Palestinian Journalists Increasingly Finding Themselves in the Line of IDF Fire

A Palestinian cameraman was shot by an Israeli soldier in December while filming a demonstration in the West Bank. It's still unclear if the Israeli authorities will investigate.

Amira Hass
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Bashar Saleh after being shot in the leg while covering a demonstration, December 5, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amira Hass

Around 1 P.M. on Friday December 5, during the weekly demonstration in the West Bank village of Kafr Qadoum, an Israel Defense Forces soldier shot a Palestinian television cameraman with live ammunition. The bullet penetrated the cameraman’s left shin. He was operated on, but still suffers pain and has trouble walking, limiting his ability to work. A precise hit on an unarmed man whose profession and task were clear is a signal to Palestinian journalists – until proven otherwise – that the IDF is seeking to stop them covering the demonstrations. Journalists say it’s an infringement of press freedom, and it isn’t the only incident. Just this month, a tear-gas canister was shot right at the leg of another press cameraman in Kafr Qadoum. Palestinian journalists claim there has been an increase in direct military assaults against them in the last year.

The cameraman shot directly in the leg by the Israeli soldier is 36-year-old Bashar Saleh of Qalqilyah, an employee of Palestine TV.

For the past four years he has been documenting the weekly demonstrations at Kafr Qadoum, which have been held to protest the closure of a road due to the expansion of the settlement of Kedumim. A few minutes after the demonstrators began their protest on December 5 – while still marching among the houses of the village – a vehicle began spraying a foul-smelling crowd dispersal liquid at them, Saleh tells Haaretz.

Like everyone else, Saleh began running away from the spray. He made his way to the corner of another street and positioned himself 80 to 100 meters from a group of Israeli soldiers. He positioned his camera on a tripod, stood behind it and began filming again. Perhaps two minutes later, he fell to the ground. He hadn’t heard the shot and says he thinks it was fired with a silencer. There was no mistaking his work as a television journalist at the time, he adds.

The identity of the person who shot him has not been made public, but it’s known that he was part of a joint IDF and Border Police force that was given the task of dispersing the demonstration by force.

Saleh managed to film part of the contingent a few seconds before he was shot. The footage shows two IDF soldiers in green uniforms. One is seen lying on the ground aiming his rifle. The second is seen kneeling, with his hand holding a rifle positioned on his bent leg. Next to the soldiers were three black-clad border police officers who were standing and looked relaxed. Their rifles were casually slung. All five of the security personnel were wearing helmets. Behind them was a gate and concrete wall, partially covered by a bougainvillea bush spilling out of the yard of a home. A military jeep was next to the security forces.

Although it’s not known which of the armed Israelis shot Saleh, overall responsibility rests with the IDF and its commanders. According to the IDF, which is the sovereign authority in the West Bank, the Palestinian demonstrations are illegal and it is prepared to disperse and suppress them – sometimes even within Palestinian villages. Is it because they are considered illegal that filming them is also considered against the law? And does this mean that shooting those documenting them is deemed legal?

The IDF Spokesman’s Office told Haaretz, “As a rule, the directives to IDF forces when it comes to documentation and press work requires that they allow journalists to carry out their work without hindrance, as long as they are not adversely affecting the force’s task.”

Was Saleh adversely affecting the force’s task? The IDF Spokesman’s Office did not claim that, saying, “With regard to the incident at hand, its circumstances are being examined by the Military Advocate General’s office. Based on the results of the examination, appropriate steps will be taken.”

If the circumstances are indeed being investigated, no Palestinian has been summoned yet to provide testimony that could assist the probe and help decide whether the shooting of the cameraman requires a criminal investigation and a trial of whoever is deemed responsible.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office’s response also states something rather revealing: “Unfortunately, there is misuse on the part of reporters who are familiar with these directives [a reference to directives permitting journalists to do their work] in a way that challenges the freedom of action of the [security] forces and diverts them from their task.” What does this convoluted sentence imply? Is it that sometimes the soldiers fall victim to “provocations” on the part of the reporters, who thus force the soldiers to shoot at them or otherwise hurt them?

The IDF’s response also notes that, “One should not conclude from this that harm to the work of the press is aimed at deterring them from documenting Palestinian disturbances of the peace.” Is that a slip of the pen from the authors of the response? Is the IDF Spokesman actually acknowledging that soldiers do harm to the work of the press (even if it follows provocations by the Palestinians)?

Is the intent that only Palestinian “disturbances of the peace” are allowed to be filmed, and not the security forces maintaining order?

In the prevailing order of things – i.e., the state of military occupation – the army is not allowed to violate international law, which protects civilians in areas of confrontation. “Subordinate military forces must know that their commanders and other superiors will respond effectively to violations of international humanitarian law,” wrote retired Justice Jacob Turkel, in the Second Report of an official commission he headed that examined whether, and how, Israel investigates claims of violations of the laws of armed conflict.

“Failure to do so entails legal responsibility for the military commanders and other superiors as well as for the perpetrators themselves [page 77 of the report] ... When the rules of international humanitarian law were incorporated into army orders, every commander acquired the duty to prevent and repress violations of those rules by his subordinates ... as a part of their duty to act as an example and role model [page 277].”

About two weeks after Saleh was injured, his lawyer, Eitay Mack, approached the military police investigation unit and the Justice Ministry’s police investigation unit, asking for them to meet with his client and witnesses, on the assumption that an investigation into the shooting had begun. When he didn’t get a response, he wrote again, stating, “I don’t understand why I need to beg you to open an investigation into the case. It’s your legal and moral obligation.”

The Military Advocate General’s office didn’t even bother to respond. The Justice Ministry’s police investigation unit replied that there was no suspicion that the case involved a criminal violation subject to a punishment of more than a year in prison – so, therefore, there would be no criminal probe.

The response also said the appropriate avenue for examining Saleh’s complaint was the investigation unit of the Israel Police. Yet if the Justice Ministry was suggesting that there was no serious criminal violation of the law, why refer it to the police?

The Justice Ministry provided the following response to Haaretz: “The facts and detailed claims [in Mack’s complaint] do not relate to subjects in the realm of responsibility of the police investigation department [of the Justice Ministry]. Since it involves a shooting within the territory of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], the complaint is not within the bounds of our jurisdiction and has been referred for handling by the police.”

The response does not say there is no suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.

In his February 2013 report, retired Justice Turkel made reference to the confusion that exists in investigating shooting incidents involving police stationed in the West Bank. In 1992, the state prosecutor decided that it was not the Justice Ministry’s police investigation unit, but rather police in the Judea and Samaria District who should investigate cases involving police shootings in the West Bank. In 2007, the state prosecutor decided to return responsibility for such incidents to the Justice Ministry. But as Turkel wrote, the decision has still not been fully implemented. At times, the Justice Ministry unit does look into cases involving shooting and other violence employed by border policemen in the West Bank, as reflected by its handling of other complaints filed by Mack and the Yesh Din human rights organization.

So who decides when the Justice Ministry unit gets involved and when not, and based on what criteria? Mack has already appealed the decision not to open a Justice Ministry inquiry, and simultaneously asked that any internal police investigation that may have begun be suspended.

In the meantime, in the absence of an immediate investigation, the soldiers and border police are going home with the message that shooting a Palestinian journalist is okay.

Amira Hass tweets at @Hass_Haaretz

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