IDF clears troops in journalist's death

Reuters says conclusion may encourage further violence against reporters operating in war zones.

tank mean 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
tank mean 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The IDF has closed an investigation into the death of a Reuters cameraman in the Gaza Strip last April, clearing the tank crew that killed the young journalist of any wrongdoing and saying the soldiers will not face any disciplinary action. Reuters said it was "deeply disturbed" by the findings and was considering unspecified legal action, while Israel's Foreign Press Association warned the army probe could encourage further violence against journalists. The army found that troops acted properly when they opened fire on Fadel Shana, suspecting he was a terrorist preparing to fire a missile after he set up a tripod in a Gaza battle zone. Shana was killed instantly by a tank shell that sprays a hail of metal darts at its target. Four bystanders also died in the attack. "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," Brig. Gen. Avihai Mandelblit, the IDF's top prosecutor, said in a letter sent to Reuters. The news agency made the letter public on Wednesday. In a statement issued at its London headquarters, Reuters said the army probe could effectively give soldiers a "free hand to kill," without being sure of the identity of their targets. "I'm extremely disappointed that this report condones a disproportionate use of deadly force in a situation the army itself admitted had not been analyzed clearly," said David Schlesinger, Reuters' editor in chief. "They would appear to take the view that any raising of a camera into position could garner a deadly response." Shana, 24, was killed on April 16 while covering clashes between Gaza terrorists and IDF troops. Just before his death, Shana was filming an Israeli tank about one mile away, and his final video showed it firing a shell in his direction. The video cut off just as the shell burst in front of him. The shooting occurred on a day of clashes in which three IDF soldiers and 20 Palestinians were killed. In its report, the IDF said the tank commander sought permission to open fire after spotting a small group of people attaching an unidentified black object to a tripod and pointing it toward the tank. "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," Mandelblit wrote. He noted that earlier in the day, IDF troops had also come under fire from mortar shells, and a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a tank. "These contributed to a heightened sense of risk, and strengthened the genuine suspicion that the persons identified were in fact a threat to the tank and its crew," Mandelblit wrote. He also said Shana and Wafa Mizyed, a Reuters colleague wounded in the attack, were wearing body armor commonly used by Palestinian militants. "The tank crew's superiors, asked to authorize firing by the tank, reasonably concluded ... that the characters identified by the tank were hostile, and posed a threat to the tank and its crew," he wrote. However, Reuters said the men's blue flak jackets, and their vehicle, were clearly marked as "press." Palestinian journalists in Gaza commonly wear the blue vests with English markings to avoid harm, while militants wear black or camouflage vests loaded with grenades or military equipment. The Foreign Press Association, which represents international news organizations operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories, expressed dismay over the Israeli report. It 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." Eight other journalists have been killed covering the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1992, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Reuters said it had sent a letter to the IDF raising a number of questions, including why the soldiers ruled out the possibility that Shana was a cameraman, why they suspected hostile intent after he stood in full view of the tank for several minutes and why the tank did not move out of site if the crew suspected, but was unsure, it might be attacked. Reuters said it was examining its options for legal action but declined to comment further.