They Shoot Journalists, Don't They?

Ha'aretz spoke with eight of the nine journalists who were injured while covering the current Intifada in the territories and whose cases Israel's Foreign Press Association has asked the defense establishment to investigate.

Anat Cygielman, Baruch Kra
Anat Cygielman, Baruch Kra

Jacques-Marie Bourget, a correspondent for the French magazine Paris Match, has seen a lot of wars in his career. He has reported from Vietnam, Nicaragua, Baghdad and Kosovo. He has visited Israel and the occupied territories at least a dozen times - he has stopped counting, he says. He emerged from all the wars unscathed, yet here, he says with some amazement, he was injured for the first time in his life.

Bourget arrived in Israel last October, about two weeks after the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, and went straight to the Gaza Strip, with the goal of interviewing Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. After waiting for eight days, he decided to try his luck elsewhere. He left Gaza together with a photographer who was sent with him and who had never before been in the West Bank.

With all the self-confidence of a veteran war correspondent, Bourget suggested that they go to Ramallah. Just like that - so the photographer could form an impression of the place. For Bourget, it was no more than a minor detour on the way to Ben-Gurion International Airport.

The two drove to the Ayosh junction, north of Ramallah. Every journalist, foreign or local, who has ever covered the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, is familiar with this junction. You can almost always find a story there, especially the kind of story that photographs well. It's at Ayosh junction, between Beit El and El Bireh, that Areas A (under Palestinian control), B (under mixed control) and C (under Israeli control) meet; it's a seam between a Palestinian enclave and areas controlled by Israel.

Since the start of the Intifada 10 months ago, the junction has become a symbol, the "agreed-upon" site of friction in Ramallah. The place is covered with soot and strewn with stones and the remains of burned tires. Sandbags have been placed on the roofs of the nearby houses, some of which are riddled with bullet holes. Unlike Hebron, where demonstrators, soldiers and journalists have to maneuver in narrow, crowded alleys, a broad vista presents itself at the Ayosh junction. As Patrick Baz, a photographer for the Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French news agency, puts it, you can watch the clashes there as though you were viewing a tennis match.

To the east of the junction lie fields. To the west is the City Inn hotel, to the north are the headquarters of the Israeli civil administration, the Ayosh Division and the settlement of Beit El. That is Area C. About 20 meters from the hotel is Al-Quds, an open university, which is in Area B (Israeli security and Palestinian civilian control), and it's another few meters to the start of Area A - the houses of the Al-Balua neighborhood in El Bireh, among them the home of Jibril Rajoub, who heads Palestinian preventive security in the West Bank.

The windows of the six-story hotel provide a convenient observation point from which to view the road that leads to Ramallah and the demonstrators on the road, so in the past few months, the guests there have been mainly soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who stay there if so ordered by the on-site commander.

"When we got to the junction," Bourget relates, "I noticed a Palestinian who was firing at the soldiers with a Kalashnikov rifle from a house that was under construction. I didn't want to endanger the photographer, so we turned around and took up a position at a point that I thought was protected, about 50 meters from the junction."

Bourget and the photographer sat down on a low stone wall and watched the fighting along with "the uncles and the big brothers," as he puts it, of the youngsters who were throwing stones at the junction. According to Bourget, the viewers near him were totally quiet.

"At one point we stood up and then I felt a blow. I heard my breath, I understood that a bullet had entered my lung, and then I passed out."

Bourget was critically wounded. The bullet ripped through his left lung, passed near his heart and shattered three ribs. Nine months later, his left hand is partially paralyzed. Two weeks ago, the bullet was at last removed from his back. A ballistics expert found it to be from an M-16 rifle, the standard-issue weapon of the IDF.

Since September 28, 2000, when the violence began, on the day following Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, dozens of journalists working for foreign news organizations have complained of being shot by the Israeli security forces while covering the Intifada in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. The IDF has received letters about nine of these events from the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel. The first letter, dated November 20, 2000, was sent to several recipients, including the prime minister and defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak; the deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh; the chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz; and the IDF spokesman, Ron Kitri. The FPA drew their attention to seven instances in which foreign journalists had been shot and wounded, and asked the defense establishment to undertake official investigations of these events.

