(Gaza City) – Four Israeli attacks on journalists and media facilities in Gaza during the November 2012 fighting violated the laws of war by targeting civilians and civilian objects that were making no apparent contribution to Palestinian military operations.
The attacks killed two Palestinian cameramen, wounded at least 10 media workers, and badly damaged four media offices, as well as the offices of four private companies. One of the attacks killed a two-year-old boy who lived across the street from a targeted building.
The Israeli government asserted that each of the four attacks was on a legitimate military target but provided no specific information to support its claims. After examining the attack sites and interviewing witnesses, Human Rights Watch found no indications that these targets were valid military objectives.
“Just because Israel says a journalist was a fighter or a TV station was a command center does not make it so,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Journalists who praise Hamas and TV stations that applaud attacks on Israel may be propagandists, but that does not make them legitimate targets under the laws of war.”
The four attacks struck a car containing two cameramen whom the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) alleged were “Hamas operatives”; antenna towers atop two buildings housing media that the IDF alleged were Hamas “operational communications infrastructure”; and two floors of a building housing media in which the IDF said it had “surgically targeted” a Hamas “intelligence and command center.”
Israeli officials sought to justify attacks on Palestinian media by saying the military had targeted individuals or facilities that “had relevance to” or were “linked with” a Palestinian armed group, or had “encouraged and lauded acts of terror against Israeli civilians.” These justifications, suggesting that it is permissible to attack media because of their associations or opinions, however repugnant, rather than their direct participation in hostilities, violate the laws of war and place journalists at grave risk, Human Rights Watch said.
Official statements that reflect the military having adopted an unlawful basis for attacks are evidence of war crimes because they show intent.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, journalists and media workers are civilians and therefore immune from attack unless they are directly participating in hostilities. Television and radio stations are civilian objects protected from attack unless they are used to make an “effective contribution to military action” and their destruction in the specific circumstances offers “a definite military advantage.” For example, a radio station that is used to transmit military orders would be a legitimate military target.Broadcasts intended to improve civilian morale or express support for attacks are not considered direct participation in hostilities.
On November 20, the IDF targeted a car on a Gaza City street with two cameramen from al-Aqsa TV, Mahmoud al-Kumi, and Hussam Salama, killing them both. The deputy head of al-Aqsa TV, which is the official television station of the Hamas government in Gaza, told Human Rights Watch that al-Kumi and Salama were cameramen covering the conflict and were returning from filming in al-Shifa Hospital in a car marked “TV.” The two men’s families, interviewed separately, said the men were neither participating in the fighting nor members of any armed group. Human Rights Watch found no evidence, including during visits to the men’s homes, to contradict that claim. Hamas’s armed wing, al-Qassam Brigades, has not put either man on its official list of killed fighters– an unlikely omission if the men had been playing a military role.
The IDF said that al-Kumi and Salama were “Hamas operatives” and cameramen for al-Aqsa, which “regularly features programming that encourages and praises attacks on Israeli civilians.” But the IDF provided no specific information that the men were Hamas fighters or otherwise directly participating in the hostilities.
Hamas-run media are protected from attack under the laws of war unless directly taking part in military operations, Human Rights Watch said.
Israeli missile strikes also hit the roofs of two high-rise buildings in Gaza City that house offices of local and international media, apparently to target antennas that Israel said Hamas was using for military communications.
The IDF struck the 11-storey Shawa and Housari Building in the early morning of November 18 with at least three missiles hitting near the base of a large antenna tower on the roof. Some of the munitions entered the office below, wounding seven staff members from the private Quds TV station, including a cameraman who lost his right leg below the knee. The office of Quds TV, a Lebanon-based satellite channel with a pro-Hamas editorial line, was badly damaged. The antenna tower on the roof above the office, which belonged to the official radio station of Islamic Jihad, al-Quds Radio, remained standing.
Another missile struck the roof above an office of the privately-owned Alwan Radio, which broadcasts talk shows and entertainment unrelated to politics, and was not broadcasting during the November fighting. The missile entered the office, which was unoccupied at the time, and damaged Alwan’s antenna, transmitter, transmission cables, and computers, the owner of the station, Wael al-Awour, told Human Rights Watch. The attack knocked Alwan off the air for more than three weeks.
Later that morning, around 6 a.m., two missiles struck the roof of the 15-storey Shoruq Building. The first penetrated the roof and caused damage in a stairwell. The second broke through the roof and badly damaged a studio of al-Aqsa TV, which was unoccupied at the time. The second missile also damaged an antenna tower on the roof that al-Aqsa said it used for its terrestrial broadcasts, knocking those broadcasts off the air. Al-Aqsa also broadcasts via satellite, and that continued uninterrupted.
