Palestinians search the rubble of their family house which was hit by an Israeli strike in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip. (AP/Adel Hana)
Palestinians search the rubble of their family house which was hit by an Israeli strike in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip. (AP/Adel Hana)

After journalist killings, potential violations in Gaza must be investigated

After 50 bloody days of conflict, it looks like a ceasefire may finally take hold in Israel and Gaza. Recently Gaza has been one of the deadliest places in the world for the press. According to CPJ research, at least seven journalists and media workers were killed on the job in four separate incidents.

On July 9, a driver for the local agency Media 24, Hamid Shihab, was killed when his car marked as press was hit by an Israeli strike. On July 20, Khaled Hamad, a cameraman for the local Continue Production Films, was killed by Israeli shelling in Shijaiyah neighborhood. Ten days later, a cameraman for the Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV, Sameh al-Aryan, and two staff working for the Palestine Network for Press and Media, Rami Rayan and Mohammed al-Deiri, died in the Israeli bombardment of the same neighborhood. And Associated Press video journalist Simone Camilli and freelance translator Ali Abu Afash were killed when unexploded ordnance blew up on August 13.

(At least another eight journalists were killed while not working, the majority of them from Israeli bombardment of their homes, like many other civilians in Gaza. As a press freedom organization, CPJ focuses on the journalists who are killed in the line of duty.)

The killing of journalists and media workers, among several other potential violations of international law committed by both Israel and Palestinian factions, should be included in any future investigations into the Gaza war. Already, the U.N. Human Rights Council has announced an international commission of inquiry into whether war crimes were committed in Gaza by all sides. The Israel Defense Forces has also announced it will conduct its own internal investigations into dozens of cases where Palestinian civilians were killed, according to Haaretz. These investigations must contend with serious questions as to whether the combatants violated two principles of the law of armed conflict, distinction and proportionality.

The principle of distinction says that combatants may not purposefully target civilians, while proportionality seeks a balance between minimizing civilian harm and allowing combatants to achieve military objectives. It recognizes that not every killing of a civilian– including journalists–is a violation of international law.

The key to proportionality, as international law professor Laurie Blank wrote in The Washington Post, is whether the commander makes a reasonable determination that the likely civilian casualties in an operation would not be excessive. It is not enough to say an attack caused the disproportionate death of civilians. Rather, the question is what the combatant knew at the time of the attack amid the fog of war.

The law of armed conflict requires that proportionality be considered on a case-by-case basis; the sheer number of journalists killed is not evidence that a combatant did not act proportionally.

Still, the case of the July 30 bombardment of Shijaiyah raises concerns. On that day, journalists, medics, and civilians flocked to the site of an Israeli bombing of a market. As captured by several graphic videos, a second volley of Israeli bombardment then struck the area, killing three journalists and media workers and wounding at least two more–among other civilian casualties. After the IDF hit its target in the first round of strikes, commanders could reasonably expect that journalists and medics would be at the scene when they struck a second time.

The IDF has not responded to multiple CPJ requests to comment specifically on any of the incidents that led to the deaths of seven journalists and media workers. During a press conference on July 22, IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner spoke generally of the dangers facing journalists in Gaza: “We do not target journalists […] Journalists do sometimes put themselves in risky positions. We have to do our best to facilitate and keep them out of harm’s way and try not to put them specifically in harm’s way.”

In fact, CPJ has not determined that the IDF purposefully targeted any of the five journalists and media workers killed by Israeli fire, but the case of Hamid Shihab warrants further investigation. Shihab, a driver for the Gaza-based press agency Media 24, was killed when his car, clearly marked as a press vehicle, was struck by an IDF strike in Gaza City, the agency reported. Media 24 cameraman Hatem Silmy told CPJ that Shihab was parked outside his home in a busy neighborhood when the car was hit. The two were heading to the Media 24 office so Silmy could report on the ongoing conflict, the cameraman said.

It is unclear if the IDF accidentally hit the car, did not see the “TV” symbol, or saw it and chose to ignore it. An investigation by Human Rights Watch concluded on July 22 that the strike was one of several “apparent violations” of the law because the IDF hit a presumably civilian target in a busy area where there would likely be many civilian casualties.

In the July 22 press conference, Lt. Col. Lerner, still speaking in general terms, said “terror groups” in Gaza had abused internationally protected symbols, including ambulance and TV symbols. Palestinian militants have abused the TV symbol in the past, according to Human Rights Watch. CPJ has not found any evidence that militants were abusing the TV symbol in this case.

Nor has CPJ found any evidence to suggest such symbols were abused on July 20, when Khaled Hamad was killed while accompanying an ambulance crew in the Shijaiyah neighborhood. News reports said that the IDF launched a heavy barrage of artillery that day after its ground forces encountered unexpectedly strong resistance. Hamad, wearing a flak jacket marked as press, was filming a documentary on the dangers faced by Palestinian medics when the ambulance was hit by a shell, the owner of Continue Production Films, Alaa Alool, told CPJ. After Hamad escaped the vehicle, a second shell hit, killing him and a Palestinian medic, Alool said. The incident happened amid some of the sharpest fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces, and it is not clear what exact events led to the shelling that ended Hamad’s life.

The IDF has acknowledged it targeted journalists and media buildings in the past. In the previous round of violence in 2012, the IDF hit buildings housing Hamas-affiliated outlets. The IDF claimed at the time that the media buildings were legitimate military targets because they were being used by armed militants, and one of the strikes killed a leading military figure in Islamic Jihad, according to the Associated Press. The IDF also targeted a press car carrying two journalists who worked for the Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV. In a letter to The New York Times, the IDF’s Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said: “Such terrorists, who hold cameras and notebooks in their hands, are no different from their colleagues who fire rockets aimed at Israeli cities and cannot enjoy the rights and protection afforded to legitimate journalists.”

We said at the time that Lt. Col. Leibovich’s interpretation has no basis in international law. Journalists, like all civilians, only lose their protected status if they directly take part in hostilities.

On several occasions in the most recently conflict, the IDF targeted buildings housing media outlets, especially those that housed outlets affiliated with or run by Hamas, like al-Aqsa. These strikes led to the injury of at least four journalists, according to CPJ research. To be sure, both Hamas and al-Aqsa TV are designated terror entities by the U.S. Department of Treasury and al-Aqsa was broadcasting despicable speech calling for the extermination of the Jews. But neither of these facts make media buildings a legitimate military target, unless the buildings have a dual military purpose.

An examination of these killings of journalists in the Gaza conflict should take place in the context of a broader review of the actions of all sides, including Hamas’s deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians and launching of rockets directly next to civilians, including journalists. CPJ’s role is to ensure that the killings of journalists are fully and adequately investigated. We will work with local and international groups to ensure future investigations hold those responsible for violations to account, and to encourage policy changes to reduce the likelihood of more violations moving forward.