On April 16, 2008, in the context of on-going warfare in Gaza, four non-combatants, including a Reuter’s cameraman, were killed by a shell fired from an Israeli army tank. In a press release (“Israel: Investigate Death of Gaza Civilians,” April 20, 2008), Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Israeli soldiers of firing “recklessly or deliberately at the journalist’s team.” The HRW statement also cited claims from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a political NGO of questionable reliability, and local “eyewitnesses.”
Joe Stork, HRW’s Middle East director, alleged 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,” and “it’s hard to believe the Israeli tank crew didn’t see the pickup contained only journalists.”
In a separate letter to the IDF Military Advocate General “on Investigation into Deaths of Four Civilians,” (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 (“Israel: Independent Probe Needed in Gaza Killings,” May 2, 2008). Tendentious allegations, such as “deliberate” targeting of civilians, as well as automatic demands for external investigations, are frequent elements in HRW’s campaigns related to Israel.
Amnesty International also called for an investigation into the cameraman’s death, labeling the incident “deliberate,” part of “a culture of impunity within the Israeli forces which is contributing to routine use of reckless and disproportionate force.”
The IDF did in fact conduct a detailed investigation, and the 17-page report was presented to Reuters. On August 13, 2008, Reuters News Agency published (“FACTBOX: Death of Reuters Gaza cameraman”) excerpts, including the 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.)
The IDF report stated that: (a) The tank and the journalists were in an area that had seen heavy gunfire and mortar attacks earlier that day, including fighting that resulted in the death of three Israeli soldiers. (b) The journalists were wearing body armor, similar to that worn by Palestinian terrorists. (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. (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.”
However, 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.”
Following Reuters’ report, Amnesty International’s highly prejudicial press release (“Army’s so-called inquiry into cameraman’s killing in Gaza a scandal,” August 15, 2008) condemned the IDF for its “so-called investigation” which “lacked any semblance of impartiality.” Donatella Rivera, Amnesty’s “researcher” for the region, rejected the evidence that the soldiers could not properly identify the cameraman, asserting specific knowledge of “the sophisticated optical systems” in Israeli tanks. Amnesty’s bias was also reflected by the allegation of a “culture of impunity” in the Israeli army.
In this response, it is clear that Amnesty did not have access to the 17-page report which has not been published, and is again relying on secondary sources. In addition, this press release is part of a wider condemnation of Israel focusing on its Gaza policy. In the week of the war between Georgia and Russia, Amnesty condemned Israel in three separate documents, compared to only four neutral statements related to the war in the Caucuses.