The 'reasonable' death of Fadel Shana

Palestinian, Western and Israeli journalists joined in condemnation this week over the IDF's clearing of the soldiers who killed Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana, four months ago in Gaza. According to Reuters, the decision could effectively give Israeli soldiers 'a free hand to kill.'
Palestinian journalists hold up the damaged camera and flack jacket of slain Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana during a protest in Gaza on April 22. © Reuters

GAZA CITY, August 14, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The Palestinian journalists community was not shocked by this week's decision by the Israeli military to clear the soldiers who shot 24-year-old Palestinian cameraman Fadel Shana, four months ago in Gaza. But there was surprise at the audacity of the military advocate-general's explanation.

"The tank crew was unable to determine the nature of the object mounted on the tripod and positively identify it as an anti-tank missile, a mortar or a television camera," Brigadier General Avihai Mendelblit of the Israel Defense Forces wrote to the Reuters news agency, Fadel Shana's employer, this week.

To many Palestinian journalists, this seemed to fly in the face of earlier Israeli boasts about how its tanks are equipped with the latest technology, allowing them to distinguish the smallest details even at night.

Yet, Fadel Shana was filming in broad daylight, wearing a bullet-proof jacket marked "PRESS" and standing next to a vehicle clearly marked "PRESS" and "TV."

Speaking to MENASSAT, Khalil Abu Shammali, director of the Ad-Damir human rights organization in Gaza, asked, "Are we expected to believe that the Israeli army is no longer able to make the difference between a camera and a rocket?"

'Free hand to kill'

According to Reuters, Shana filmed two Israeli tanks, positioned about 1.5 km (a mile) from where he was standing, for several minutes before, in a chilling final two seconds of video, his camera captured one tank firing a shell that burst overhead, showering the journalist and others with thousands of metal darts known as flechettes.

The shell killed Shana and eight other Palestinians aged between 12 and 20, six of them under 16. At least seven other bystanders aged from 10 to 18 were also hit. None was armed or was a militant. Reuters soundman Wafa Abu Mizyed, 25, was wounded in the wrist.

Brig. Gen. Avihai Mandelblit, wrote, "In light of the reasonable conclusion reached by the tank crew and its superiors, that the characters were hostile and were carrying an object most likely to be a weapon, the decision to fire at the targets... was sound."

Condemnation of the military verdict from the media community was universal.

In a statement issued at its London headquarters, Reuters said the army probe could effectively give soldiers a "free hand to kill."

Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger said in a reaction: "I'm extremely disappointed that this report condones a disproportionate use of deadly force in a situation the army itself admitted had not been analysed clearly.

"They would appear to take the view that any raising of a camera into position could garner a deadly response."

Clockwise from top left: Brig. Gen. Avihai Mandelblit, the IDF's top prosecutor, Fadel Shana's vehicle after the attack, Shana in a Reuters handout, and his camera. ©, Getty, Reuters, Reuters

Reuters wrote to Mendelblit on Wednesday with a number of questions, including asking precisely why the soldiers ruled out the possibility that Shana was a cameraman, why the fact he stood in full view of the tanks for some minutes did not suggest he had no hostile intent and why the tank crew, if concerned but unsure, did not simply reverse a few meters out of sight.

'A policy of evading responsibility'

The Foreign Press Association, which represents international news organizations operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories, said the findings were the latest in a long line of cases clearing soldiers of deadly negligence, and noted Shana clearly identified himself as a journalist.

"The mere suspicion of possible hostilities should not be enough to justify overwhelming deadly force," the FPA statement said. "We hope that the army's conclusion does not appear to give soldiers free license to fire without being sure of the target, greatly hindering the media's ability to cover the conflict.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) demanded that the Israeli government hold an independent inquiry into Shana's death.

"We are deeply dismayed by these findings," said Joel Campagna, CPJ's Middle East senior program coordinator. "We are calling for an independent government investigation to review the death of Fadel Shana."

The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate was equally harsh in its condemnation.

Speaking to MENASSAT, journalist Sakhr Abu Elaoun, a member of the Syndicate's board, said the decision "reveals the Occupation's policy of evading accountability for crimes against journalists."

The Syndicate is asking for a neutral international committee to investigate Shana's death, "because the Occupation's allegations that the soldiers were unable to determine that Shana and his colleague were journalists are wrong. The marks on the car and his chest clearly read 'PRESS.'"

Eight journalists killed since 2001

Abu Elaoun noted that this is not the first crime against the media, and that Israeli troops have always evaded responsibility.

According to the CPJ, at least eight journalists have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2001, seven of them by Israeli soldiers.

In May 2003, British Channel 4 cameraman James Miller was shot dead by the IDF in Rafah, even though he was holding a white flag. Two years later, the IDF decided to discipline but not indict the soldier who fired the shot. An Israeli army spokesman at the time expressed "regret" at the death, but pointed out that Miller had "taken great risks by being in a virtual war zone."

Journalists with the Israeli media were also dismayed by the IDF's decision in the Shana inquiry.

Suleiman Alshafiy, a Palestinian issues reporter for Israel's Channel 2, said he was instantly angered and infuriated when he heard of the decision.

"It is utterly unjust, and it does not belong in a democratic system where the judiciary should be trustworthy," Alshafiy told MENASSAT in a phone interview.

"Shana was only doing his professional job, required from all of us journalists. It could have been anyone of us. All journalists could become a target."

The Palestinian Journalists Bloc echoed his words, saying that the IDF's decision is particularly dangerous "because it gives a green light for the Occupation to continue its crimes against journalists, and to violate international laws about the freedom of the press."

Yasser Abu Heen, head of the Bloc, told MENASSAT that he was not surprised by the decision. "We didn't expect otherwise from them."

Abu Heen expressed his hope that international organizations working for the freedom of the press will put pressure on the Israeli government to put the killers of Shana and the others on trial.

(Ola al-Madhoun contributed to this report from Gaza; Editing by Gert Van Langendonck in Beirut.)
More information:

From Reuters:

FACTBOX: Death of Reuters Gaza cameraman
VIDEO: Fadel Shana's final footage

From Human Rights Watch:

Report: Evidence suggests soldiers targeted Reuters journalist