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Israeli tank fire killed Reuters journalist in October attack, CNN analysis suggests

Israeli tank fire killed Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah and injured six other international journalists in a double strike in southern Lebanon on October 13, forensic analysis by CNN suggests, confirming reports by two news organizations and two human rights groups.

On Thursday, Reuters, AFP, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released investigations into the circumstances of the deadly strike. AFP and HRW claimed the strike was a “deliberate,” targeted attack by Israel on the journalists. In a statement to Reuters, Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Richard Hecht said: “We don’t target journalists.” He did not provide further comment, the news agency reported.

The Israel Defense Forces on Friday said that the October incident in which a Reuters journalist was killed is still “under review.”

AFP photographer Christina Assi had her leg amputated and remains in the hospital as a result of the strike, according to AFP.

Eylon Levy, a spokesperson for the Israeli government, said Thursday that he was “not familiar” with the new reports. “The guiding principle in Israel’s campaign against Hamas is we uphold the principles of international law regarding proportionality, necessity, distinction,” he said. “We target Hamas, we do not target civilians.”

CNN’s forensic analysis of multiple videos, including a live AFP video feed from the time and place of the attack, has determined that the two strikes – 37 seconds apart – that hit the journalists was a supersonic event that came from the direction of Israel.

Israel and Hezbollah were engaged in intense crossfire across the Lebanon-Israel border at the time.

CNN has also seen a photo from the scene of the attack showing the tail fin of a 120 mm tank shell. The photo was verified by a source familiar with the investigation.

Neither the Lebanese army nor the Iran-backed Hezbollah are known to have such ammunition in their arsenal.

“That is a 120mm high explosive tank shell. Very clearly high explosive and not a different type of shell,” said Marc Garlasco, a former defense intelligence analyst and UN war crimes investigator, who saw the photo obtained by CNN as well as video of the aftermath of the attack. “(Aftermath video is) very indicative of a direct fire munition and matches with the 120 fragments.”

“The shooter should have seen the journalists from the tank,” he added.

British weapons expert Chris Cobb-Smith said the photograph of the remnants of the shell clearly showed an “expended tank round.”

“Two projectiles hit the area of the media crews and from the damage to the wall, the location where Issam’s body ended up and from an analysis of the second crater, I believe the shots came from the area of the high ground just over the border,” said Cobb-Smith, referring to a foot-high wall seen in aftermath video near Abdallah’s body. Cobb-Smith said his analysis of the damage left by the projectile suggested that the attack came from a southeasterly direction.

CNN also consulted with audio expert Robert Maher, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Montana State University.

Maher determined that the attack was likely a “supersonic event” due to the absence of an “approaching whoosh or whine, as you might see with artillery fire.”

Cobb-Smith’s theory that the shells travelled from the southeast would be consistent of the findings of the investigations released Thursday.

Hours after the attack on October 13, CNN reported that the journalists attacked were wearing clearly labelled press flak jackets. It also reported that an Israeli Apache helicopter was seen over the site of the attack around the time of the attack, according to a Lebanese security source, which would have given Israeli forces added visibility over the journalists.

Israeli surveillance towers are seen in video of the attack, raising further doubt that Israel had not realized the tank crew was attacking journalists.

‘Under review’

In its statement Friday, the IDF said, “On October 13, 2023, the terrorist organization Hezbollah launched an attack on multiple targets within Israeli territory along the Lebanese border,” the IDF said in a statement. “One incident involved the firing of an anti-tank missile, which struck the border fence near the village Hanita.”

CNN reported that exchange of fire at the time of the incident.

“Following the launch of the anti-tank missile, concerns arose over the potential infiltration of terrorists into Israeli territory. In response, the IDF used artillery and tank fire to prevent the infiltration. The IDF is aware of the claim that journalists who were in the area were killed,” the statement continued.

“The area is an active combat zone, where active fire takes place and being in this area is dangerous. The incident is currently under review,” the IDF said.

IDF spokesperson Richard Hecht on October 14 called Abdallah’s death “a tragic thing,” without naming him directly or acknowledging Israel’s involvement. The same day, the IDF said: “A report was received that during the incident, journalists were injured in the area. The incident is under review.”

Speaking Thursday in Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Abdallah’s death should be investigated. Blinken said it was his understanding that Israel had begun such an investigation and stressed the importance of seeing it through.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said earlier that the agency had not conducted its own assessment of Abdallah’s death but it continued to urge Israel to protect innocent civilians, including members of the press.

Al Jazeera has accused Israel’s military of “deliberately targeting the journalists to silence the media,” saying the attacks are a part of “a pattern of ‘repeated atrocities’ against journalists.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists also said the results of the investigations by Reuters, AFP, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch were in alignment with its own findings that show a “pattern of lethal force” by the Israeli military against journalists over the past 22 years.

The press freedoms group had documented at least 20 journalist killings by the IDF since 2001, it said in a report released May 2023. “The vast majority – 18 – were Palestinian. No one has ever been charged or held accountable for these deaths,” the report said.

Fatma Kanso, the mother of Issam Abdallah, a Reuters videojournalist who was killed in southern Lebanon, mourns over her son's body during his funeral in his hometown of Al Khiyam, Lebanon, on October 14. - Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Fatma Kanso, the mother of Issam Abdallah, a Reuters videojournalist who was killed in southern Lebanon, mourns over her son's body during his funeral in his hometown of Al Khiyam, Lebanon, on October 14. - Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

‘Deliberate and targeted’

Amnesty International’s investigation did not find “any indication that there were any fighters or military objectives at the site of the strikes.”

“Israeli forces had observation towers, ground elements, and air assets deployed to closely monitor the border. All of this should have provided sufficient information to Israeli forces that these were journalists and civilians and not a military target,” Amnesty said in its report.

“Our investigation into the incident uncovers chilling evidence pointing to an attack on a group of international journalists who were carrying out their work by reporting on hostilities. Direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks are absolutely prohibited by international humanitarian law and can amount to war crimes,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“The strikes were deliberate and targeted,” AFP said in its report. AFP global news director Phil Chetwynd said in the report, “AFP has been very clear that we will take all judicial avenues that we deem relevant and possible to ensure that we can get justice for Christina and Issam.”

Dylan Collins, a journalist with AFP who survived the attack, told CNN it was “hard not to see it as a deliberate strike.”

Collins, AFP’s Lebanon/Syria video coordinator, recounted what started as a “pretty quiet day,” describing how teams of Reuters and AFP journalists, all wearing flak jackets, helmets with press written across them, moved toward a plume of smoke after hearing “loud bangs” along the Lebanon-Israel border.

“The Israelis had drones in the air the entire time. And I imagine you know with their state-of-the-art surveillance capabilities, they could see our faces, they probably knew which channels we were working for… At around 6:02 that evening, we were struck directly,” Collins added.

“It was two strikes 37 seconds apart, almost in the same exact location on a group of journalists, seven journalists all wearing press vests and helmets,” Collins said.

The AFP journalist paid tribute to Abdallah, describing him as the “beating heart of the press scene” in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

Speaking of AFP colleague Assi, who sustained “devastating” injuries from the strikes, Collins said, “she’s bled more than any human should bleed.”

CNN’s Niamh Kennedy and Kareem El Damanhoury contributed to this report.

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