A second and separate attack on the third floor of the Shoruq Building on the afternoon of November 19 appeared to target specific Palestinian militants, who, if present, would have been unlawfully placing the building’s civilian occupants at risk, Human Rights Watch said. The IDF apparently contacted at least one international journalist in the building to warn them to evacuate.
The IDF said it struck “operational communications infrastructure” on the roofs of the two high-rises with “surgical targeting.” It released videos of both strikes, which showed optically guided missiles hitting an antenna tower on each of the roofs, but provided no specific information demonstrating that those towers were being used for military purposes.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, when asked in a television interview about the attack on the Shawa and Housari Building, said that the IDF had targeted Hamas “communications facilities” on the roof and that no foreign journalists were hurt. When pressed about the seven wounded media workers on the floor below, he replied: “There is the al-Aqsa station, which is a station that is a Hamas command and control facility, just as in other totalitarian regimes the media is used by the regime for command and control and also for security purposes. From our point of view, that’s not a legitimate journalist.”
Regev and other Israeli officials provided no information to substantiate the claim that al-Aqsa TV or al-Quds TV were operating as command and control facilities in either of the high-rise buildings or elsewhere in Gaza.
Radio and television antenna towers are civilian objects protected from attack, making the attacks on the two buildings unlawful, Human Rights Watch said.
On November 20 and 21, at least six Israeli missiles hit the sixth and seventh floors of the eight-storey Naama Building in Gaza City, causing extensive damage to five different offices. The apparent target was al-Jeel Press Office, whose owner, Mustafa al-Sawaf, is a journalist and analyst with openly pro-Hamas views. The other offices were an advertising agency, an engineering firm and a technology company. The IDF said it had “surgically targeted” a Hamas “intelligence and command center” but did not explain the precise target in the building or its involvement in military operations.
A Human Rights Watch visit to the building one week after the strikes and interviews with employees from four of the five offices, including al-Sawaf, uncovered no information to suggest that any of them were used for military operations. In the absence of a demonstrated military objective, the strikes over two days were unlawful attacks on civilian objects, Human Rights Watch said.
No office employees were wounded in the Naama Building attacks. However, shrapnel from one of the munitions on November 21 struck an apartment across the street, killing two-year-old Abdulrahman Naim and wounding his brother and cousin.
Human Rights Watch requested information from the IDF concerning the attacks on the Aqsa cameramen, the Shawa and Housari Building, the Shoruq Building, and the Naama Building. The IDF replied that it was checking the “details of the events” and would be able to respond once this check is complete without saying when that would be.
During the November fighting, an IDF spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, told the media that the IDF targeted “people who have relevance to terror activity.” Shefurthersought to justify attacks on media by writing that Hamas’s al-Aqsa TV and a radio station called al-Quds Educational Radio, which has ties with Islamic Jihad, are “intricately linked with Islamic Jihad and Hamas and have encouraged and lauded acts of terror against Israeli civilians for the past decade.” She continued: “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.”
Regev, the Israeli government spokesman, said that those working for Hamas media cannot be considered journalists: “They are an integral part of the Hamas structure and no one can deny that fact.” He added: “All those involved in targeting Israeli civilians directly or indirectly should not feel that they have impunity.”
“Israeli officials have dangerously and unlawfully blurred the distinction between civilians who call for or support military attacks and those who directly participate in attacks,” Whitson said. “This claimed justification for attacking civilians opens the door to war crimes.”
Under the laws of war, civilians and civilian structures may not be deliberate targets of attack. Just as it is unlawful to attack the civilian population to lower its morale, it is unlawful to attack facilities that shape public opinion, such as the media; neither directly contributes to military operations.
International law obligates states to investigate serious violations of the laws of war. Victims of violations and their families should be promptly and adequately compensated. Anyone responsible for deliberately or recklessly committing a serious violation of the laws of war should be prosecuted for war crimes.
The armed conflict between Israel and Hamas and armed groups in Gaza from November 14 to 21 involved unlawful attacks on civilians by both sides. At least 103 Palestinian civilians and four Israeli civilians died during the fighting.
“Israeli forces unlawfully attacked civilians and civilian objects because of their ties to Hamas and have not shown any involvement in military operations to justify the attacks,” Whitson said.
IDF Attacks on Media During the November 2012 Fighting
Al-Aqsa TV Cameramen Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama
On November 20, around 4:40 p.m., an Israeli missile struck a car in Gaza City, killing Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama, two cameramen for al-Aqsa TV, the official station of the Hamas government in Gaza.
