Military clears troops in death of Reuters cameraman

New York, August 13, 2008–The Israeli government should carry out an independent investigation into the killing of Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ also called on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to work with journalists and media groups to ensure that journalists operating in the Gaza Strip are able to do their jobs safely.

An Israeli military investigation has cleared troops of wrongdoing in the death of the Palestinian cameraman, who was killed by Israeli tank fire in April in the Gaza Strip.

“We are deeply dismayed by these findings,” said Joel Campagna, CPJ’s Middle East senior program coordinator. “We are calling for an independent government investigation to review the death of Fadel Shana.”

Reuters reported today that IDF Brigadier General Avihai Mendelblit concluded that Israeli troops acted appropriately on April 16, 2007, when they opened fire and killed Shana, who was filming Israeli forces outside Johr al-Diek, near the Israel-Gaza border.

In a letter to Reuters, Mendelblit said that based on a review of the incident there is no evidence to “suggest misconduct or criminal misbehavior” by IDF forces in Shana’s death, which he termed a “tragedy.”

Shana had been filming the Israeli forces for several minutes at a distance of about 1 mile, according to Reuters, when a tank fired shells packed with thousands of flechettes–tiny anti-personnel darts that spread across a wide radius and are designed to inflict maximum casualties. In addition to Shana, eight other civilians were killed in the shelling and Reuters soundman Wafa Abu Mizyed, who was working with Shana at the time, was wounded.

Video from Shana’s camera posted online by Reuters shows the Israeli tank firing, and then the footage goes black.

In his letter, Mandelblit said Israeli troops could not tell what the object on Shana’s camera tripod was. “The tank crew was unable to determine the nature of the object mounted on the tripod and positively identify it as an anti-tank missile, a mortar, or a television camera,” Mendelblit said. He wrote that IDF troops were suspicious because troops had recently come under attack in the area and that the flak jackets worn by the journalists were commonly used by “Palestinian terrorists.”

“I have therefore decided, based on the facts of the incident, that no further legal measures will be taken,” Mendelblit wrote.

“The exoneration of the Israeli soldiers involved in this incident sends a message to journalists in the Gaza Strip that they can come under fire any time they raise a camera,” Campagna said. “The IDF has a responsibility to work with journalists and media groups to develop systems that would allow journalists in the Gaza Strip to operate with relative safety and security.”

Mendelblit’s conclusion, however, runs counter to the fact that Shana and his colleague were operating in an open area and were identifiable as civilians. Shana’s sport utility vehicle and flak jacket bore “Press” markings, and there was no fighting taking place in the immediate area at the time, according to eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, which conducted a detailed investigation in April. The fact that troops were unsure of the target they were firing at raises questions about the appropriate use of force and whether soldiers were taking precautions to avoid harming civilians as they are obliged to do under the Geneva Conventions.