Israel: Killing of BBC driver in south Lebanon either deliberate or reckless, finds CPJ

June 19, 2000

His Excellency Ehud Barak
Prime Minister of the State of Israel
Office of the Prime Minister
3 Kaplan Street, Kiryat Ben-Gurion
Jerusalem, Israel

VIA FACSIMILE +972-2-652-7239

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to express its deep concern about the recent death of Abed Takkoush, a driver for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Takkoush was killed by Israeli shellfire in southern Lebanon on May 23 during Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanese territory.

In a statement released last week (June 16), the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) described the May 23 attack as a “tragic mistake.” According to the statement, the incident occurred after an Israeli tank crew “observed a suspicious vehicle carrying individuals in civilian clothing, and suspected that they were members of a terrorist Lebanese group carrying equipment and preparing for an anti-tank missile firing against IDF tanks and vehicles.” An IDF investigation concluded that “under the operational circumstances in which the tank crew operated, and in light of the data that was known at the time, the crew operated in accordance with the relevant procedures for such situations,” the statement added.

But the IDF’s findings contradict or fail to explain eyewitness accounts of events that took place on the ground. Moreover, the IDF cannot reasonably be expected to conduct an impartial investigation into alleged misconduct by its own forces. We therefore urge you to order an immediate and thorough independent investigation into this attack and to ensure that its findings are made public.

Just before noon on May 23, Takkoush, who had worked as a BBC driver for the past 25 years, was killed when an Israeli tank shell hit his parked Mercedes on the road between the villages of Mays al-Jebel and Houla, near the Israeli border settlement of Manara.

Takkoush had just driven BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen and cameraman Malek Kenaan to the area. While Takkoush waited inside the car, the two journalists started filming a burned-out vehicle that had been destroyed by shellfire, with the Manara settlement in the background. Their camera was set up about 100 meters from Takkoush’s car.

An Israeli army observation post was clearly visible on the border, some 500 meters away. Bowen, dressed in a pink shirt, waved his hands in an attempt to demonstrate that he, Kenaan, and Takkoush were unarmed civilians. A few moments later, the journalists heard a loud crash and saw Takkoush’s parked car burst into flames.

Bowen and Kenaan took cover for several minutes and then approached the car in an effort to assist Takkoush. The Israeli soldiers aimed a burst of machine-gun fire in their direction,
forcing them to take cover again. The threat of Israeli gunfire also stymied several later rescue attempts. Takkoush’s body was only recovered hours later by local rescue workers.

Eyewitnesses interviewed by CPJ and Amnesty International noted that at the time of the incident there was no evidence that Israeli forces faced any military threat in the area. There was “no report of any firing or other military hostile action directed at the Israeli border on either [May 22 or May 23] in these areas at the time of the attacks,” according to Israel/Lebanon: Attacks on Lebanese Civilians in South Lebanon by Israeli Forces, an Amnesty International report released earlier this month. “These attacks appear to have taken place without warning, after the IDF and SLA [South Lebanon Army] had already pulled back from the areas,” the report said. “It actually appears that no fire was directed at Israel from within Lebanon throughout the period of the IDF withdrawal.”

In its response to the IDF’s June 16 statement, the BBC noted that the statement “does not address the overwhelming evidence that on the road next to Kibbutz Manara the IDF was recklessly targeting civilians.” The BBC also pointed out that if Israeli forces felt under threat at the time of the shell attack, it seemed odd that the IDF did not force Israeli civilians observing events on the border to seek shelter. Finally, the BBC asked why Israeli forces had targeted a parked car and not the BBC journalists themselves, if they in fact believed that Bowen and Kenaan were hostile terrorists.

“Even if the tank unit was in some doubt about the identity of the occupants, the response was disproportionate and reckless,” the BBC said in a statement issued shortly after the attack.

As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, we are deeply disturbed that members of the press were fired upon by IDF forces. It is a violation of international humanitarian law to deliberately target journalists or any other civilian, and we believe, based on the available evidence, that the killing of Abed Takkoush was either reckless or deliberate. We therefore call for an immediate investigation, independent of the Israeli government and the IDF. The findings of the investigation should be made public.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience. Sincerely,

Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director