IDF spokespersons said that al-Kumi and Salama were “Hamas operatives” and cameramen for al-Aqsa, which “regularly features programming that encourages and praises attacks on Israeli civilians.” But Israel provided no specific information to support its claim that the two men were combatants or civilians actively taking part in hostilities, which would make them legitimate targets.
Human Rights Watch separately interviewed a manager at al-Aqsa TV and the families of al-Kumi and Salama. None indicated that the two men had been members of any armed group. The two were reporting on the conflict for the station and had recently gathered footage at Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital, the station’s deputy director, Mohamed Abu Oun, told Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch saw nothing at the homes of al-Kumi or Salama that suggested they were members of any armed group, such as posters or banners honoring them as killed fighters, which is common for killed fighters from Palestinian armed groups. The websites of Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades and Islamic Jihad’s Saraya al-Quds Brigades did not claim the men as martyrs, which they usually do for their fighters killed in combat.
Al-Kumi, 29, was married with three children, ages two, four, and five. Salama, 30, was married with four children, ages eight months, two, three, and five.
“He did not fight for Hamas or Fatah – nothing,” Salama’s father, Mohamed Salama, told Human Rights Watch. “He had nothing to do with any of the factions.”
Al-Aqsa TV said that al-Kumi began work at the station in August 2007; Salama began in January 2007. Deputy director Abu Oun said they were driving a black Renault car that was marked with “TV” and “Press.” Human Rights Watch inspected the badly burned remains of the car, in which only the hood remained intact. No signs of letters were visible on the hood but they might have burned off in the fire.
Al-Shawa and Housari Building
Around 1:30 a.m. on November 18, Israeli forces launched at least four missiles at the roof of the Shawa and Housari Building, an 11-story building in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City that houses local and international media offices. Israel released videoof the strike and said it had targeted “operational communications infrastructure.”
Some of the missiles penetrated the building’s roof and wounded to varying degrees seven staff members in the Quds television station, which has an office on the top floor. One of the men, Khader al-Zahar, lost his right leg below the knee. An eighth staff member suffered smoke inhalation when he went upstairs to help.
The photo director of al-Quds TV, Derwish Bulbul, who suffered bruises and smoke inhalation, told Human Rights Watch that the strike occurred unexpectedly while some of his colleagues in the office were working and others were sleeping. “We were surprised by the sound of an explosion and smoke coming down on us,” he said. He helped carry al-Zahar and another wounded colleague, Mohamed al-Akhras, out of the office, and as they were at the door a second missile hit. “Because of the explosion we were thrown to the floor,” Bulbul said.
Human Rights Watch inspected the roof and the Quds TV office on November 29. On the roof above the office was a circular hole about two meters in diameter next to the base of a large antenna tower belonging to Islamic Jihad’s al-Quds Radio that was still standing. The eastern wall of the Quds TV office below had three large holes and a fourth smaller hole. The office’s five rooms and studio containing cameras and editing equipment suffered extensive damage.
The roof had a second hole about two centimeters in diameter. That strike penetrated the roof, entered an office of the privately-owned Alwan Radio, went through a wooden door and struck the floor. No one was in the office at the time. A remnant of the munition found in the office plus the small entry hole in the roof suggests that Israel fired a narrow-diameter missile, probably an optically guided Spike missile, produced in Israel. The video released by the IDF shows an optically guided missile striking the base of the large antenna tower.
The owner of Alwan Radio, Wael al-Awour, said the attack damaged the station’s antenna, transmitter, transmission cables, servers, and computers. The station, which broadcasts talk shows and entertainment unrelated to politics, was not broadcasting during the November fighting. The damage to the equipment kept the station off the air until mid-December, al-Awour said.
Al-Quds TV is a private satellite station based in Lebanon with a pro-Hamas editorial line. The director of the station, Emad al-Efrangi, told Human Rights Watch that the station was active in covering the conflict but was not involved in any military operations.
The IDF did not assert that either al-Quds TV or Alwan Radio was the target of the attack, saying it had targeted the roof to “disrupt the internal communications of Hamas, who were using the equipment on these buildings [al-Shawa and Housari Building and al-Shoruq Building] to direct attacks against Israeli civilians.” The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs also claimed that the target was an antenna “used by Hamas for military operations.” However, neither the IDF nor the Foreign Ministry provided any specific information to show that the antenna tower was being used for military purposes. The attack did not knock down or disable the targeted antenna tower, which belonged to the official radio station of Islamic Jihad, al-Quds Radio.
