Lebanon: Israel's attack on seven journalists was a likely war crime - new investigation

The 13 October attack killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah and injured six others
 
Forensic investigation identifies Israeli tank as munition that killed Abdallah, with an Israeli drone thought to have fired at the group soon afterwards
 
‘We were seven reporters, geared up with press jackets … we were impossible to miss’ - Al Jazeera reporter Carmen Joukhadar
 
‘Israel must not be allowed to kill and attack journalists with impunity’ - Aya Majzoub 

 
An Israeli attack on a group of seven journalists in south Lebanon on 13 October - a double-strike attack which killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah and injured six others - was likely to have been a direct attack on civilians that must be investigated as a war crime, Amnesty International said today.

From around 5pm on 13 October, the group of journalists was stationary in the same open location near the village of Alma al-Chaab close to the Israeli border in the Tyre governorate for about an hour prior to the attack. They were in full view of Israeli forces on the other side of the border, and one of the cars had large “TV” lettering on its bonnet.  

The seven journalists had been on a reporting trip to south Lebanon and were wearing helmets and flak vests marked “press” (see ‘The journalists attacked’ section below for further details). 
  
An Israeli Apache helicopter - and very likely an Israeli drone - hovered above the group for more than 40 minutes before the first attack, as can be seen and heard in the journalists’ own film footage. Israeli forces also had observation towers and air assets deployed to monitor the border. All of this should have provided sufficient information to Israeli forces that these were journalists and civilians, and not a military target.
 
Amnesty has verified more than 100 videos and photographs, analysed weapons fragments from the site and interviewed nine witnesses. Based on this, and on the injuries the victims sustained and analysis of two post-blast impact areas on a wall beside the road and a nearby impact crater, Amnesty has determined that the first attack - which killed Issam Abdallah and severely injured AFP videographer and photographer Christina Assi - was a 120mm tank round fired from the hills between al-Nawaqir and Jordeikh in Israel. 
 
Just 37 seconds later, the group were struck again, this time by a different weapon, likely to have been a small guided missile, causing an Al Jazeera crew car to burst into flames. 
 
Amnesty interviewed three of the journalists hit in the strikes and six others who were in the vicinity of the attack and who heard or saw the strikes and the aftermath. All the findings indicate that the group was visibly identifiable as journalists and that the Israeli military knew - or should have known - that they were civilians yet attacked them anyway. Amnesty found no indication that there were fighters or military objectives at the site of the attacks, raising serious concerns that these were direct attacks on civilians.
 
On 19 October, Amnesty sent letters to Lebanon’s Ministry of Defence and to the UN peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon requesting information on their investigations into the attack, as well as the logs of security incidents along the border on that day. On 28 November, Amnesty also sent a letter to the Israeli military’s spokesperson unit, and on 2 December sent another letter to the Israeli Minister of Defence. At the time of publication, Amnesty had not received responses to its communications. 
 
After the 13 October attack, Israel’s UN envoy Gilad Erdan said in a briefing, “Obviously, we would never want to hit or kill or shoot any journalist ... But you know, we're in a state of war, things might happen.” The next day, the Israeli military said “the incident is under review”.
 
Carmen Joukhadar, an Al Jazeera reporter who was injured in the attack, said:

“We were seven reporters, geared up with press jackets, helmets, three media cars, and several cameras on tripods. In short, we were impossible to miss.”

Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said:

“Our investigation into the incident uncovers chilling evidence pointing to an attack on a group of international journalists who were carrying out their work by reporting on hostilities. 
 
“Those responsible for Issam Abdallah’s unlawful killing and the injuring of six other journalists must be held accountable. 
 
“During an armed conflict, the role of journalists is particularly important to ensure scrutiny over the conduct of hostilities and highlight possible violations.
 
“No journalist should ever be targeted or killed simply for carrying out their work. Israel must not be allowed to kill and attack journalists with impunity.
 
“There must be an independent and impartial investigation into this deadly attack.”

The journalists attacked

The seven journalists - Issam Abdallah, a Reuters photojournalist, Thaier Al-Sudani, a Reuters photographer, Maher Nazeh, a Reuters photojournalist, Christina Assi, a photographer for AFP, Dylan Collins, a photojournalist for AFP, Carmen Joukhadar, a reporter for Al Jazeera, and Elie Brakhya, a photojournalist for Al Jazeera - had gathered in a location close to the village of Alma al-Chaab in south Lebanon to report on ongoing clashes between Israeli forces and Hizbullah. Exactly one minute and 23 seconds before the first strike hit them, the journalists turned their cameras to the southwest towards Hanita and started filming an Israeli military post on the border with Lebanon. Footage from three different cameras captured Israeli military infrastructure, such as a watch tower and antennae, and an Israeli Merkava tank firing towards the area of El-Dabche in Lebanon. Seconds later, at 6.02pm, an Israeli tank stationed to the east of the journalists fired the first strike, killing Issam Abdallah, who was sitting on a stone ledge, and severely injuring Christina Assi. A second strike 37 seconds later, using a different weapon, hit the ground near the Al Jazeera car causing it to catch fire. 
 
Elie Brakhya said:

“I was looking at Issam when we heard the [first] explosion. I saw Issam’s body fly, with the glow and the heat behind his back … [I] ran up the hill, heard Christina shouting ‘I can’t feel my legs’, ran back to where she was, and saw Dylan searching for the tourniquet.”

AFP’s Dylan Collins described the distressing scene as he scrambled to assist his injured colleague Christina Assi, after discovering her leg had been severed by the first blast. He told Amnesty:

“As soon as I turned around, I heard Christina’s voice saying, ‘Oh my God!’ I said, ‘You’re okay’. I ran to her directly and I saw that her legs are blown off at the kneecap.”

