Sunday, August 24, 2008

'Questions cloud IDF probe of journo death'

By Dion Nissenbaum ∙ McClatchy ∙ August 22, 2008

Image © McClatchyThe Israeli military has closed the book and cleared the tank crew that fired at least two shells at a Reuters television crew in Gaza, killing cameraman 24-year-old Fadel Shana and eight other bystanders in April.

But the investigation did little to clear the air.

If anything, the IDF review has raised more questions.

As reported last week, an Israeli military investigation has concluded that the decision to open fire was justified, if tragic.

The six-page, unclassified letter from the IDF to Reuters, which you can read here, sets out the Israeli justification.

The tank crew was in a battle zone in Gaza after three Israeli soldiers had been killed.

Another tank had been disabled earlier in the day by an RPG.

The tank crew saw two men in flak jackets with an unidentified black object on a tripod set on a rise about a mile away.

The crew asked commanders for an OK to open fire. The commanders gave the OK and at least two shells were fired.

It might sound reasonable. Until you begin looking into the details.

Reuters raised eleven unanswered questions in its reply to the IDF.

(Here's Part One and Part Two of the Reuters letter.)

One cloud hangs over the tank crew's request to open fire.

One way to address the questions about that decision would be to listen to the communication going on between the tank crews and commanders who gave them approval to fire.

It would be a critical piece of audio that could help explain what happened.

Except that there is no tape.

"For reasons I cannot detail," Brig. Gen. Avihai Mandelblit wrote to Reuters, "the relevant communications were not recorded during the incident."

The IDF's cloud of secrecy raises questions about why the communications weren't recorded and why the IDF can't explain why there is no tape.

In the letter, the IDF also contends that wearing flak jackets in a war zone is in-and-of-itself evidence of hostile intent.

"The clear factual findings regarding the incident show that the tank crew identified Mr. Shana and Mr. Mizyed [the Reuters sound man injured in the attack], along with the black-tripod mounted object they carried and directed at the tank, as a potential threat to the tank and its crew," Mandelblit wrote in his letter. "This suspicion was strongly supported by the hostilities of the previous hours (which included an anti-tank attack), the conduct of Mr. Shana and Mr. Mizyed (who were both wearing body armor, common to Palestinian terrorists)..."

On its own, that is a remarkable contention that puts every journalist working in the West Bank or Gaza at extreme risk.

After Fadel was killed in April, the IDF issued a blunt warning to reporters in which it said journalists were on their own when they entered war zones.

Now the IDF appears to be saying that journalists will be treated as hostile if they wear traditional flak jackets to protect themselves when they work in war zones.

Beyond that, Fadel was wearing a blue flak jacket with "PRESS" written on it. It is the kind most commonly used by reporters here. Militants don't typically wear blue flak jackets with "PRESS" written on them.

The central question remains: Did the Reuters crew pose a threat to the Israeli tanks?

The IDF notes that another Israeli tank had been disabled earlier in the day by an RPG. But an RPG would not have had the range to hit the tanks set on a hill more than a mile away. So even if Fadel had been preparing to fire an RPG, it would have fallen far short of the tanks.

The IDF suggests that the crew thought the camera on the tall tripod might be a mortar tube, but traditional mortar tubes don't look much like a camera tripod.

Finally, the IDF contends that Fadel could have been preparing to fire a more-advanced anti-tank missile, even though there is little evidence that Gaza militants have used any such weapons in battle.

While I am currently in the US, my McClatchy colleague in Jerusalem has been asking the IDF all week for some specific information to back up their claim about Palestinians in Gaza using anti-tank missiles.

So far they have provided McClatchy with nothing substantive. They've offered no dates, no specifics, no pictures, nothing.

I've asked colleagues who specialize in Palestinian weaponry who say they know of of no solid reports that Gaza fighters have used advanced anti-tank missiles on the battlefield that would have been capable of hitting the tanks from a mile away.

Gaza militants have some types of homemade missiles, but they aren't able to hit a tank from that distance.

Israeli intelligence suspects that Hamas has smuggled in more advanced weaponry, but there has been little on the battlefield to support those claims.

Another open question concerns the timeline, which is unclear in the IDF letter.

The IDF concedes that Fadel had been filming for at least four minutes before the tank opened fire.

Presumably, that gave the tank crew plenty of time to determine what the Reuters crew was doing - and if it was a threat.

The very fact that Fadel set up in plain view of the tank and was filming for at least four minutes should be one indication that he was not trying to attack. (Most militants don't lackadaisically set up their weapons in plain view of a tank and then take several minutes to fire off a round.)

But the letter doesn't make it clear when the tank crew spotted the Reuters crew, how long it took them to ask for permission to open fire, and how long it took for commanders to OK the decision to open fire.

"The upshot of this whole tragedy is that raising a camera in Gaza as a journalist could get you killed," wrote Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in a worthwhile blog posting on the IDF investigation.

The IDF may be done asking questions about Fadel's killing. But it still needs to provide more answers.

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