Four months after an Israeli tank opened fire on a Reuters crew in Gaza stationed a mile away from the tank's position, the Israeli military has cleared itself of any wrongdoing in the chilling incident in which Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana captured his own impending death on film.
In a letter to Reuters, Israeli Brig. Gen.l Avihai Mendelblit said that the tank crew reached the "reasonable" conclusion that Shana and his soundman were "hostile" and that the camera mounted on a tripod for several minutes was "most likely" a weapon of some sort.
The contorted Israeli military conclusion drew sharp retorts from Reuters, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Foreign Press Association in Israel.
"Reuters is deeply disturbed by a conclusion that would severely curtail the freedom of the media to cover the conflict by effectively giving soldiers a free hand to kill without being sure that they were not firing on journalists," the company said in its response to the Israeli decision to close the case without taking any action against the tank crew.
"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 Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger. "They would appear to take the view that any raising of a camera into position could garner a deadly response."
"These findings mean that a journalist with a camera is at risk of coming under fire and there's not that much that can be done," said Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. "That's unacceptable. It's difficult to believe ... that the IDF took the necessary precautions to avoid causing harm to civilians -- as it is obliged to do under international law."
No journalist working in a war zone expects soldiers to take unnecessary risks in dangerous situations.
But the video (below), a Reuters investigation, and eyewitnesses all made it clear in this case that Shana and the Reuters crew posed no immediate danger to the tank crew, which was stationed on a hill a mile away.
Here is one particularly relevant factoid worth considering: Palestinian militants in Gaza have never used a serious anti-tank weapon with the range capable of hitting a target from a mile away.
That means that, even if Shana was preparing to fire a weapon, the Israeli soldiers should have known that they weren't facing any real danger.
The Israeli general said that the soldiers weren't able to determine if the item mounted on the tripod was a mortar, a camera or an anti-tank missile. For that reason, they opened fire.
If Israeli soldiers can't distinguish a mortar tube from a mounted camera, their training is sorely lacking.
One would expect that Israeli soldiers fighting in Gaza would have precise information on the risks they are facing, what weapons might be used against them, and what they need to do to protect themselves.
In this case, there is little to support the Israeli military conclusion that the tank crew made a reasonable determination that the Reuters crew was hostile and preparing to fire a weapon capable of doing any serious damage.
Fadel was on a road a mile away from the tank, he was driving a car with "TV" written on the side, he was wearing a flak jacket clearly marked with a "press" sticker, he had been filming for several minutes and was not working in an area of active fighting.
Though the Israeli conclusion drew criticism from journalist groups, the finding was hardly surprising.
Israel rarely takes action against soldiers in such cases. In this case, since the incident was captured on film, there was some reason to believe that the Israeli military would have a difficult time coming up with an excuse to clear its soldiers of any wrongdoing.
It took them four months, but they managed to do just that.