom's dad had called him since he went to Rafah five months ago. Friends from abroad called, too. And Palestinian friends, not knowing what else to do, left condolence messages for Tom on his voice mail.

When I finally reached Tom Dale in Rafah, he was alive but sounded grim. The Tom who was shot is another young British activist, who arrived in Rafah after I left: Tom Hurndall, 22, from Manchester. Tom Hurndall is now in critical condition at an Israeli hospital.

The Tom I knew, Tom Dale, witnessed the shooting, and now, like other ISM activists in Rafah, is on edge. After three recent incidents--Corrie's death, the April 5 shooting of an American ISM activist in the West Bank (that activist, 23-year-old Brian Avery, was shot in the face but will live), and now the shooting of Tom Hurndall--Dale and his colleagues wonder whether ISMers are being targeted by the Israeli military. He says he will probably leave Rafah soon out of fear for his safety.

"Three times in a month is too much," he tells me. "Before, it was like an incident. Now it's a trend."

Dale sounds weary. At 18, he's now seen two of his compatriots grievously injured in front of him within the span of a few weeks. He was there when Rachel was run over by the bulldozer, and he was there when Hurndall was shot. "I think I'm probably what's technically described as brutalized," he says. "It's made me feel very tired. Before this I was very energetic. I thought I could have gone on. But this is just a crushing blow."

The Israeli army says it is investigating the shooting of Tom Hurndall. His parents have said they think he was deliberately targeted, and are calling for an independent investigation. Here's what Tom Dale says happened:

On April 11, a group of about 10 ISM activists, including Dale and Hurndall, were in an area of Rafah called Yibna, walking up a road that led to a spot where there had been a lot of shooting recently. The activists planned to put up a tent in the line of fire of Israeli positions.

"As we reached the end of that road we encountered a fair amount of shooting," Dale says. "We decided it would be wise not to continue. We formally called off the action for the day and we were about to start walking back."

Then, Dale says, "Bullets started hitting the wall at the end of the street to our left." He believes the bullets were coming from an Israeli guard tower along the border. "All of us--except Tom [Hurndall] and a man named Nicola--walked back even further away from the bullets."

Hurndall and Nicola had seen some Palestinian children in the line of fire and went to help them. Hurndall picked one child up and carried him away, then went back for another.

"He's wearing orange reflective gear." (The activists sometimes wear Day-Glo orange jackets during dangerous actions.) "He went back to pick up another child and as he's bent over slightly, he is shot through the back of the head. He fell. There was a huge amount of blood. Everyone ran toward him. I called the ambulance. Some Palestinians pulled him into a car and drove him at breakneck speed to a hospital."

If he lives, Hurndall is now expected to have severe brain damage.

In Rafah, the shooting has caused ISM members to seriously reevaluate their tactics. In the past, they thought their white skin and foreign citizenship protected them from Israeli tanks and bullets. No more. "It's pushed the borders back pretty far as to what we can do," Tom Dale says. "Or what we can do with reasonable confidence in our safety."

And there's one other thing that Tom Dale and the other activists see as a bad omen: "There's been less of a media onslaught this time, which is worrying. There's been absolutely no interest from the American media."

Dale is worried that like the deaths of Palestinians and Israelis, the death and injuries suffered by ISM activists may become so routine as to be unremarkable--a predictable news bulletin from a violent region.

"This is what it is like for Palestinians," Dale says. "No one cares anymore. And it's now moving that way for internationals."

Meanwhile, on April 14, the Israeli government concluded its investigation of Corrie's death. The investigation, led by the chief of the general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, found that Israeli forces were not guilty of any misconduct. It simultaneously accused Corrie and other members of the International Solidarity Movement of "illegal, irresponsible and dangerous" behavior.