Letters   |   Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory

Israel must explain targeting of journalists in Gaza

December 2, 2012

Hon. Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
3 Kaplan St.
P.O.B. 187
Kiryat Ben-Gurion
Jerusalem 91919
Israel

Via email: [email protected]

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned that Israeli airstrikes targeted individual journalists and media facilities in the Gaza Strip between November 18 and 20. Journalists and media outlets are protected under international law in military conflict.

A series of Israeli airstrikes struck two buildings that house news media, resulting in injuries to nine journalists, while separate missile attacks resulted in the deaths of three journalists, according to news reports and CPJ research. Israeli officials have broadly asserted that the individuals and facilities had connections to terrorist activity but have disclosed no substantiation for these very serious allegations. CPJ has repeatedly sought, by email and phone, supporting details or evidence from the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson's office. We have yet to receive information from the spokesperson's office to substantiate its allegations.

Our research shows the following:

On November 18 and 19, airstrikes targeted Al-Shawa and Housari Tower and Al-Shuruq Tower, both of which are well-known for housing numerous international and local news organizations. The attacks damaged the offices of Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV and Al-Quds TV, Sky News, Russia Today, Al-Arabiya, and the independent Bethlehem-based Ma'an News Agency. Among the nine wounded journalists was Khader al-Zahhar, a cameraman for Al-Quds TV who lost his right leg in the explosion, according to news reports. Several other international and local news organizations, including Reuters, Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press, and CNN, also have offices in the targeted buildings. Israeli spokesman Mark Regev told Al-Jazeera English on November 19 that Al-Aqsa TV is a "Hamas command and control facility" and that "Hamas used communication facilities on top of the buildings." He did not state whether or how Hamas used the station militarily.

On November 20, Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama, cameramen for the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV, were driving away from an assignment at Al-Shifaa Hospital when an Israeli missile hit their vehicle, according to Al-Aqsa TV. The car was marked "TV" in neon-colored letters, the Hamas-run station said. The two men were killed.

A third journalist was killed when his car was hit by a missile that same day, AP reported, citing a Gaza health official. Local news reports identified the victim as Mohamed Abu Aisha, director of the private Al-Quds Educational Radio, whose vehicle was hit while he was driving in the Deir al-Balah neighborhood. The reports did not say whether Abu Aisha was engaged in journalistic work at the time, and CPJ continues to investigate the circumstances of his death.

Al-Aqsa TV, the official Hamas-run television channel, provides news and information that overtly reflect the organization's anti-Israel perspective. Al-Quds Educational Radio is a private radio station geared toward educational programs; it also provides a pro-Hamas perspective.

On November 20, AP cited Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, as saying the three individuals were Hamas operatives. "The targets are people who have relevance to terror activity," AP quotes Leibovich as saying. An unsigned entry posted on the Israel Defense Forces blog that day asserted that an individual named Muhammed Shamalah, whom it referred to as a Hamas military commander, had been targeted in an airstrike that struck a vehicle identified as "TV." Neither Leibovich nor the IDF blog entry provided any details to support the claims. Leibovich reiterated these unsupported claims in a letter to The New York Times published on November 29.

CPJ has contacted the IDF spokesperson's office multiple times, beginning on November 20 and then again on November 27, 28, and 29, and we have sent three written requests seeking an explanation for its claims. We were directed to a Maj. Zohar Halevi who has not responded to our requests.

Alarmingly, spokeswoman Leibovich seeks to erase the crucial legal distinction between armed combatants and journalists covering the perspective of an adversary. "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," Leibovich writes in the letter to The Times.

All journalists, whether local or foreign, regardless of the perspective from which they report, are afforded the same civilian protections under international law. The Israeli government does not have the right to selectively define who is and who is not a journalist based on national identity or media affiliation. International law also places strict limits on military attacks on all civilian sites, including media outlets. Article 51 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions prohibits attacks on civilian sites in which potential damage and loss of civilian life "would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated."

We request your government provide an immediate and detailed explanation for its actions in targeting Mahmoud al-Kumi, Hussam Salama, and Mohamed Abu Aisha and the two media buildings in the Gaza Strip.

We ask that you consider this a matter of urgency.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director


CC:

Hon. Ehud Barak
Minister of Defense
Ministry of Defense, Mission to the U.S.A.
800 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10017
USA
Fax: +1-212-551-0264

Hon. Michael Oren
Israel Ambassador to the United States
Israel Embassy
3514 International Drive, NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
USA
Fax: +1-202-364-5423

Hon. Daniel Shapiro
U.S. Ambassador to Israel
U.S. Embassy
71 Hayarkon Street
Tel Aviv, Israel 63903
Fax: +972-3-516-4390 or +972-3-517-2348

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