The Israeli government should conduct an immediate and independent investigation into the deaths of four civilians, including a Reuters cameraman and two teenage boys, in Gaza on April 16, 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch’s investigations at the site found evidence suggesting that an Israeli tank crew fired recklessly or deliberately at the journalist’s team.
“Israeli soldiers did not make sure they were aiming at a military target before firing, and there is evidence suggesting they actually targeted the journalists,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Israel should investigate these deaths and, if crimes were committed, hold to account those responsible.”
Fadel Shana’a, a 23-year-old cameraman employed by Reuters, was killed as he was filming the tank close to Gaza’s border with Israel, southeast of Gaza City. Three other persons were killed as they watched Shana’a filming. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights identified them as Ahmed ‘Aaref Farajallah, 14, Ghassan Khaled Abu ‘Otaiwi, 17, and Khalil Isma’il Dughmosh, 22.
Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch with an eyewitness to the shelling, a resident in a nearby village and a journalist who arrived just after the attack, as well as camera footage taken by Shana’a, indicate there was no military activity by Palestinian militants at the scene of the attack.
On April 16 around 5 p.m., Shana’a was driving with his soundman, Wafa Abu Mizyed, to Johr el-Diek, a village on the eastern edge of the Gaza Strip, to investigate reports of shelling in the area, according to Abu Mizyed. They drove an unarmored gray pickup truck, which, according to Reuters and photographs of the scene, was marked “TV” and “Press” in large colored letters.
On their way they passed an Israeli tank that was parked on a hilltop a few hundred meters away. Once in Johr el-Diek, they filmed a group of villagers injured by the fighting, and then left the area by the same road, again passing the Israeli tank. While there was some machine-gun fire in the distance, Abu Mizyed told Human Rights Watch, there was no shooting in their immediate area at the time.
Abu Mizyed said they then decided to stop by the roadside to take more video of the surrounding area. Shana’a was wearing a flak jacket with “PRESS” printed in large blue and white letters on the front. Footage from Shana’a’s camera shows an Israeli tank a few hundred meters away firing a shell. About one second later, Shana’a’s camera goes black.
“Fadel set up his camera and the tripod and asked me to push away some children who had gathered around us. They were teens and there were no fighters or any shooting there. While I was doing so, I heard a sound like ‘boof,’” Abu Mizyed told Human Rights Watch. “I looked towards Fadel and found him lying on the ground and repeating the Shehada [the Muslim declaration of faith]. I was also injured on my left hand. Fadhel died. Another shell landed behind the truck and injured me in my right hand and the waist. I then ran towards the main road looking for help.”
Photographs taken shortly after the incident by a local journalist show teenagers Farajallah and Otaiwi lying dead near the destroyed pickup truck.
Minutes after the tank shelling, three other journalists tried to reach the area in an armored jeep. When they stopped their vehicle, marked “Press” in large letters, and walked towards the Reuters vehicle, they also came under tank fire.
Wissam Nassar, 23, a photographer for Ma’an news agency, told Human Rights Watch: “We spotted a shell coming towards us from down the street from where the Israeli incursion was taking place. ... We pushed ourselves to the ground when we saw the shell coming. It landed about five meters behind the truck and exploded.”
Evidence gathered from the road, and x-rays of the dead and wounded, show the tank fired a flechette shell, which unleashes hundreds of dart-like projectiles before the shell hits the ground. Doctors in Gaza showed the media x-rays of Shana’a’s body, which showed several flechettes lodged in his chest and legs. Several were embedded in his flak jacket.
Major Avital Leibovitz, a spokeswoman for the Israeli army, told Human Rights Watch that the site of the incident “is the same area in which three IDF soldiers were killed” about 11 hours earlier. However, she was unable to specify exactly where the soldiers had died and how close that area had been to where the Reuters cameraman was killed. “The matter is being looked into,” she said. “When we have come to a conclusion we will share that information with Reuters.”
Human Rights Watch said that the Israeli government should commit to a full independent investigation into the incident, the findings of which would be made public.
Three eyewitnesses interviewed separately by Human Rights Watch said there were no hostilities at the time in the immediate area where the cameraman was filming, although there had been fighting earlier that day in Johr el-Diek, which lies about 1.5 kilometers from the site of the attack.
“The area where the journalist was killed was open and a bit elevated,” said Stork. “The Reuters truck was clearly marked ‘TV’ and ‘Press’ and drove by the tank twice, so it’s hard to believe the Israeli tank crew didn’t see the pickup contained only journalists.”
The laws of war, which apply to the armed hostilities in Gaza, require that parties to the conflict do everything feasible to verify that targets of attack are military objectives. Civilians, including journalists covering a war zone, may never be targeted. Anyone who deliberately or recklessly attacks a civilian commits a war crime. Where there is evidence that a war crime may have been committed, a state has an obligation to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute the suspects.
Human rights groups in Israel and Palestine have long urged the Israeli military to stop using flechette shells in Gaza because they spread over a wide area and are thus more likely to indiscriminately hit civilians. Flechettes are razor-sharp 3.75mm darts released from canisters that explode in mid-air and spray thousands of them in an arc some 300-meters long and 90-meters wide.
“The use of flechette shells, with a wide ‘kill radius,’ increases the chance of indiscriminately hitting civilians,” said Stork. “Israel should stop its use of the weapon in Gaza, which is one of the most densely populated areas on earth.”