Issam Abdallah

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Video journalist Issam Abdallah died near the southern Lebanese village of Alma Al-Shaab at 6.02 p.m. on October 13, 2023, when two shells fired from Israel killed him and injured six other journalists as they were covering cross-border fire between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group. Independent investigations by international news organizations and rights groups found evidence indicating that Israeli forces targeted the reporters – a possible war crime under international law.

Alma Al-Shaab was the site of clashes in the days following Israel’s declaration of war on Hamas after the militant Palestinian group captured about 240 hostages and killed 1,200 Israelis in an October 7 assault on southern Israel. Israel’s subsequent strikes have killed tens of thousands in Gaza and hundreds in Lebanon, including 50 civilians, and has destroyed huge swaths of Gaza as well as buildings and crops in Lebanon. Hamas, which governs Gaza, has close ties to Hezbollah.

According to Reuters, Abdallah – who was with a group that included Reuters colleagues Thaer Al-Sudani and Maher Nazeh; Al-Jazeera staffers Elie Brakhya and Carmen Joukhadar, and Agence France-Presse’s (AFP) Christina Assi and Dylan Collins – was killed while providing a live video signal for broadcasters of fire coming from the direction of Israel. The camera was pointed at a hillside when a loud explosion shook the camera, filling the air with smoke, and screams were heard, the news service said the day after the attack. The six other journalists were all injured in the attack.

Reuters, AFP, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch subsequently conducted their own separate investigations into the assault. Their reports, released on December 7, 2023, were based on interviews with eyewitnesses, scores of videos and photographs from the site, and independent experts’ analyses of munitions fragments and the origin of the fire. All of the probes concluded that the shells were fired from Israel, that the journalists were wearing helmets and flak jackets marked “press” and were close to a car with “TV” written across its hood, and that they were not near any active fighting or military targets at the time of the attack.

The investigations also found that the journalists came under fire twice. Abdallah was killed instantly in the first strike, which wounded the other journalists and led to the amputation of Assi’s leg. The second strike, which came 37 seconds later, destroyed the Al-Jazeera vehicle.

“Getting hit once or firing once could be a mistake,” AFP’s Collins told Human Rights Watch. “But there were two direct – it was two direct shots at us. You can’t say that’s a mistake.”

AFP’s report concluded that the strikes likely came from southeast of the journalists’ position, apparently near the Israeli village of Jordeikh, where Israeli tanks were operating, and that the munition that killed Abdallah was a 120-mm fin-stabilized tank shell of Israeli origin that is not used by any other groups in the region. “The strikes were deliberate and targeted,” said the news agency. “The Israeli army has extensive aerial surveillance resources in the area.”

Amnesty International reported that its findings “indicate that the group was visibly identifiable as journalists and that the Israeli military knew or should have known that they were civilians yet attacked them anyway in two separate strikes 37 seconds apart.” The organization said the strikes “were likely a direct attack on civilians that must be investigated as a war crime.

“Why didn’t they fire a warning shot?” asked Reuters photographer Al-Sudani in a comment included in the Reuters report. “If you don’t want us to take pictures, fire a warning shot. Why suddenly hit us without a prior warning, and then try to finish us off with the second strike?”

The Reuters investigation also quoted international criminal law expert Carolyn Edgerton, who told the agency that filming Israeli tank positions at the border might have been seen as a threat to the Israeli military if that information was seen to “be of targeting value to forces in Lebanon,” but that two back-to-back shells fired at a group of clearly identified journalists “is a clear violation of international humanitarian law and may also amount to the war crime of attacking civilians.”

The Israeli military responded to Reuters on December 8, 2023 – the day after Reuters published the finding that IDF forces killed Abdallah – saying that the incident was currently under review. “The area is an active combat zone, where active fire takes place and being in this area is dangerous,” Reuters reported the IDF as stating. 

According to Reuters, the IDF statement said that Hezbollah had attacked multiple targets in Israel on the day Abdallah was killed, prompting concerns about the “possible infiltration of terrorists” into Israeli territory. “In response, the IDF used artillery and tank fire to prevent the infiltration. The IDF is aware of the claim that journalists who were in the area were killed.”

An investigation by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), summarized in a report seen and published by Reuters on March 13, 2024, concluded that on October 13, 2023, at 6:02 p.m., the Israeli army fired two 120 mm Merkava shells in quick succession, from a southeast direction, striking a group of seven journalists in Alma Al-Shaab, killing Abdallah, and injuring six, in violation of UNSCR 1701 (2006) and international law. The UNIFIL said its personnel did not record any exchange of fire across the border between Israel and Lebanon for more than 40 minutes before the Israeli Merkava tank opened fire.

The North America Desk of the Israel Defense Forces did not respond to emailed requests for comment on the investigations by CPJ, which has called for an independent investigation into the attack.

Abdallah was buried on October 14 in his hometown of Khiyam in southern Lebanon.