Gaza journalists’ families reject Israeli military’s ‘terrorist’ claims

Al Jazeera Gaza bureau chief Wael al-Dahdouh places a blue "press" helmet on the grave of his son, Al Jazeera journalist Hamza al-Dahdouh, after he was killed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip (7 January 2024)
Image caption,Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief Wael al-Dahdouh placed a “Press” helmet on the grave of his son, Hamza

By Shaimaa Khalil & David Gritten

BBC News

The families of the two Palestinian journalists killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza have rejected as “fabricated” and “false” a new claim from Israel’s military that they were “terrorists”.

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network, for whom one of the journalists worked, also condemned what it called the “false and misleading attempts to justify the killing of our colleagues”.

Hamza al-Dahdouh, an Al Jazeera journalist and cameraman, and Mustafa Thuraya, a freelance videographer, died after their car was hit in the southern city of Rafah on Sunday. A third journalist was reportedly seriously injured.

Al Jazeera said at the time that it strongly condemned the “assassination” of the journalists “whilst they were on their way to carry out their duty” during the war between Israel and Hamas.

It also accused Israel of “systematically targeting” Dahdouh’s family. His father, Wael, is the network’s Gaza bureau chief and he has now lost five members of his immediate family in Israeli strikes.

In an initial statement about Sunday’s strike, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it “identified and struck a terrorist who operated an aircraft that posed a threat to IDF troops.”

“We are aware of the reports that during the strike, two other suspects who were in the same vehicle as the terrorist were also hit,” it added.

But, when the IDF’s chief spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari was asked by US network NBC on Monday if it had evidence to support the claims, he appeared to contradict the statement.

“Every journalist that dies it’s unfortunate,” he said.

“We understand they were putting a drone, using a drone. And using a drone in a war zone, it’s a problem. It looks like the terrorists,” he added. “So we will investigate this incident and we will provide the data.”

Palestinians inspect the wreck of a car destroyed in an Israeli air strike that killed , in the city of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip (7 January 2024)
Image caption,The Israeli military said one of its aircraft targeted the operators of a “hostile drone” near Rafah

NBC also cited Al Jazeera’s managing editor Mohamed Moawad as saying that Mustafa Thuraya was a drone operator and that he was driving back to Rafah with Hamza al-Dahdouh after filming the aftermath of an air strike. He added that that they were not flying a drone while travelling.

When approached again for a response, the IDF said it had no further comment and referred the BBC to Adm Hagari’s NBC interview.

On Wednesday night, the IDF put out another statement about the incident which said an Israeli aircraft targeted the operators of a “hostile drone near Rafah” and that Palestinian media had subsequently identified them as journalists.

“However, IDF intelligence has confirmed that both the deceased were members of Gaza-based terrorist organizations actively involved in attacks against IDF forces,” it added.

It alleged that troops in Gaza had found a document that identified Mustafa Thuraya as a “member of Hamas’ Gaza City Brigade, serving as squad deputy commander in the Qadisiya Battalion”.

Troops had also found documents that showed Hamza al-Dahdouh’s “role in the Islamic Jihad’s electronic engineering unit and his previous role as a deputy commander in the Zeitoun Battalion’s Rocket Array”, it added. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is the second largest armed group in Gaza and, like Hamas, it is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the UK and others.

The IDF released a photograph of one document in Arabic that included Hamza al-Dahdouh’s name among a list of “operatives from the electronic engineering unit” of PIJ.

The image is very poor quality, making it hard to assess its authenticity independently.

However, two regional experts told BBC Verify that the use of English alongside Arabic in the document was unusual.

Erik Skare, a researcher at France’s Sciences Po university who has written a book on PIJ, said: “I regularly visited the website of the al-Quds Brigades… I have read their martyr biographies, their books etc, and I have never seen the combination of English and Arabic text.”

The IDF did not provide other photo or video evidence about Hamza al-Dahdouh, nor did it release any of the documents that it said showed Mustafa Thuraya’s alleged links to Hamas.

The BBC asked the IDF to share further evidence, but it said: “At this point we have nothing to add.”

Fellow journalists mourn over the body of Mustafa Thuraya after he was killed in an Israeli air strike, at his funeral in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip (7 January 2024)
Image caption,Mustafa Thuraya’s cousin said he was “known among journalists for his work” as a videographer

Asked to comment on the allegations, Hamza al-Dahdouh’s family told the BBC on Thursday: “It is clear that these are Israeli fabrications in an attempt to defend themselves and justify the targeting of Hamza and the journalists and divert the issue from its track to make it appear that it is not targeting journalists.”

“Israel is under international pressure and from the American administration. Israel wants to divert attention and create pretexts,” it added.

“Hamza has been working as a journalist for many years, and during this war he was doing his journalistic work and was displaced with his colleagues and family like other Palestinians.”

Mustafa Thuraya’s cousin also told the AFP news agency that the IDF’s claim was “false”.

“He was an ambitious and professional young man who was known among journalists for his work,” Mohammed Thuraya said, adding that his cousin had sold photos and videos taken with his drone to local and international news outlets.

Al Jazeera Media Network said in a statement sent to the BBC that it “strongly condemns and wholly rejects – and indeed expresses its very considerable surprise at – the Israeli army’s false and misleading attempts to justify the killing of our colleague Hamza Wael al-Dahdouh and other journalists”.

“[Hamza al-Dahdouh] was killed simply for doing his job and for shining a light on events that the Israeli army would rather stayed in the dark and hidden from scrutiny,” it added.

“Al Jazeera rejects all accusations made against our journalists and calls on the international community to ensure that the IDF is held fully accountable for its crimes.”

Hamza al-Dahdouh (on the right) and his father Wael al-Dahdouh
Image caption,Hamza al-Dahdouh (on the right) and his father Wael al-Dahdouh

Hamza was the eldest son of Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, Wael al-Dahdouh.

Wael’s wife, Amna, his one-year-old grandson Adam, his 15-year-old son Mahmoud and seven-year-old daughter Sham were killed in an Israeli strike in central Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp in October – a place they had gone to flee the fighting in the north.

Wael was injured in an Israeli drone strike in December that killed his colleague, Al Jazeera cameraman Samer Abudaqa. The pair had been covering the Israeli bombardment at a UN school sheltering displaced people in the southern city of Khan Younis.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called for an independent investigation into the strike.

At least 79 journalists and media workers – 72 Palestinians, four Israelis and three Lebanese – have been killed since the start of the war, according to the group.

The conflict was triggered by an unprecedented cross-border attack by Hamas gunmen on southern Israel on 7 October, in which at least 1,300 people were killed – most of them civilians – and about 240 others taken hostage.

More than 23,400 people have been killed in Gaza – mostly children and women – during the 13 weeks of fighting since then, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

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