In additional letters, sent in April and May, the chairman of the FPA at the time, Howard Goller, added two more cases to the list and again asked the defense establishment to look into the events and make public its findings. To this day, the letters have not been officially answered. Four of the nine journalists on the list, by the way, were shot at the Ayosh junction.

One officer reprimanded

During the first Intifada, at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, the IDF tried to limit the movement of journalists in the territories as much as possible. However, in the current Intifada, access to sites of clashes is free, apart from exceptional cases.

Journalists are more exposed to information, but also to danger. Some of them come to these regions without prior experience and with unwarranted self-confidence, others stick carefully to the rules of caution: flak jacket, helmet, a reasonable distance from the line of fire, a sheltered spot.

According to a senior IDF officer, who saw service as a commander in the West Bank over the past year: "We treat the journalists like air. They're there, and that's it. There is no longer any such thing as a `closed military area.' We have nothing to hide. As far as we are concerned, we keep our hands off the cameras, even though they sometimes interfere with our work and even endanger us. The orders are simply to ignore the journalists."

But the fact remains that a large number of journalists have been shot and wounded. Some of them believe that the IDF and the Border Police have things they want to hide, and so the soldiers and the police are hostile to them. After all, in a certain sense, the correspondents and photographers are playing the role of international observers. Palestinian journalists report on a double difficulty in the face of the Israeli security forces, because they are both journalists and Palestinians.

An IDF officer who did a stint in Hebron says he tried to keep the photographers from approaching too close to his soldiers, for fear the troops would react nervously.

Few of the dozens of complaints have been reported in Israel. The IDF has investigated only four of them: those that received a great deal of publicity and generated international pressure. And the IDF does not usually ask journalists who are injured for their version of what happened, even though the army claims that examinations of various kinds do take place.

In contrast, in cases where Border Policemen were involved and a complaint is filed with the Justice Ministry's Internal Affairs department, a thorough investigation takes place and evidence is taken from the complaining journalist.

The correspondents themselves are skeptical about the IDF's ability to investigate itself properly. Bourget, who was flown to France for treatment the day after he was shot, rejected Israel's request that he give testimony to the army investigators.

"I do not trust militaristic bodies, not in Israel and not anywhere else," he explained. At the same time, this week, he intends to send the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem a copy of the ballistics report on the bullet that was removed from his body.

It's not always possible to prove what really happened. On the field of battle, distances, angles of fire and times can be very subjective. Still, what is the message that the IDF is conveying to its soldiers by ignoring these cases? The heads of the FPA in Israel carefully choose their words; and major wire services such as Reuters and The Associated Press (AP), many of whose representatives have complained about the attitude of soldiers, make a point not to attack Israel publicly. All of them have complex working relations with the IDF.

Ha'aretz spoke with eight of the nine journalists whose cases the FPA asked the defense establishment to investigate. The description of the ninth case, involving the photographer Yola Monakhov, who is in Honolulu, is based on previous reports. Hers was also the only case in which an IDF investigation concluded with "personal conclusions": an officer was reprimanded.

In all the conversations with the journalists who were shot the emphasis was on the following questions: Do they think they may have possibly been shot by Palestinians? Could Israeli soldiers identify them as members of the press at the time of the event? Where were they positioned in relation to the Palestinian demonstrators? Do they think they were shot deliberately? And if so, do they think they were shot because they were journalists?

Bertrand Aguirre, French television station FT1

Bertrand Aguirre, 39, has been FT1's correspondent in Israel for two years. On May 15, 2001, or Naqba Day - on which the Palestinians mark the "calamity" of 1948, when the State of Israel was established - he drove with a TV crew to Ayosh junction. He was standing and speaking into the camera about 50 meters behind Palestinians who were throwing stones at the Israeli troops. It was impossible to mistake his identity as a journalist, he says, because of the flak jacket he wore and the camera directly in front of him.

"A military jeep appeared and stopped about 120 meters to my right. A Border Policeman emerged from the jeep, with a cigarette in his hand. He placed his rifle on a concrete pillar, aimed it at us, and fired live ammunition. The demonstrators started to disperse. They were running between me and the policeman."

One of the bullets struck Aguirre in the chest. He was burned; his flak jacket caught fire from the impact. The camera kept rolling and the incident was broadcast around the world.

The video film and the flak jacket Aguirre was wearing, with the bullet lodged in it, were transferred to the Justice Ministry's Internal Affairs department. Aguirre's testimony was taken. As of this writing, he is still awaiting the results of the investigation.

Aguirre is convinced that he was shot by the policeman: "I stood facing him and there was no Palestinian firing opposite me." He doesn't know whether the policeman aimed at him or at the demonstrators, "but it makes no difference. He aimed at chest height, in order to kill, even though he was not under threat." The Palestinians, he says, had opened fire earlier that day, but not in the half-hour that preceded the event.

Sources in Internal Affairs reject the contention of Border Police officers that there is evidence to the effect that Aguirre was wounded by Palestinians. The investigation is in its final stages. It's not yet known whether there is enough evidence to file an indictment against any particular policeman, but the findings indicate that Aguirre was, in fact, hit by Border Police fire.

Aguirre did not take a course on how to cover areas of confrontation. "The best training is to spend two years in Israel," he says. In the wake of the incident, FT1 decided to equip its Jerusalem bureau with an armored car.

Layla Odeh, Abu Dhabi TV

Layla Odeh, 30, a resident of Jerusalem's Abu Tor neighborhood, which straddles the eastern and western parts of the city, has worked for Abu Dhabi TV for the past five years. On April 19 of this year, she traveled from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip in order prepare feature stories on the Rafah area, adjacent to the border with Egypt. She had heard that many families there had become homeless because their homes were demolished by the IDF.

"The area was open, with only heaps of stones left and an Israeli guard tower," she recalls. "We photographed the ruins. I interviewed a woman who was living with her family in a tent, next to their demolished home. At the end, I prepared to do a stand-up [speaking into the camera] with my back to the guard tower. We were the only people there."

Odeh was not wearing a helmet or a flak jacket: "The photographer got the camera ready. I was holding a sign that said `Abu Dhabi TV.' I didn't manage to get a word out, when I heard shots from behind." The photographer and the sound man started to run. "I ran behind them limping. A bullet split open my leg, it went in from behind and came out in front. Luckily, it didn't hit the bone."

The three ran to a position manned by Palestinian policemen. Odeh was taken to Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, from where she was transferred to Al-Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem and finally to the American Hospital in Dubai. She has a medical report stating that she was shot with live ammunition. She says there was no exchange of fire at the time of the incident.

"I believe the soldier on the guard tower wanted to shoot me. Maybe he was nervous, maybe he was playing. He could certainly see that we were filming from where he was. Why didn't he warn us?"

Odeh did not take a course in covering areas of confrontation, but says she is well aware of the dangers and the rules of caution, after years of working in the field.

After she was wounded, she relates, she got a call from someone at the IDF spokesman's office, who asked how she was doing and said the IDF had launched an investigation into the incident. Since then, she has heard nothing more about any such investigation or any possible findings. No one asked her to give testimony.

"I am not a legal expert," she says, "but it seems to me that they are supposed to hear my version of what happened."

Israel's ambassador to the U.S., David Ivri, met in June with representatives of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, who informed him of the high number of journalists injured in the territories. His response was that Odeh's case was examined, and it was found that she was hurt by a rubber bullet that was shot from a guard tower. The seriousness of the injury, Ivri said in his response, was due the firing of a rubber bullet from that particular angle.