The second blast struck as Collins attempted to tie a tourniquet around her Assi’s legs. He said:

“When the second blast hit, I was stunned and dizzy, but in my blurry memory, I remember Issam’s leg falling in front of me, I remember looking up and seeing Carmen by the car, her face is black and she is walking like a zombie. Her entire back is covered in shrapnel.”
 
Carmen Joukhadar told Amnesty that after the second airstrike, she saw Elie Brakhya on the ground and thought he was dead. Videos and photos of the aftermath show three injured journalists - Christina Assi, Elie Brakhya and Carmen Joukhadar - as well as the body of Issam Abdallah and the burned Al Jazeera car.   
 
Christina Assi lost one of her legs and was still in hospital at the time of publication. Dylan Collins sustained shrapnel wounds to his face, arms and back. Maher Nazeh sustained shrapnel wounds to his arms, and Thaier al-Sudani sustained shrapnel injuries to the entire left side of his body. Carmen Joukhadar also sustained shrapnel wounds and other injuries particularly on the lower half of her body, and Elie Brakhya sustained severe injuries on both his arms and his shoulder was crushed. 
 
The journalists had gathered at the location to film ongoing clashes in Hanita in northern Israel following a suspected infiltration attempt by Palestinian armed groups and an explosion at the border fence earlier that afternoon, which the Israeli military said “was lightly damaged”. Shortly thereafter, the Israel military announced they had “ruled out” the infiltration attempt but continued to say that “a shooting was identified toward a number of military posts at the Lebanese border”, adding that the Israeli military had “responded with tank fire toward” Hizbullah infrastructure and that “artillery fired toward the source of the shooting”.

Amnesty’s investigation

Amnesty verified 57 videos related to the two strikes, primarily filmed by the journalists themselves at the scene. This includes 24 videos filmed by journalists before the attack, seven documenting the moment of the attack, and 22 of the aftermath, as well as four other videos that helped corroborate details related to the incident. Amnesty also analysed 55 images, including photos of the weapons fragments. 
 
In addition, Amnesty consulted the non-profit organisation Earshot, which specialises in producing audio investigations for human rights advocacy, as well as Steven Beck from Beck Audio Forensics, who conducted sound analysis of the aircraft audible in the journalists’ footage. The sound analysis indicates that for more than 40 minutes prior to the attack the sound of a circling helicopter and propeller-driven aircraft can be heard. These assets, which were conducting surveillance, were an Israeli Apache helicopter and most likely an Israeli drone.
 
Footage shot by the journalists also showed an observation tower on the hill in Hanita. The tower overlooks the village of Alma al-Chaab and hosts an Israeli military signals intelligence listening station, responsible for providing forces with real-time intelligence during operations. Further, satellite imagery and footage verified by Amnesty indicate that similar infrastructure existed in Jordeikh, from which the journalists’ location was also visible. Footage captured by Al Jazeera, as well as an Alaraby crew that was filming the clashes from another location in Alma al-Chaab, also capture an Israeli Apache helicopter flying overhead. The images and videos of the aftermath indicate that the first attack originated from the hills between the villages of Al-Nawaqir and Jordeikh in Israel. 
 
Amnesty also analysed the location of Issam Abdallah’s body after the strikes, the direction in which the stones from the ledge that he was sitting on were dispersed, as well as the direction in which the camera was shaking and fell on the ground following the strike. Analysis of weapons fragments indicates that the munition that killed Abdallah was a 120mm tank round, most likely an M339 projectile, manufactured by the Israeli IMI Systems and identified in other Amnesty investigations of Israeli attacks. The analysis indicates it was fired from an Israeli position close to Jordeikh, east of the journalists. Footage filmed by journalists on that day confirms that the Israeli military were firing from that area. The second strike, 37 seconds later, created a small shallow crater near the front tyre of the Al Jazeera vehicle. Based on photos of weapons fragments, this munition was most likely a small guided missile, but Amnesty was not able to identify the exact model, direction of fire or launch platform.

Israel’s record of killing journalists

In May, the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted that in the past 22 years not a single member of the Israeli armed forces has been charged or held responsible for the killing of at least 20 journalists. In 2000, Amnesty documented how an Israeli strike in south Lebanon killed Lebanese journalist Abd al-Rahman Taqqush who was working for the BBC at the time. The Israeli authorities have not held those responsible to account. More recently, the Israeli authorities have failed to hold perpetrators accountable for the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank last year. 
 
Three Lebanese journalists covering the current hostilities in south Lebanon have now been killed. In addition to the incident documented here, on 21 November three civilians - including two journalists from the local TV station Al Mayadeen, reporter Farah Omar, cameraman Rabih Maamari and their local guide Hussein Akil - were killed in an attack in the village of Teir Harfa in the governorate of Tyre. Overall, since 7 October, the Committee to Protect Journalists has confirmed the death of at least 63 journalists and media workers - 56 Palestinian, four Israeli and three Lebanese. An independent and impartial investigation into these incidents is also needed. 
 
Hizbullah and other armed groups have fired projectiles at northern Israel, killing three Israeli civilians, according to the Israeli military. Amnesty is investigating attacks by Hizbullah and other armed groups on northern Israel to determine whether they violated international humanitarian law. According to media reports, Israeli shelling in Lebanon has so far killed at least 16 civilians. Last month, Amnesty documented the use of white phosphorus artillery shells by the Israeli military in the villages of Dhayra, al-Mari and Aita al-Chaab, some of which may be considered indiscriminate attacks and therefore unlawful. On 14 October, the Israeli authorities denied they had used white phosphorus in their military operations in Gaza and Lebanon.

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