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‘Israel lacks commitment to protect journalists’

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Picture: Handout/AFP/Taken June 12, 2021 – This picture obtained from a former colleague of Al-Jazeera’s late veteran TV journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh (Akleh), shows her reporting from Jerusalem on June 12. Al-Jazeera said Abu Aqleh, 51, a prominent figure in the channel’s Arabic news service was shot dead by Israeli troops early on May 11, 2022 as she covered a raid on Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. But Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said it was “likely” that Palestinian gunfire killed her.

By Steve Hendrix

A year after Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead during an Israeli army raid in the West Bank, likely by an Israeli soldier, no one has been charged, disciplined or otherwise held responsible.

And no one is likely to be, according to a new analysis of the killings of journalists covering Israel and the West Bank over the past two decades. Despite the international uproar it provoked, Abu Akleh’s slaying has settled into a case study of Israel’s ability to sidestep accountability.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) focused on the cases of 20 reporters whose deaths it attributed to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) since 2001. The group found systemic similarities in Israel’s response, including the most fundamental one: no one has been charged or held accountable in any of them.

The report said Israel responded to the incidents with variations on a standard playbook, including pre-emptive denials of responsibility, discounting contrary evidence and witness testimony, and opaque internal investigations that didn’t lead to charges – even when it did produce statements of possible culpability, as happened in the case of Abu Akleh, a veteran Al Jazeera correspondent.

“The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh illustrated everything that is wrong with this process,” said Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s director of special projects and one of the report’s editors. “Starting with misleading or false narratives put out immediately that were slowly walked back until we reached the point five months later when the results of the IDF’s internal probe said there was a high probability that IDF forces accidentally shot Shireen.”

Neither the Israeli foreign minister nor the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would comment on the report. The IDF declined to respond to its specifics, but provided a lengthy statement saying it did not “target non-combatants” and defending its investigation of the deaths as legal and certified by “several Supreme Court rulings”.

“The IDF regrets any harm to civilians during operational activity and considers the protection of the freedom of the press and the professional work of journalists to be of great importance,” the statement said.

The report’s authors looked at more than two dozen cases of journalists killed while reporting in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in recent decades, reviewing press coverage and interviewing witnesses and families. They eliminated those clearly killed by Palestinian gunmen or explosive devices, focusing on deaths attributable to IDF fire.

Even if the killings were not intentional – as the IDF has said in the case of Abu Akleh – the military still has an obligation to safeguard reporters, who are considered civilians and non-combatants under international law.

Most of the reporters killed – at least 13, according to the report – were clearly identifiable as journalists. A Reuters’ camera operator, Fadel Shana, was wearing standard blue body armour marked “Press” and standing beside a car marked “TV” when he was struck by an Israeli tank projectile in Gaza in 2008, according to an account in the report. Abu Akleh and her experienced crew were attired in the same sort of marked protective gear when they were fired on.

The surviving crew members told The Washington Post they had been making an effort, as always, to remain away from danger and make themselves obvious and unthreatening to the IDF forces in sight. “Whatever the Israeli army says for us to do, we do,” long-time producer Ali al-Samudi said in May 2022 in an interview from the hospital bed where he was recovering from a shoulder wound hours after the incident, his own bloodstained press vest on the table beside him.

The team had entered Jenin, a hotbed of Palestinian militant activity and a frequent site of IDF incursions, on May 11 of last year after reports of Israeli soldiers conducting a raid. They arrived after the hottest action had concluded and positioned themselves well away from the blocks where fighting had flared.

They came under a sudden burst of fire, according to video and multiple witness accounts. Abu Akleh was fatally shot in the head. The Israeli response that followed comported largely with the pattern described by the CPJ report. Israeli officials immediately released various statements asserting that Abu Akleh “most likely” was hit by a Palestinian gunman during crossfire, despite first-hand witness accounts that there was no firefight in the area at the time.

Over the following four months, Israel’s position shifted as evidence mounted contradicting its initial claims. In September – after a ballistic analysis by the US and video forensic reviews by multiple news organisations, including The Washington Post – the IDF acknowledged there was a “high probability” that the bullet was mistakenly fired by one of its soldiers.

The army declined to make public the evidence of its review and said at the time that no one would be punished for the shooting. Critics say Israel’s repeated lack of transparency in the investigations, and its failure to hold anyone responsible, have fed international scepticism about the country’s commitment to protecting journalists. “If there were proper investigations of these incidents, it would clear up a lot of the doubts,” Mahoney said. “Shireen’s case is a perfect example of that.”

All but two of the 20 journalists whose fatalities are reviewed in the report were Palestinian. Even more than foreign reporters – who come with the backing of international news organisations and, implicitly, their national embassies – local reporters often work without support in a hostile and unpredictable environment.

Many say conditions are worse than ever, even those who covered the bloodiest periods of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ahmad Mashal, a Jerusalem-based freelance producer for almost 30 years, said it used to be Israeli officers who would ask journalists to shift position or stop filming, explaining their reasons for interfering in reporting and often showing their legal authority for doing so.

Now, soldiers of all ages, as well as armed settlers, feel empowered to harass or threaten journalists without pretence, he said. “What’s scary now is that you can be killed for no reason. I mean no reason,” Mashal said. “The army, the police, the settlers, they all have a green light to do whatever they want. I’m scared to even put my hand in my pocket at a checkpoint.”

The article was first published in The Washington Post.