Israeli army decision endangers journalists in Gaza

In the Gaza Strip, anyone with a camera is fair game. That’s the inescapable conclusion from the Israeli army’s investigation into why one of its tank crews fired at least two shells at a Reuters television journalist openly filming them from a mile away.

The cameraman, Fadel Shana, 24, filmed the muzzle flash of the Merkava-4 tank that sent a dart-scattering shell above his head. The screen goes black as Shana falls dead in an open patch of sandy ground near the Israel-Gaza border, southwest of Gaza City on April 16. His soundman, Wafa Abu Mizyed, is wounded. Eight other civilians, aged between 12 and 20, were killed; six of them were under 16. At least seven other bystanders aged from 10 to 18 were also hit. None was armed or was a militant.

In a six-page letter to Thomson Reuters dated August 12, the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) military advocate general, Brig.-Gen. Avihai Mandelblit, absolves the tank crew and their superiors of any responsibility or criminal wrongdoing. The letter outlines some of the findings of a confidential inquiry into the killing. It skates over testimony from witnesses quoted by Reuters and other media and human rights groups, and concludes that the decision to fire a shell designed to kill concentrations of battlefield infantry at a two-man TV crew was “reasonable” and “sound.”

General Mandelblit essentially blames the victim. What do you expect if you drive a vehicle with clear press markings to a patch of uninhabited ground, get out wearing blue body armor with the word “Press” emblazoned on it, slowly set up a tripod and camera and film two tanks 1.4 kilometers (about a mile) away? The answer, according to this report, is that you should expect to come across as a clear threat to the men inside one of the best armored main battle tanks in operation today.

I worked as Reuters bureau chief in Israel and the Palestinian Territories for seven years in the 1990s. I did not know Fadel Shana and I have no connection with Reuters now. Like any journalist running a news operation in Israel, I had many dealings with the IDF, particularly in regard to their treatment of locally hired journalists covering their presence in the West Bank, Gaza, and south Lebanon. It is with that experience that I read the general’s letter.

The underpinning of the general’s argument that the tank crew’s actions were reasonable is that the soldiers could not see press signs and assumed that a black object mounted on a tripod posed a threat to them. The soldiers were on heightened alert because another IDF tank had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, albeit miles away, and three Israeli soldiers had been killed in separate incident earlier that day.

“The tank crew did not spot any markings on the vehicle or clothing worn by the persons spotted,” the investigation concluded. Here are some facts garnered from reporting and interviews with eye-witnesses and military experts by media outlets and human rights researchers.

Both Reuters journalists and their Mitsubishi SUV carried clear press markings. The journalists were wearing blue body armor, the standard color for civilians, with “Press” written on it. The Merkava tank is equipped with state-of-the art optics and an Israeli Elbit Systems battle management system. There were two tanks on the ridge overlooking Shana’s TV position, one spotting, and the other firing. Both the tank commander and gunner have separate optical systems. Did all four soldiers fail to spot press markings from 1.4 kilometers away? The standard training distance for gunnery practice in the IDF is 3.9 kilometers.

Shana had been on assignment in the area for many hours filming the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike that killed many Palestinians including children. Just 20 minutes before the fatal shelling, he had passed within 700 meters (766 yards) of the tanks. The TV markings on his car were clearly visible. An unmanned observation drone was circling the area.

The IDF report said, “The tank commander requested authorization to fire at persons identified from a distance, whose behavior was suspicious and who had been spotted affixing to a tripod a large black unidentified object and directing it at the tank.” The report said the commander believed the object could be an anti-tank missile or mortar. It said for reasons it could not disclose, recordings of the communication between IDF forces in the area at the time had not been made.

The way Shana behaved would not lead to the conclusion that he was about to fire an anti-tank missile. He set up his tripod in the open. He made no attempt to hide behind an embankment or vegetation.

The IDF report acknowledges that he filmed for four minutes before the tank fired. Witnesses said he had set up his tripod at head height (he was more than 6 feet tall), standard procedure for such a camera shoot. That is more than twice the height for a tripod-mounted anti-tank weapon where the person firing lies or on ground or sits.

Also, there are no published reports of Palestinian militants ever firing such an anti-tank weapon at Israeli forces in Gaza. Israeli sources have been quoted as saying they feared Hamas might have acquired Soviet weaponry from Hezbollah in south Lebanon, which had used it against the IDF in 2006. But no journalists had seen it in Gaza.

The IDF added that both journalists were wearing body armor “common to Palestinian terrorists.” Again, journalists covering the conflict in the Gaza Strip say militants do not usually wear flak jackets.

The general’s letter leaves too many questions unanswered.

Why was the tank crew authorized to fire such a lethal weapon as a flechette shell in an area with civilians at a target it could not identify? Why did commanders not issue a warning before firing? Why did the tanks not take evasive action if they felt threatened?

There are many other chilling questions, including the unthinkable: Did the crew suspect that Shana was a journalist but fired anyway?

The upshot of this whole tragedy is that raising a camera in Gaza as a journalist could get you killed. That’s the fear of the Foreign Press Association in Israel.

“We hope that the army’s conclusion does not give soldiers free license to fire without being sure of the target, thereby hindering the media’s ability to cover the conflict,” it said.

Without a full, independent inquiry into this incident and an overhaul of IDF rules of engagement, such fears might be realized.