Why did the IDF assassinate two Palestinian journalists?

The Israeli army still refuses to comment on several incidents in which journalists affiliated with Hamas, but with no connection to military activities, were targeted. In response to an inquiry by an Israeli journalist, an IDF Spokesperson representative wondered why he cares about a couple of Palestinians that died ‘a million years ago.’

The deputy manager of al-Aqsa TV, Mohamed Abu Oun, inspects the car that two al-Aqsa cameraman were riding in when an Israeli missile struck them in Gaza City on November 20, 2012. (photo: Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch)
The deputy manager of al-Aqsa TV, Mohamed Abu Oun, inspects the car that two al-Aqsa cameraman were riding in when an Israeli missile struck them in Gaza City on November 20, 2012. (photo: Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch)

On November 20, during the Israeli army’s last operation in Gaza (“Pillar of Defense”), 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. Al-Aqsa is the official television station of Hamas. According to several sources, the car which the two cameramen were driving was marked with the letters “TV.”

On December, following a Human Rights Watch report on several incidents in which the army seemed to have deliberately targeted journalists, the Israeli media watchdog site The Seventh Eye – a project of the Israeli Democracy Institute – contacted the IDF Spokesperson Unit with request for comment on the November 20th assassination. They received a general response, stating that “the details of the event mentioned are under examination, and only once it’s concluded, will we be able to address them.”

Nine months later, the army is refusing to provide a reason for the targeting of Palestinian journalists.

In May, the IDF concluded its internal investigation of several incidents in which forces may have strayed from the army’s rules of engagement. No criminal investigation was opened, but the targeting of journalists was named among a number of cases which could require further research. “A decision on those matters will be published soon,” the army stated. Since then, there hasn’t been any further comment on the issue, and the IDF public service unit has informed the Seventh Eye that it will not answer any more queries regarding Operation Pillar of Defense.

The media site continued to follow up with the authorities on the matter. At first, the IDF Spokesperson avoided questions by the Seventh Eye, citing bureaucratic grounds; reporters for the site didn’t hold Israeli Government Press Office cards, which the army demands before commenting. Later, when the Seventh Eye reporters obtained the GPO cards, they were referred to the Internal Security for comment, which in turn sent them back to the army twice.

Finally, and only after a scanned copy of the GPO card was sent them, a representative of the IDF Spokesperson unit was ready to speak to Seventh Eye investigative reporter Oren Persico. According to his account of the conversation (Hebrew), Persico got some off-the-record comment on the incident, which he was told not to use. The IDF’s representative then wondered why the journalist still has an interest in an incident in which two Palestinians were killed “about a million years ago.”

Mahmoud al-Kumi was 29-years-old, married and a father of three. Hussam Salama was 30, and a father of four. They were both on their way back from filming the wounded at al-Shifa Hospital. The HRW investigation didn’t find any relation between them and armed Hamas forces, beyond the fact that both worked for a TV station affiliated with the Islamic movement. HRW representatives who visited their families following the assassination didn’t see any poster which described them as martyrs or Shahids who fell in battle – a common feature when the deceased are part of “the resistance.” Furthermore, the Al-Qassam Brigades do not list the two among their casualties. Since this is a list of honor, an omission is unlikely in cases where the dead are members of the armed forces.

The IDF Spokesperson unit is large (with several hundreds of soldiers), and is known for the efficiency with which it produces evidence regarding the affiliation of people the IDF kills with armed organizations (whether this evidence is always credible is another story). So far, the army has not given any formal reason for the intentional attack on journalists.

The Novemeber 20 incident, along with similar events in which Israeli forces target Palestinian journalists, raises serious question. It seems that the army views the Hamas TV station – or any other media organization supporting Hamas – as a fair target due to its voicing of anti-Israeli opinions (an interview with Israeli Spokesperson Mark Regev clearly suggests that this is the prevailing view). In other words, Israel could be intentionally targeting citizens in what seems like a clear violation of both international law, as well as Israel’s own Supreme Court directions regarding targeted assassination.

If this is indeed the case, the human rights implications are far-reaching: The Gaza Strip is isolated and under the full control of Hamas, and everyone who takes part in the civilian infrastructure can be seen as affiliated with Hamas, the same way the two cameramen were, or the police cadets who were killed by an aerial attack during the opening hours of Operation Cast Lead in 2008. Should a person accepting a job in a government office in Gaza now know that he or she could be struck down with a missile? Or does the fact that a person supports Hamas make him/her a legitimate target?

The indifference with which the army views the execution of journalists – without feeling the need to provide an explanation for the attacks – reflects a broader culture of lack of accountability, both to the Israeli public and to the international community.

Here is a video summary of the HRW report on the targeting of Gaza journalists:

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+972’s full coverage of the Israeli attack on Gaza