IDF defends attack on journalists in Nabi Saleh

After Israeli armed forces opened fire directly at him and fellow journalists, photojournalist Mati Milstein filed complaints with the Israeli authorities responsible. After a five month delay, the IDF Spokesperson responds: ignoring the evidence, defending the IDF for opening fire, disparaging the journalistic relevance of covering Nabi Saleh protests, and insisting journalists on the scene are there at their own risk. 

By Mati Milstein

Nearly five months ago, on July 29, Israeli reserve infantrymen and Border Police officers opened fire on a group of photojournalists and television cameramen during a non-violent protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. Troops from the Alexandroni Brigade then – totally unprovoked – arbitrarily threatened me and fellow press photographers with arrest. Days later, I filed a formal complaint with the Israel Defense Forces, the Israeli Border Police and the Israeli Government Press Office, with all relevant details required for an investigation of the attack.

The GPO kindly forwarded my complaint – adding a cover letter from GPO Director Oren Helman requesting a timely examination of and response to my claims – to key officials in the Border Police and the IDF, as well as to the Foreign Press Association.

The Border Police ignored the query entirely. The IDF Spokesperson Unit failed to acknowledge receipt of both my original complaint and the GPO’s subsequent request for a response. However, via periodic telephone queries to the IDF Spokesperson, I was made to understand that the incident was under investigation and that – due to its complex nature and the multiple military units involved – this investigation would take time. I was assured that at its conclusion I would receive a formal response.

Five months passed. Only in the final week of 2011 did I finally receive a formal response from the Israeli army. With excited anticipation, I opened the response from Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, of the IDF Spokesperson Unit’s North America Desk.

Leibovich’s letter was a general – and quite inaccurate – proclamation purportedly describing the “violent and illegal demonstrations” and consistent rock-throwing attacks faced by Israeli soldiers in Nabi Saleh.

In a blatant show of disrespect of the very media she is meant to be assisting, Leibovich ignored the details of the July 29 incident, which I had so meticulously provided to her. She instead unilaterally justified the use of force and violence by Israeli security forces against both protesters and media personnel.

Given that Leibovich’s letter made no reference whatsoever to an investigation, it seems clear that the army never did carry out any examination of the violence and threats against members of the media.

Leibovich actually took it upon herself to make sweeping value judgments on the news coverage of the protests, stating that “though the weekly frequency of the demonstrations has removed from them all news value, journalists and photographers frequently come to [cover] these demonstrations,” adding that “members of the media are sometimes caught in the eye of the storm.”

Clearly, conflict photographers face certain risks when carrying out their professional duties – indeed, they are sometimes caught in the eye of the storm – and they consciously accept these risks. Photojournalists, who must be physically close to their subjects, knowingly place themselves in the crossfire. My colleagues and I – Israeli, Palestinian and foreign – have in the past been inadvertently hurt while covering such events, hit by rocks, rubber bullets and tear gas grenades. This is, simply put, part and parcel of the job. No one complains.

However, Leibovich proceeded in her letter to transfer responsibility for harm to media personnel from the heavily-armed and heavily-protected security forces to the journalists themselves: “It is important to note that journalists who enter areas in which there is consistent violent and illegal disorder, such as Nabi Saleh – the responsibility is theirs, as is accepted in other areas of conflict around the world.”

Leibovich fails to understand a critical distinction: There is a fundamental difference between: 1) journalists voluntarily placing themselves in areas where, during the course of their work, they might face potential and inadvertent harm; and 2) soldiers voluntarily opening fire on a group of clearly-marked journalists, even when no protesters or other perceived threats are located in the vicinity of said journalists.

Lieutenant Colonel Leibovich, with all due respect, did you really think no one would notice if you abdicated your responsibilities and ignored both a legitimate complaint filed by an accredited member of the Israeli press corps, as well as the Israeli GPO’s own request for a proper investigation of the attack?

Rather than carrying out your duties, you exploited the circumstances of an unforgivable violent attack on the media to further propagate a propaganda that ignores all – very verifiable – facts on the ground.

Meanwhile, the protests in Nabi Saleh continue, as does the press coverage of these protests, despite Leibovich’s firm belief that this coverage has no journalistic value.

The soldiers of the Alexandroni Brigade have long since returned home, but Israeli military units subsequently deployed to Nabi Saleh continue to open fire on both non-violent protestors and members of the media, making illegal use of the weapons at their disposal. In the interceding five months, one man was killed in the village and numerous individuals have been wounded seriously enough to require hospitalization.

Leibovich failed completely to respond to my charge of an Israeli military attack on press freedom and, furthermore, has provided tacit systemic approval for future direct, tactically-unjustified – and potentially deadly – attacks on journalists.

No lessons have been learned here. The blood – when it comes again, as it surely will – will also be on your hands, Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich.

Mati Milstein’s photography and writing have appeared in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, Bild, Le Monde, Monocle, Daily Mirror, National Geographic News, The Forward and other publications.