“Reuters Cameraman” Incident – April 2008
Quick condemnation based on Palestinian witnesses, vilification of IDF and no follow-up
On April 16, 2008, against the background of ongoing conflict in Gaza, four non-combatants, including a Reuters cameraman, were reportedly killed by a shell fired from an Israeli army tank. In a press release (HRW News Release Apr. 18 2008), Human Rights Watch accused Israeli soldiers of firing “recklessly or deliberately at the journalist’s team.” The HRW statement also repeated allegations from PCHR, a political NGO of questionable credibility, and Palestinian claims.
Joe Stork, HRW’s Middle East director, made the loaded allegation – without producing any “evidence” – that “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.” He also suggested “it’s hard to believe the Israeli tank crew didn’t see the pickup contained only journalists.” In a separate public letter addressed to the IDF Military Advocate General (HRW News Release April 30, 2008), HRW demanded a more “thorough” and “impartial investigation” beyond the “field investigation” being conducted by the IDF. HRW also issued a press release (HRW Press Release May 2, 2008).
The IDF conducted a highly detailed investigation, and the 17-page report was presented to Reuters. On August 13, 2008, Reuters News Agency published excerpts (Reuters 2008) including the IDF’s conclusion that the decision to fire at the journalist was “sound.” The IDF’s letter to Reuters has not been released, although Reuters quoted briefly from it. The IDF also released a one-page summary.81
The IDF summary stated that:
(a) The tank and the journalists were in an area that had seen heavy Palestinian gunfire and mortar attacks earlier that day, that resulted in the killing of three Israeli soldiers.
(b) The journalists were wearing body armor, similar to that worn by Palestinian fighters.
(c) The journalist placed his video camera on a tripod and pointed it towards the tank, but the tank crew, from a significant distance, believed that the camera was a weapon and could not identify it as a non-threatening object. Photos of the camera look strikingly similar to a shoulder-fired rocket launcher.82
(d) According to the IDF Spokesperson’s office, “the decision of the tank crew and the officers who authorized the shot was reasonable since the suspicious figures and suspected missile presented a clear and present danger to the lives of the IDF soldiers.”
Reuters disagreed with the IDF Military Advocate General’s conclusion, continuing to assert that Israel “was in clear breach of its duty under international law to avoid harm to civilians” (Reuters Aug. 13, 2008). No support for this allegation was provided.
Human Rights Watch declined to report the results of the IDF investigation, or explain that contrary to HRW claims (HRW Press Release May 1, 2008) the IDF investigation included the examination of sources beyond the soldiers’ testimonies. In a common HRW pattern, we see here an early amplification of allegations and condemnations of Israeli actions without possession of detailed information about the incident. Later, when these details became clarified, HRW issued neither a correction nor an apology. Stork and others simply ignored the IDF report.