Israeli tank likely fired machine gun at reporters after deadly shelling, report finds

An Israeli tank crew killed a Reuters reporter in Lebanon in October by firing two shells at a clearly identified group of journalists and then likely opened fire on them with a heavy machine gun in an attack that lasted 1 minute and 45 seconds, a report published Thursday (March 7) found.

The report by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, contracted by Reuters to analyze evidence from the Oct. 13 attack that killed visuals journalist Issam Abdallah, found that a tank 1.34 kilometers (about 0.83 miles) away in Israel fired two 120 mm rounds at the reporters.

The first shell killed Abdallah, 37, and severely wounded Agence France-Presse photographer Christina Assi, 28. A Reuters investigation in December covered the institute’s preliminary finding that a tank in Israel had fired at the journalists. In its final report, the institute revealed that audio picked up by an Al Jazeera video camera at the scene showed the reporters also came under fire from 0.50 caliber rounds of the type used by the Browning machine guns that can be mounted on Israel’s Merkava tanks.

“It is considered a likely scenario that a Merkava tank, after firing two tank rounds, also used its machine gun against the location of the journalists,” the report said. “The latter cannot be concluded with certainty as the direction and exact distance of the machine gun fire could not be established.”

Reuters could not independently verify if the Israeli tank crew knew it was firing on journalists or whether it also shot at them with a machine gun and, if so, why.

Neither of the two surviving Reuters reporters nor another AFP journalist at the scene remembered the machine gun fire. All said they were in shock at the time.

The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to requests for comment on the attack. After preliminary findings were released in December, the IDF stated, “We don’t target journalists.” A day after the Reuters investigation was published, it said the incident took place in an active combat zone.

International humanitarian law prohibits attacks on journalists, granting them the same protection afforded to civilians and ruling them out as military targets.

“We condemn, in the strongest terms, the attack on a clearly identifiable group of journalists, working in the open. The attack killed our colleague Issam Abdallah and injured several others. We reiterate our calls on Israel to explain how this could have happened and to hold those responsible to account,” said Reuters Editor-in-Chief Alessandra Galloni.

AFP Global News Director Phil Chetwynd called for a thorough and transparent investigation by the Israeli military. “If reports of sustained machine gun fire are confirmed, this would add more weight to the theory this was a targeted and deliberate attack,” he said.

Ihtisham Hibatullah, Al Jazeera’s manager of international communications, urged the Israeli government to disclose the findings of its own investigation. “This incident strongly indicates intentional targeting, as confirmed by investigations, including by TNO,” he said.

Lebanon’s Minister of Information did not respond to a request for comment.

The seven journalists were wearing blue flak jackets and helmets, most with “PRESS” written on them in white letters. They had been filming cross-border shelling from a distance in an open area on a hill near the Lebanese village of Alma al-Chaab for nearly an hour before the attack.

Video footage of the aftermath also showed a black car belonging to Reuters marked “TV” in large yellow letters made out of tape on both the hood and the roof.

The report stated there was a clear line of sight from where the tank rounds were fired to the scene of the attack. Live TV feeds ahead of the attack captured audio of one or more drones and showed an Israeli helicopter overhead in some footage.

The analysis of the machine gun fire showed that the “only reasonable match” was for a 0.50 caliber weapon fired from the same distance as the tank rounds, but audio recordings were not sufficient to pinpoint the firing point.

About 30 seconds after the second tank round, there was a burst of some 25 shots from a machine gun, followed by bursts of nine and 12 shots. Just over 30 seconds later, there were three shots, then a single shot and a metallic ping, which may have been the bullet hitting a low wall near the camera, the report said.

Reuters photographer Thaier Al-Sudani, cameraman Maher Nazeh, as well as two journalists from Al Jazeera and another from AFP, were also wounded in the attack.

Several experts who reviewed the report at the request of Reuters expressed divergent views about whether the tank crew had deliberately targeted journalists.

“The TNO report does conclude that it was likely, in addition to the two tank rounds, that machine gun fire came from the same location, and that adds to the deliberateness with which they seem to have been targeted,” said Jessica Dorsey, an expert in international humanitarian law at Utrecht University. “And I think that, from a legal perspective, if this ever got to a courtroom, makes even more of a compelling argument that this was indeed a war crime,” she said.

However, Nick Kaufman, a British-Israeli lawyer and former member of the IDF Military Advocate General’s Corps, said the reasons behind the tank’s actions remained unclear. “Without a proper investigation of all the circumstances surrounding the operation and furthermore an understanding of the intelligence which underlay the deployment of the two tank rounds, it’s not possible to conclude that the IDF intended to target Reuters journalists or any journalist per se,” he said.

The day after the attack, Israel’s military said it had visuals of the incident and that it was under investigation. No results have been made public.