Israel/Gaza: Unlawful Israeli attacks on Palestinian media
Four Israeli attacks on journalists and media facilities in Gaza during the November 2012 fighting violated the laws of war by targeting civilians and civilian objects that were making no apparent contribution to Palestinian military operations, Human Rights Watch said today, after a detailed investigation into the incidents.
The attacks killed two Palestinian cameramen, wounded at least 10 media workers, and badly damaged four media offices, as well as the offices of four private companies, Human Rights Watch said. One of the attacks killed a two-year-old boy who lived across the street from a targeted building.
The Israeli government asserted that each of the four attacks was on a legitimate military target but provided no specific information to support its claims. After examining the attack sites and interviewing witnesses, Human Rights Watch found no indications that these targets were valid military objectives.
"Just because Israel says a journalist was a fighter or a TV station was a command center does not make it so," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Journalists who praise Hamas and TV stations that applaud attacks on Israel may be propagandists, but that does not make them legitimate targets under the laws of war."
The four attacks struck a car containing two cameramen whom the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) alleged were "Hamas operatives"; antenna towers atop two buildings housing media that the IDF alleged were Hamas "operational communications infrastructure"; and two floors of a building housing media in which the IDF said it had "surgically targeted" a Hamas "intelligence and command center."
Israeli officials sought to justify attacks on Palestinian media by saying the military had targeted individuals or facilities that "had relevance to" or were "linked with" a Palestinian armed group, or had "encouraged and lauded acts of terror against Israeli civilians." These justifications, suggesting that it is permissible to attack media because of their associations or opinions, however repugnant, rather than their direct participation in hostilities, violate the laws of war and place journalists at grave risk, Human Rights Watch said.
Official statements that reflect the military having adopted an unlawful basis for attacks are evidence of war crimes because they show intent, Human Rights Watch said.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, journalists and media workers are civilians and therefore immune from attack unless they are directly participating in hostilities.
Television and radio stations are civilian objects protected from attack unless they are used to make an "effective contribution to military action" and their destruction in the specific circumstances offers "a definite military advantage."
For example, a radio station that is used to transmit military orders would be a legitimate military target. Broadcasts intended to improve civilian morale or express support for attacks are not considered direct participation in hostilities.
On November 20, the IDF targeted a car on a Gaza City street with two cameramen from al-Aqsa TV, Mahmoud al-Kumi, and Hussam Salama, killing them both.
The deputy head of al-Aqsa TV, which is the official television station of the Hamas government in Gaza, told Human Rights Watch that al-Kumi and Salama were cameramen covering the conflict and were returning from filming in al-Shifa Hospital in a car marked "TV." The two men's families, interviewed separately, said the men were neither participating in the fighting nor members of any armed group.
Human Rights Watch found no evidence, including during visits to the men's homes, to contradict that claim. Hamas's armed wing, al-Qassam Brigades, has not put either man on its official list of killed fighters - an unlikely omission if the men had been playing a military role.