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(photo credit: AP [AP])
On April 16, Palestinian cameraman Fadel Shana, 23, in the employ of the Reuters news agency, was killed while filming a clash between the IDF and Hamas gunmen in Gaza.
According to Palestinian sources, Shana died as the result of being hit by a flechette shell - which, upon detonation, releases small, dart-like projectiles over a wide area - fired near his position by a tank. Two Gazan teenagers were killed along with him; his soundman was wounded; and three more bystanders reportedly later died of their wounds.
A mere two days after the incident, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a non-governmental organization often critical of Israeli policy and actions, claimed that its "investigation" determined that IDF soldiers had acted recklessly - perhaps even deliberately - in firing near the Reuters crew. (How it could possibly investigate this so quickly, without even speaking to the soldiers involved, is beyond me, but this is all too typical of HRW's methodology.)
Pressed by Reuters and other organizations, the IDF subsequently announced that it was conducting its own inquiry into the incident.
Palestinian journalists held a protest march in Ramallah last Sunday calling for an independent investigation.
Before we go any further in discussing this matter, some points clearly need to be stated. The death of any civilian in this conflict is a human tragedy, and of any journalist killed in the line of duty a professional one, as well. The authorities need to investigate this incident as thoroughly and impartially as possible, and if the soldiers or commanders involved acted in an improper or reckless manner, they should be accordingly punished and the survivors duly compensated. These points are incontrovertible.
But some other points need to be made, as well. Gaza - all of it - is a war zone. This is not Israel's doing, but that of its Hamas rulers, who have chosen to use every inch of it as a staging ground for indiscriminate terrorist acts specifically aimed at Israeli civilians.
The death of Shana came on a day of fierce gunfights in this part of Gaza, begun earlier when IDF forces detected Hamas gunmen attempting to penetrate the border fence, and moved in to intercept them - with the result being the death of three soldiers, a fact that several subsequent media accounts of the incident have failed to mention.
Almost all of the articles do mention that Shana was wearing a vest marked "Press," as was his vehicle parked next to him - one of the reasons HRW claims his death may have been deliberate. As it turns out, Shana actually succeeded in filming the tank as it fired near his position right before he was killed. In the frames of that footage available on the Internet, it is not easy to make out any of the details of the tank, which reportedly was some 1.5 kilometers away. Thus, it would certainly have been difficult for the tank crew to make out "Press" markings from that distance with the naked eye.
But even if they had, there is no guarantee they would have held their fire if they believed there was Palestinian shooting emanating from that particular area. And unfortunately, Gazan terrorists have also utilized vehicles disguised with "Press" markings, including in an attempted car-bombing attack on a border position last June.
Much coverage of the incident focused on the IDF's use of a flechette shell, quoting the NGO B'tselem, another frequent critic of Israeli policy, that use of the weapon was "potentially illegal," given the conditions in Gaza. In a 2003 case on the IDF's use of the shell brought before the High Court of Justice, the court found that no nation in the world, or recognized body of international law, bans the use of flechettes. (Maybe they should, but it's only the IDF's use of it that is especially singled out.) As to why anyone would use such a particular weapon, its advantage is that it can penetrate tree cover more effectively than normal shells - and terrorist gangs in northern Gaza use the groves there as cover for rocket and sniper attacks.
That, of course, doesn't mean that its use was appropriate in this case. The IDF, fighting its enemies in difficult conditions, does sometimes make the same terrible errors that other armies do in similar circumstances.
Just this week it was reported that Israel is weighing a multimillion dollar compensation payment to the family of James Miller, a British documentary filmmaker shot by a soldier in Rafah five years ago. It would be false, though, to claim that in every case in which a journalist was injured or killed by IDF fire, Israel has always responded adequately; all military organizations, even in democracies, look first to protect their own soldiers.
I also can't claim to be objective in these matters, having both served as a soldier in Gaza and worked there as a journalist. But I do think my position is at least more honest than that of some of my colleagues, who claim a mantle of impartiality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I know they do not always wear.
The most oft-quoted remark about war reporting is, "The first casualty of war is the truth."
That certainly is the case with the situation in Gaza, where the international media often fails to present the conflict in the proper context to adequately explain why Hamas and other Islamic terror groups bear primary responsibility for the civilian deaths there.
But sometimes the casualties of war are just that, including when they are journalists. So let us mourn the death of Fadel Shana, who died bravely on the job, and hope the truth does come out in this case.