Yola Monakhov, AP photographer

Yola Monakhov, 37, an American photographer of Russian origin, who worked for AP, was wounded in the stomach and knee from IDF fire in Bethlehem. As reported in Ha'aretz, she was standing in a small alley behind Rachel's Tomb on November 11, 2000, with a group of masked Palestinians who were showing her how they threw stones and prepared firebombs. When an IDF soldier appeared at the end of the alley, the Palestinians fled. Monakhov, who was carrying heavy equipment, moved away slowly. The soldier shot her.

Monakhov was wearing a helmet, which was supposed to indicate to soldiers that she was a journalist. The IDF's investigation found that the soldier's commanding officer had violated the "rules of engagement" by permitting live fire even though no Israeli soldiers were in mortal danger. The soldier did not fire through a telescopic lens and did not notice that he had hit a woman. At the conclusion of the investigation, the officer was reprimanded. The IDF apologized to Monakhov and paid her medical expenses.

Ben Wedeman, CNN Cairo bureau chief

On October 13, 2000, American Ben Wedeman, 41, CNN's Cairo bureau chief, came to the Gaza Strip with a producer and a camera crew. He wanted to get reacquainted with the area, which he had not visited for a few years. One of the stops on his tour was the Karni crossing, where serious clashes had taken place. Wedeman and his photographer started walking along the road that leads from the Karni crossing in the direction of the Gaza Strip.

"Suddenly, I heard live bullets right next to us," he relates. "The only cover in the area was an olive tree. We lay down and hid behind it. For half an hour we heard shooting. Bullets passed right through the top of the tree. We felt the leaves fall on us from the shooting. As time went by, I had the feeling that the distance between us and the shooters was becoming shorter.

"At this stage my photographer, Mohammed, said it would be safer to leave and that he was going. I told him to stay, but it didn't help. `Ma salameh [welcome],' he told me, and left. I stayed there about another 15 minutes, and when I felt there was a light break, I got up to look for different cover, and that was when I took the bullet."

The shot apparently came from the southern side of the road, where the IDF soldiers were positioned.

Wedeman's wound was described as "moderate." He was hit in the hip, just below the bottom of his flak jacket. He also wore a helmet, which should have identified him as a journalist. At the same time, he was cut off from a group of journalists who had taken cover at another spot. Wedeman thinks the shooting came from both sides.

"The shooting of the IDF was accurate and steady, while the shooting by the Palestinians was sporadic," he notes. "It was only afterward, when I moved in the direction of the Palestinians, that I saw their firing positions, but when I was under the olive tree I saw nothing."

Although the IDF investigated the incident, no one asked Wedeman to give testimony.

After the incident a meeting was held between the Israeli battalion commander at the site and Mike Hanna, CNN's Jerusalem bureau chief. It turned out, from aerial photographs, that Wedeman was lying apart from the group of journalists that the battalion commander had spotted, and had warned his men not to fire in their direction. He hadn't seen Wedeman and the photographer, and the soldiers in fact opened fire at them. Wedeman's description shows that he took a position between the sides by mistake.

"Absurdly enough, at the beginning of October I was supposed to take a course on covering areas of confrontation," he says. "Instead of the course, I got some practical training."

Jacques-Marie Bourget, Paris Match

When Jacques-Marie Bourget was shot, by the Ayosh junction, he was not wearing a flak jacket or a helmet: "But I am 57, blond, and a photographer with a camera was standing next to me. Even if they thought I was a 15-year-old Palestinian, I wasn't doing anything. I was sitting on a wall."

He says he was very far from the line of fire and that there were no Palestinians shooting in the area where he was positioned. Bourget believes the soldiers were out to kill him: "To shoot me, they had to look for me, to aim at me. According to the angle of entry, the bullet came from above. The photographer who was with me saw the soldier who fired, in a window of the City Inn hotel."

Bourget was taken to a hospital in Ramallah, where he underwent emergency surgery because he had lost so much blood. Israel rejected a request to allow him to be transferred to Jerusalem, he says, and the next day, the authorities delayed the ambulance that took him from Ramallah to Ben-Gurion Airport, where a plane that had been sent specially from France was waiting for him.

