On Tuesday, November 20, a car travelling through the al-Rimal district of Gaza City was struck by a missile, turning the vehicle into a ball of flame and instantly killing its two occupants: Mohammed Al-Koumi and Houssam Salam, both aged 30.
However, while the missile strike took place during Israel’s recent “Pillar of Defence” military operation – an operation purportedly aimed at militants based in the Gaza Strip – neither Al-Koumi nor Houssam were alleged to be involved in militancy. In fact, both were journalists for Al Aqsa Television travelling in a car with press markings and returning from filming a story at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital.
Their killing happened on a busy street with dozens of witnesses and the aftermath was broadcast on live television throughout the territory. First responders on the scene described Al-Koumi and Houssam’s bodies as being “badly charred” – by some accounts their car burned for nearly 15 minutes before they could be successfully extricated from its flaming wreckage. The International Press Institute condemned the attack, stating that:
If indeed these journalists were unarmed non-combatants, as they appear to have been, there is no excuse for their assassination by the Israel Defence Forces. If the IDF claims that they were involved with terrorism they should present evidence that these journalists were indeed combatants.
Campaign of killing journalists
The targeting of journalists is recognised as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, but in the aftermath of a day in which multiple targeted attacks saw a total of three Palestinian journalists killed and scores more wounded, Israeli military spokesperson Col Avital Leibovich struck a defiant tone:
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.
This past Thursday, Human Rights Watch released a report slamming Israel’s campaign of targeted killings against Palestinian journalists during Pillar of Defence, saying that such attacks “violated the laws of war”. Indeed, Article IV, Chapter III of Geneva specifically classes journalists as civilians who should not be objects of attack and expressly prohibits “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment… affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognised as indispensable by civilised peoples”.
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The HRW report investigated four Israeli attacks against Palestinian media sites in Gaza, and found that despite Israeli claims to the contrary there was no discernible evidence that any of them were legitimate military targets. Claims that Palestinian journalists were doubling as combatants or that media buildings were being used for military purposes were found to be wholly unsubstantiated, with Sarah Leah Witson of HRW saying, “Just because Israel says a journalist was a fighter or a TV station was a command centre does not make it so.”
Among the attacks investigated were bombings which targeted the Al Shoruq, Naama, and Hossari media buildings in downtown Gaza City, which are home to broadcasters such as the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, the Al Arabiya television network and the German broadcaster ARD. Along with the scores of media workers wounded in these attacks, many of them severely, the bombing against the Naama building sent shrapnel flying into a low-rise apartment across the street which killed two-year-old Abdulrahman Naim.
Claims by Israeli officials such as Col Leibovich and government spokesman Mark Regev during the campaign that those working for Palestinian media stations were not “legitimate journalists” due to their promotion of views deemed anti-Israel were condemned by Human Rights Watch as “dangerously and unlawfully blurring the distinction between civilians who call for or support military attacks and those who directly participate in them”.
Furthermore, official adoption of an illegal rationale for the killing of journalists was found to constitute clear evidence of war crimes, as it demonstrates specific intent on the part of the Israeli government to commit acts which contravene international law. In stating his governments’ policy that Palestinian journalists working in Gaza are legitimate targets for the IDF, Regev implied that despite their status as non-combatants they shared indirect culpability for any attacks carried out by actual militants whose views their networks may broadcast, saying, “All those involved in targeting Israeli civilians directly or indirectly should not feel that they have impunity.”
Upon even cursory examination it could be immediately seen that the same logic could theoretically be used to justify al-Qaeda target-killing American journalists who call or express their support for US military actions – a dangerous and brazen repudiation of the most basic precepts of international law that non-combatants are not legitimate targets for violence. Indeed in a type of morally contorted recognition of this basic principle, Israel sent out repeated warnings to Western journalists to avoid danger during the conflict while simultaneously targeting their Arab counterparts in the media for assassination.
Targeting media as policy
The targeting of journalists and other media workers has long been a hallmark of authoritarian regimes attempting to stifle views which contradict their own official narratives. During the Arab Spring journalists have been deliberately targeted by regimes from Libya to Syria with dozens having been killed over the past two years of unrest as dictatorial governments employ whatever violent means are at their disposal to suppress the voices of those reporting events as they occur on the ground.
However recent history shows that such behaviour is not the sole providence of Middle Eastern autocracies and has been dutifully employed by the United States and its allies in their military operations throughout the region. During the Iraq War, dozens of journalists were killed and wounded in attacks by US forces while the American architects of the war publicly denounced and threatened the news organisations reporting on their activities in the country. Countless journalists were gunned down at checkpoints, while attempting to report on the activities of US troops, and while attempting to broadcast images deemed harmful to US interests in the country.
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Reuters journalist Mazen Dana was shot to death while attempting to report a story from outside Abu Ghraib prison, while Al Arabiya correspondent Mazen al-Tumeizi was killed on-camera by US helicopter gunfire while reporting on a crowd of Iraqis who had gathered around a damaged US armoured vehicle in Baghdad. After being struck by the helicopter’s bullets his blood splattered on the still-recording camera lens, and his last words to his cameraman were captured in the audio feed: “I’m going to die. I’m going to die. Seif. Seif. I’m going to die.”
Despite the shocking regularity with which such incidents occurred they continued to be publicly condoned with tacit silence and equivocation by US authorities throughout the war. In al-Tumeizi’s case, American officials not only refused to apologise but cravenly implied the journalist may have been a legitimate target, in statements which his colleague and fellow Al Arabiya correspondent Najwa Kasem afterwards called “really suprising and sad“.
Among the most high-profile of these fatal attacks was the shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, a well-known hub for foreign journalists located in the city’s downtown core. In an incident for which no US service-members were found to have been criminally culpable, an American tank fired on the building, killing Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and Spanish Telecinco correspondent José Cueso. They were later indicted in absentia by a Spanish court which found three US soldiers involved guilty of “crimes against the international community”.
Throughout the war, US officials made little secret of their outrage at foreign media for reporting stories which deviated from the official government narrative. At the time of the US assault against Fallujah, former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld denounced Al Jazeera for broadcasting pictures of the massive civilian casualties being inflicted by Americans in the city, calling its coverage “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable“, while prominent neoconservative Frank Gaffney argued the station was “enemy media” that needed to be “taken out”. In 2003, a US missile slammed into Al Jazeera’s Baghdad offices, killing 35-year old correspondent Tareq Ayoub and severely wounding another employee of the network.
Leaked memos later revealed that George Bush and Tony Blair had discussed bombing Al Jazeera in response to their coverage of the war, and in his 2006 memoirs former British Home Secretary David Blunkett revealed that he had indeed advised Blair to target the station and its journalists. In Blunkett’s words, “There wasn’t a worry from me because I believed that this was a war and in a war you wouldn’t allow the broadcast to continue taking place”
These chilling words publicly espoused by a high-ranking former official in the British government are illustrative of the extent to which the target-killing of journalists is indeed mainstream practice not just among authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes but among their Western counterparts as well. Israel’s target-killing campaign against the journalists of Gaza represents merely the latest chapter in a shameful history of officially sanctioned murder committed against those whose job is to bring public attention to the stories of warzones from around the world.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain