Who killed the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a senior reporter for Al-Jazeera, while she was wearing a protective vest with the word “press” written on it in English?
This should be investigated by an international commission. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian territories wrote in March 2022: "Investigations by Israel’s military into deaths and serious injuries rarely result in any accountability.”
If it turns out that Abu Akleh was indeed killed by Israeli Defence Force soldiers, it will not come as a surprise. It would be a direct result of the IDF’s "double face" policy regarding journalists, and especially Palestinians. This is not a conspiratorial or antisemitic statement, but based on the state’s arguments and testimonies of soldiers and officers in court proceedings, and documents obtained from the IDF’s own investigations.
The IDF has formal and informal policies on journalists, and the boundaries between them are blurred. According to the official IDF Journalists and Photographers Directive (No. 06216), journalists "should be allowed freedom of movement unless there is an exceptional reason to prevent them from entering a particular place."
However, informally there is no distinction made between journalists and those who participate in clashes with soldiers. Journalists are seen as an integral part of violent events, that journalists interfere with soldiers doing their job, and journalists even encourage violence against them. This is according to the state relied on in-court hearings for compensation claims filed by Palestinian journalists who were shot by soldiers.
This means that de-facto, journalists are sometimes considered to be a legitimate target by Israeli soldiers.
For example, in response to a compensation claim filed by a Palestinian photo journalist – whose hand was broken by soldiers with a stick in August 2012 – the state argued in court that journalists were not innocent and voluntarily risked their lives because they came to village Kadum during clashes. According to soldiers and officers testimonies, it was decided to initiate journalists’ arrest and to use force if necessary. When the officers were asked during the IDF own investigation why this was necessary, they replied: "the presence of the journalists increases the intensity of the demonstration", and that "the intention was to prevent the media side of the demonstration". A Brigadier General, testified that "we want the demonstration to have a low media profile because it promotes the delegitimization of the IDF and the state."
On January 24, 2019, the Chief Military Prosecutor rejected an appeal to prosecute all the security officials involved in this affair.
In the court case of a Palestinian photo-journalist who was shot in his leg during a protest and clashes in Kadum on October 2015, the state argued that the journalist was not innocent and voluntarily risked himself and participated in the clashes. In the police investigation the soldier admitted: "I know him, he is always in village Kedum and documents us in all the demonstrations". On February 24, 2020, the judge dismissed the lawsuit due to the immunity granted to the state under Israeli law in cases of clashes, but criticised the soldiers for the violation of the above mentioned IDF directive for journalists.
In the court case of another journalist who was shot in his leg while he was recording on a large TV camera the protest and clashes in Kadum on May 2015, the state and the military officer blamed the journalist for being shot. In the investigation in the court, the officer admitted that he knew that journalists are regularly coming to document the protests and clashes in Kadum, but still he avoided informing his soldiers about the IDF directive regarding journalists.
In an incident during a protest and clashes in the village of Nabi Salah on April 2015, a group of soldiers threw stones at two photo-journalists, an Israeli and a Palestinian, threatened to shoot them with live ammunition, threw one of the journalists to the ground, and cursed repeatedly: "Fly off son of a b***h" and "your mom sucks". At the hearing of the compensation claim in court, the state gave full backing to the soldiers and justified their violent conduct.
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It is therefore not surprising that after the killing of Abu Akleh, the IDF issued a statement saying: "We emphasize that caution must be exercised when entering and staying in areas where shooting is carried out by terrorist elements or in their vicinity."
The IDF’s statement indicates that – even when it comes to an international storm, a journalist who is a US citizen and an unusual condemnation of the US State Department – the IDF adheres to the position that journalists are guilty of harming themselves and are a legitimate target for doing their journalistic work.
Whether or not it is determined that Abu Akleh was killed by IDF soldiers, the international community must demand that the state of Israel change its policies and conduct regarding journalists in the Occupied Palestinian territories, so it would respect the freedom of press and the international law.
Eitay Mack is an Israeli human rights lawyer and activist, based in Oslo and Jerusalem, that represented the journalists in the cases mentioned in this article