According to Bourget, only the intervention of an aide to French President Jacques Chirac, who was then visiting Beijing, persuaded the Israelis to let the ambulance leave Ramallah. (The Foreign Ministry says in reaction that it proposed that Bourget be transferred to a hospital in Jerusalem.)

Bourget intends to send the results of the ballistic analysis of the M-16 bullet that was removed from his back to Colonel Gal Hirsch, who was the commander of the Binyamin Brigade at the time of the incident, and who afterward investigated it. "But I have no illusions," Bourget says. Not even the bullet will be considered definitive proof unless it can be matched up with a specific rifle - because the Palestinians too have M-16 rifles, albeit very few.

Patrick Baz, press photographer, AFP

Patrick Baz, a Frenchman of Lebanese extraction who is 37 years old, is responsible for the photographs desk of Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, in the Middle East. He is based in Nicosia, Cyprus. He has been on photographic assignments in Lebanon, Yugoslavia and Somalia, among other locations. He lived in Jerusalem from 1989 to 1995 and is well-acquainted with the Ayosh junction. His story illustrates the routine that has developed at the junction, and is also indicative of the difficulties the Palestinians cause photographers. On October 18, 2000, he had spent several hours at the junction, and by early afternoon he was bored.

"There was nothing new to photograph," he recalls. "I was tired of the arguments with the Palestinians, whether to take a photograph of this or that, or not to take a photograph, so I walked to the side. The situation was not tense, otherwise the Palestinians would not have had time to get involved in arguments. Every once in a while, stones were thrown at an IDF unit. Between the incidents it was quiet. I was standing in a kind of no-man's-land between Area A and Area C, with another journalist. We watched what was going on as though it were a tennis match, children against children."

Baz says they were standing about a hundred meters from the demonstrators. The two of them were wearing while helmets and flak jackets with the word "Press" on them. Baz was holding a camera. At one point, he held the camera up and a rubber-coated steel bullet, which he still has, slammed into his hand.

"If it hadn't been for the camera, the bullet would have hit me in the face, maybe in the eye," he says. "If I had been among the demonstrators, I wouldn't complain. Once I was shot in the ear and I lost 75 percent of my hearing ability in it. I didn't complain, because I was working among demonstrators. But when you're standing on the side and there is nothing around you, and you're dressed according to all the rules of caution? Even if I wasn't identified as a journalist, what can people in helmets and flak jackets do? Who could they be? From the United Nations? From the Red Cross? One thing is sure: They are not Palestinian demonstrators."

Therefore, even though his wound was not serious, he decided to file a complaint.

Baz is convinced that he was deliberately shot at: "It wasn't a stray bullet. It was a direct shot, and there was no one in the area apart from the two of us," he points out. "Rubber bullets have to be loaded and aimed."

The Palestinians, he says, started shooting later on in the afternoon. "The fact is that the soldiers fired rubber bullets. When there is Palestinian fire, they use live ammunition. There was no reason to shoot me. There was no reason to shoot at all."

No one from the IDF has approached him to get details of what happened, he says.

Mahfouz Abu Turk, press photographer, ReutersClick here for rest of article



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

$1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN

Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island

Inside the Fierce Battle Over America's Oldest Synagogue

Protesters demonstrating in front of the consulate general of Israel in New York last year.

Huge Gap Between Young, Old Americans' View on Israel-Palestine

Rep. Henry Cuellar attends a campaign event on Wednesday, in San Antonio, Texas.

AIPAC-backed Dem Declares Victory Against Progressive Challenger in Texas Runoff

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Mohammad Eslami at an event for Nuclear Technology Day in Tehran, last month.

Prospects for Reviving Iran Nuclear Deal 'Tenuous' at Best, U.S. Envoy Says

A family grieves outside the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Wednesday.

Israeli PM Offers Condolences After Texas Gunman Kills 21 at Elementary School

U.S. President Joe Biden, this week.

Biden Decides to Keep Iran's Revolutionary Guards on Terror List, Says Report