Israeli missiles struck the 15-story Shoruq Building, another building that houses Palestinian and international media offices, on the morning of November 18 and the afternoon of November 19. The first attack, around 6 a.m., involved two strikes on the roof, which injured two media workers on the 14th floor from broken glass and badly damaged a studio of Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV on the top floor. The studio was unoccupied at the time.
The IDF released a video of the strike on the antenna tower, which shows a missile hitting near the tower’s base. According to the IDF, the strike targeted an antenna that it called an “operational communications infrastructure.” A tweet by the IDF spokesperson after the attack said: “If Hamas commanders in #Gaza can communicate with each other, then they can attack us. This is the capability that we targeted.” The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the attack had targeted “antennas used by Hamas for military operations.” None of these assertions provided specific information linking the use of the antenna, a presumptive civilian object, to military operations, thereby making the attack unlawful.
Human Rights Watch examined the roof of the building, and saw a hole about a half meter wide next to the base of a large antenna tower used by al-Aqsa TV, which was lightly damaged but still standing. Two munition fragments seen in al-Aqsa’s studio came from an apparent Spike missile. The strike knocked al-Aqsa’s terrestrial broadcast off the air but the station continued to broadcast via satellite, an engineer at the station said. Most Gazans watch the station via satellite.
The privately owned Mayadeen media company, which provides media production for local and international clients, also has an office on the top floor. Nine staff members were in the office at the time, most sleeping, but none of them were wounded, a Mayadeen employee and witness to the attack told Human Rights Watch. The office suffered light damage, mostly broken glass.
A second attack that afternoon on the building’s third floor appears to have been on a military target, killing one member of Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, Ramez Hareb. If Palestinians involved in military operations were meeting in the Shoruq Tower, as the IDF claimed, they were placing civilians at unnecessary risk in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. The IDF apparently contacted at least one international journalist in the building to warn them to evacuate.
Six Israeli missile strikes that hit the sixth and seventh floors of the eight-storey Naama Building in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City on November 20 and 21 wounded no one in the building but badly damaged the offices of an advertising agency, a researcher and consultant, an engineering firm, and a technology company and – possibly the intended target – a pro-Hamas journalist and analyst. Shrapnel from one of the strikes killed a two-year-old boy across the street and wounded his brother and cousin.
The IDF did not name the Naama Building but said it had “surgically targeted” the seventh floor of a “media building” in the Rimal district where Hamas was operating an “intelligence and command center.” The strike on November 21 was a joint mission of the IDF and the Internal Security Agency, the IDF said.
Human Rights Watch inspected the building on December 1 and saw no indications that it had been used for military operations. The eastern wall had four holes on the sixth floor and two on the seventh. Four witnesses to the attack said Israeli forces struck the sixth floor on November 20 at about 11 p.m. and the seventh floor on November 21 at about 3:30 p.m.
On the sixth floor, Human Rights Watch saw one hole, about one meter wide, in the outside wall of an audio studio in the advertising agency, Arts for Media and Training. Two missiles hit the next-door office of Ghazi Sourani, a researcher and consultant, ripping holes in the outside wall. Another missile broke through the outside wall of AES Engineering Services. No one was in the offices at the time of the attack.
Missiles hit two offices on the seventh floor the next day. One hit a technology company called Rama HiTech Systems. The other hit al-Jeel Press Office, owned and managed by a journalist and analyst, Mustafa al-Sawaf. The company provides reporting and media services for local and Arab websites. Al-Sawaf told Human Rights Watch that, while he holds pro-Hamas views, his media work is independent, and his office was not used for any military purposes. A different building that al-Jeel Press Office shared with other local and international media companies was struck by Israeli missiles in June 2004.
Shrapnel from the November 21 strike killed two-year-old Abdelrahman Naim, who lived across the street. His family said he was playing at home with his brother and two cousins. His 15-year-old brother, Mahmoud, and 16-year-old cousin, Sami, were lightly wounded. According to Abdelrahman’s mother, Najal Naim, and a medical report from al-Shifa Hospital viewed by Human Rights Watch, the toddler was killed from shrapnel that entered his chest. Najal Naim told Human Rights Watch:
When they first hit Nama Tower [on November 20], we heard it and saw the damage. Then we thought they hit it already, so it’s safe to stay. My house was full: me, my husband, my children, and my brother-in-law. I have six kids. Seventeen people were here in total.
Abdelrahman was playing here [in the living room]. I heard the missile hit the tower; all the glass in the apartment broke, and some of the pieces came in. Mohamed, my son, was playing with Abdelrahman and two nephews. A small piece of shrapnel hit his chest, and he died immediately. Blood came from his mouth and nose. He made no sound.