Palestinian firemen working in front of the al-Shorouq building, a media center, which was hit by two missiles on the first floor, Gaza city, November 2012. As a result of it, Ramez Najeeb Harb, 36, the media officer of the al-Quds Brigades (the armed wing of Islamic Jihad) was killed and another member of Islamic Jihad was wounded. Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org
For the second time in two weeks, the leading human rights group Human Rights Watch has said that Israeli airstrikes during the recent Gaza assault violated the laws of war by targeting civilians–in this case, journalists and media workers. Human Rights Watch released a detailed report today on Israeli attacks on journalists and media facilities that they say “violated the laws of war by targeting civilians and civilian objects that were making no apparent contribution to Palestinian military operations.”
The attacks that Human Rights Watch highlights are: the November 21 attack on the Naama bulding, which housed Agence France Presse; the November 20 attack on cameramen for the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV; the November 18 attack on media buildings in Gaza; and November 18 and 19 attacks on the al-Shoruq media building.
In all of these attacks, Israel claimed they were aimed at legitimate military targets taking part in the fighting in Gaza. Human Rights Watch is the latest rights group to reject that explanation according to international law.
“Israeli forces unlawfully attacked civilians and civilian objects because of their ties to Hamas and have not shown any involvement in military operations to justify the attacks,” commented Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
To justify their attacks on the media, the Israeli government claimed that because journalists worked for outlets owned by Hamas, they were legitimate targets. After the Israeli air force struck a media building on November 19, government spokesperson Mark Regev justified the attack by saying that journalists who work for the Hamas-run TV station are not “legitimate” journalists. But this is wholly contrary to international laws of war.
Official statements that reflect the military having adopted an unlawful basis for attacks are evidence of war crimes because they show intent.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, journalists and media workers are civilians and therefore immune from attack unless they are directly participating in hostilities. Television and radio stations are civilian objects protected from attack unless they are used to make an “effective contribution to military action” and their destruction in the specific circumstances offers “a definite military advantage.” For example, a radio station that is used to transmit military orders would be a legitimate military target. Broadcasts intended to improve civilian morale or express support for attacks are not considered direct participation in hostilities.
And time and time again, Human Rights Watch determined that the journalists targeted by the Israeli military were not participating in hostilities–meaning they were immune from attack. But the Israeli army bombed them anyway.
“Just because Israel says a journalist was a fighter or a TV station was a command center does not make it so,” said Whitson. “Journalists who praise Hamas and TV stations that applaud attacks on Israel may be propagandists, but that does not make them legitimate targets under the laws of war.”
The attacks on journalists in Gaza also resulted in casualties. According to the human rights report, “the attacks killed two Palestinian cameramen, wounded at least 10 media workers” and also “killed a two-year-old boy who lived across the street from a targeted building.”
The report also notes that “a second and separate attack on the third floor of the Shoruq Building on the afternoon of November 19 appeared to target specific Palestinian militants, who, if present, would have been unlawfully placing the building’s civilian occupants at risk.”
The Human Rights Watch investigation bolsters the conclusions of the groups Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists, which both harshly condemned the Israeli attacks on media during the assault on Gaza. “Even if the targeted media support Hamas, this does not in any way legitimize the attacks. We call for a transparent investigation into the circumstances of these air strikes. Attacks on civilian targets are war crimes and serious violations of the Geneva Conventions. Those responsible must be identified,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.
The Human Rights Watch report also bolsters New York Times journalist David Carr’s contention that the Israeli strikes were a “direct attack on information gatherers.” Carr came under criticism from other journalists who support Israel for that column.