Israel must explain a Reuters man’s death

The IDF’s inquiry into the death of a TV cameraman in Gaza must be open and thorough

Israel’s defence forces are again being accused by human-rights groups of alleged reckless or deliberate use of firepower in Gaza. The death of Reuters TV cameraman Fadel Shana, 23, during the violence which erupted on April 16 is rapidly becoming a cause célèbre.

The danger for the IDF and Israel is that it will provoke the same kind of international outcry which marked the death of British student and activist Tom Hurndall in April 2003, followed by the death of Channel 4 filmmaker James Miller a month later. This week it emerged that Miller’s family are being offered compensation of up to £1.8m by Israel.

Fadel Shana was killed and his sound operator Abu Mizyed wounded when an unarmoured sports utility vehicle, bearing TV and press markings, was shattered and set ablaze at around 5pm on a “back road” in Gaza in good light. Shana was filming at the time of his death and it is reported that two bystanders were also killed.

Film from Shana’s camera, posted on the Guardian’s website, shows an Israeli tank several hundred metres away opening fire. Some two seconds after the shot raises dust around the main gun barrel, the film goes blank, apparently at the moment Shana was hit. It will be argued that the camera does not lie, although there is enough evidence of manipulated footage from the region, most notably the Mohammed al-Dura shooting from September 2000, to demand scepticism.

The Shana case has attracted widespread attention. As part of the 70-strong team of Reuters journalists in the region, the Palestinian cameraman has the biggest international news agency behind him. The agency’s editor-in-chief, David Schlesinger, called for “an immediate and complete investigation”. (The IDF said on Sunday that it would conduct an official investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death.) Schlesinger was careful to note, however, that “journalism is a dangerous business … we rush into danger when others rush away. We know of course that accidents happen.”

It also has been alleged on AlJazeera.net that the IDF used a “controversial weapon”. Metal darts known as flechettes were said to have been embedded in Shana’s legs, chest and flak jacket. The report suggested that advocacy groups (unnamed) have repeatedly sought to have flechettes banned because “they kill indiscriminately”.

AlJazeera.net quotes an IDF spokesman, Major Avital Leibowitz, as expressing “sorrow” over the death and noting that the Reuters crew was operating in a war zone and when there is an exchange of fire “and journalists are hanging around these places” they sometimes “will be hit”.

The case has been seized upon by the New York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch, which is quoted by both Ha’aretz and the New York Times. Its own investigation of the incident suggests the IDF tank crew fired “either recklessly or deliberately at Shana and three others standing near him”. Battles between Palestinian militants and Israel forces were taking place at the time but the cameraman “wasn’t close to the fighting”.Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem suggests that the flechette shell was used. Both groups demanded an investigation.

This call was endorsed by International Press Institute, which monitors cases of journalists subjected to human-rights abuses. It requested the Israel military “conduct an independent, timely and transparent investigation”. It noted that Shana was in a vehicle displaying a fluorescent press sign.

Israel’s lesson from the recent past is that, in the wake of such incidents, a full and open inquiry is best. Otherwise Jerusalem risks handing a propaganda coup to those only too willing to see it as culpable.

    Last updated: 10:23am, June 4 2008