Al-Aqsa TV: terrorists or journalists?

If you work for Hamas TV, are you terrorist or journalist?

This is not a theoretical question. On Nov. 19, during’s Israel’s operation in Gaza, the Israeli military fired a missile at a car labeled TV, killing the occupants. There is some dispute about the identity of the passengers.

The Israel Defense Forces said one of those killed was "Muhammed Shamalah, commander of Hamas forces in the southern Strip and head of the Hamas militant training programs." The IDF noted that he "was targeted by an Israeli air strike while driving a car clearly labelled ‘TV’, indicating it to be a press vehicle, abusing the protection afforded to journalists."

Other media reports identified two men killed in the strike as Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama, who worked for Al-Aqsa TV, a Hamas-run TV station. It appears that Shamalah and Salama are two variations of the same person. Another Israeli missile strike killed Mohamed Abu Aisha. Carr identifies him as "director of the private Al-Quds Educational Radio," but the Elder of Ziyon blog notes that he’s a member of Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group.

There are a couple of issues here. One is whether a terrorist or terrorists indeed were masquerading as journalists to escape justice — and whether other passengers in the car were abetting them.

Another is whether men who work for a TV station run by a terrorist organization and devoted to propaganda qualify as terrorists or journalists.

In his column Monday in The New York Times devoted to this incident ("Using War as Cover to Target Journalists"), David Carr dodges these questions almost entirely by simply ignoring the evidence suggesting the occupants included terrorists. He writes:

…three employees of news organizations were killed in Gaza by Israeli missiles. Rather than suggesting it was a mistake, or denying responsibility, an Israeli Defense Forces spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, told The Associated Press, “The targets are people who have relevance to terror activity.”

So it has come to this: killing members of the news media can be justified by a phrase as amorphous as “relevance to terror activity.”

Tablet’s Adam Chandler takes Carr to task for getting the story wrong by ignoring the fact there actually were bona fide terrorists in the vehicle.

Carr had decided to go fishing for a story about journalists who had been targeted in Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense. As someone who followed the war closely, I assumed that his unnerving search would yield little results; after all, for a mind as insightful and sharply tuned to nuance as Carr’s, I wouldn’t have expected him to bite on a story that wasn’t true. But he did.

The Elder of Ziyon blog calls Carr’s column slander.

 It doesn’t even cross his mind that the ‘journalists’ themselves are actually militants. In the case of Mohamed Abu Aisha, he clearly was a uniform-wearing member of Islamic Jihad [photo attached]. Islamic Jihad doesn’t describe him as a journalist, but as an instructor for the Mujahideen of Al-Quds Brigades in Deir al-Balah Battalion Brigade.

The Washington Free Beacon notes that the U.S. State Department considers Al-Aqsa TV a terrorist organization.

Carr defended his column in an email interview with BuzzFeed:

"The three men who died in missile strikes in cars on Nov. 20 were identified by Reuters, AP, AFP, and Washington Post and many other news outlets as journalists," Carr told BuzzFeed in an email. "The Committee to Protect Journalists, which I treat as a reliable, primary source in these matters, identified them as journalists. (as did Reporters without Borders.)"

"I ran my column by reporters and editors at our shop familiar with current events in the region before I printed it," Carr said. "And I don’t believe that an ID made by the IDF is dispostive or obviates what the others said. Doesn’t mean that I could not have gotten it wrong, only that the evidence so far suggests that they were journalists, however partisan."

Aside from Carr’s apparent factual errors, perhaps the most aggravating thing for critics was Carr’s setup. The column opens with a scene at the gala dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalists and at first appears to be about governments that specifically target journalists. Think Russia, Syria, China. But, no. It’s actually a story about Israel.

Carr concludes:

The more important principle at work is whether governments in the Middle East and elsewhere will succeed in shaping or silencing different points of view by training missiles and bullets on journalists. If they do, the battle for the truth will disappear into the fog of war.

Or, the fog of The New York Times.

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