Forbidden Stories
Gaza Project

Death from Above: How Israeli Drones Are Killing Journalists in Gaza

Israel says it takes strict precautions to avoid civilian casualties in its use of unmanned aerial vehicles. But a pattern has emerged of journalists in Gaza being hit by Israeli drones. Since October 7, at least 18 media personnel appear to have been the victim of drone strikes.

(Visual : Mélody Da Fonseca)

Key findings
  • At least 18 journalists have been injured or killed by alleged drone strikes since October 7; four were wearing press vests and clearly identifiable as journalists
  • Lavender, an artificial intelligence–based program used to generate a kill list, has served as a blueprint for signature drone strikes since October 7
  • Drones provide technological means to avoid civilian casualties but are being used in a larger strategy of disproportionate response against civilians, including journalists

By Mariana Abreu

June 25, 2024

With Aïda Delpuech and Eloïse Layan

Additional reporting by Walid Batrawi; Phineas Rueckert, Sofía Álvarez Jurado, Youssr Youssef (FS); Hoda Osman (ARIJ); Yuval Abraham (+972); Arthur Carpentier and Madjid Zerrouky (Le Monde); Maria Christoph, Maria Retter, Dajana Kollig, Christo Buschek (PTM);

On the afternoon of January 22, four journalists climbed a small hill in Tal Al-Zaatar, in northern Gaza. Anas Al-Sharif, Mahmoud Shalha, Emad Ghaboun and Mahmoud Sabbah – some of the few remaining journalists in the region – had been reporting on the famine that has gripped Gaza since the Israeli offensive began last fall, following Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attacks on Israeli soil. They were searching for an internet signal to transmit videos to their editors when a blast knocked the group to the ground.

In a cloud of smoke, Al-Sharif, who was wearing a press vest and suffered minor injuries to his back, bolted toward his colleagues, now lying in the blood-stained rubble. Ghaboun had to be carried to a nearby hospital in the scoop of a bulldozer. (A civilian lost his life in the same attack.) 

Journalists present said they recall a “surveillance drone” targeting them; although we were unable to obtain real-time footage of the strike, a video Al-Sharif took in the aftermath of the attack, which was analyzed by experts, corroborates the presence of a drone.

(TW) Video of the aftermath of the Tal Al-Zaatar strike, on Anas Al-Sharif’s X account.

For four months, a team of 50 journalists coordinated by Forbidden Stories investigated the wounding and killing by Israeli forces of more than 100 media personnel in Gaza. While the Israeli military claims that it doesn’t deliberately target journalists, our findings suggest that at least 18 media workers were reportedly killed or wounded by precision strikes likely launched from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in violation of the laws of war. Four were wearing press vests and were identifiable as journalists. Tal Al-Zaatar is just one case in what appears to be part of a pattern.

Under international humanitarian law, armies must distinguish between combatants and noncombatants, and direct attacks only at military targets. Intentionally targeting civilians, including reporters, is a war crime. Even if a military objective is legitimate, the attack must not cause excessive civilian casualties, injuries, or damage out of proportion with the expected military gain.

Drones, experts agree, have the technological capabilities to minimize casualties. During an 11-day Israeli military campaign against Hamas in 2021, for example, UAVs enabled “real-time cancellation” of air strikes that endangered civilian lives, according to an analysis published by Israeli military researcher Dr. Liran Antebi in 2022. The current pattern, therefore, raises a central question: how could so many journalists be killed by UAVs?

Drones carry smaller explosives than fighter jets and can hit a target surgically, “within a foot of wherever we’re shining our laser,” Brandon Bryant, a former U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant said. “You can take a look around, check there are no civilians nearby … and avoid the backlash that comes with blowing up too many civilians,” a French drone expert, who asked to remain anonymous, told Forbidden Stories.

Still, that day in Tal Al-Zaatar, something detonated “in the middle of our group,” Al-Sharif said. Analyzing the footage for Forbidden Stories, Bryant concluded the distinctive buzzing sound in Al-Sharif’s video is “definitely a drone. I’ll never forget that sound.” 

More precisely, he said, it’s a “prop engine, low flying, slow-moving” vehicle. Bryant’s assessment was backed by a German drone and defense researcher, who spoke to the consortium anonymously. “The sound in the background does resemble the one made by UAVs using piston engines, or turboprops.” 

Forbidden Stories worked with audio research agency Earshot to conduct forensic audio analyses of videos collected by the consortium; our findings indicate that the Israeli military currently uses both turboprop and piston engine drones in Gaza for reconnaissance and strikes.

The blast’s aftermath, Bryant added, suggests the use of a low-impact missile, which drones usually carry. “If they were dropping bombs through fighters or F-16s, they would be obliterating these people. There would be no survivors,” he told Forbidden Stories. “I’m very confident that this is a drone strike.” (According to open-source intelligence collected by Forbidden Stories, all surrounding infrastructure had been destroyed before the strike, ruling out the possibility that the missile was aimed at nearby buildings.) 

(The Israeli military, according to a spokesperson, said it is not aware of any strikes made at these coordinates in January.)

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“The IDF targets with a strong degree of knowledge of who it’s killing”

While some experts praise drones for their precision, others argue that striking a target surgically doesn’t always mean hitting a legal or appropriate target. “Precision could mean avoiding civilian lives, or it could mean targeting civilians; a precision strike just means the guaranteed destruction of a target you hit,” James Rogers, a drone expert at Cornell University, said. “We live in a very proliferated drone world with a range of state and non-state groups, some who want to reduce the costs of war and some who want to maximize damage.”

Signals are an essential part of drone target acquisition; online activity can be intercepted, revealing a person’s location, according to experts. Drone strikes are then often aimed at phones. “Drone warfare operates in an ecosystem of signal intelligence and communications infrastructure, so the IDF… strike targets with a strong degree of knowledge of who it’s killing,” Khalil Dewan, lawyer and drone warfare researcher, explained. “For drone warfare, mobile phones, cell-SIM cards, using certain social media apps with locational settings, and live-streaming exposes one to the mapping of targets,” he added

In the same way that people have senses – they hear, see, and smell – a drone has onboard sensors and a radio link that transfers the collected data to a ground station, which then identifies the target. Infrared cameras and electro-optical sensors also allow for visual confirmation of the target, provided the weather conditions are favorable, or the drone is flying low enough

Bryant, who used to operate the now-retired MQ-1B Predator drone, points out visibility was already clear in the early 2010s. While it isn’t possible to make out facial details, “we definitely got in close enough where we could see detail on clothing. I would say camera definition has gone up since,” he explained. “You can see the size of a person, you can tell from his walk whether it’s male or female, whether he’s fat or thin,” said an Israeli military source who worked with UAVs.

(TW) Leaked footage from an Israeli drone, aired by Al Jazeera, shows a series of Israeli strikes on a group of seemingly unarmed Palestinians in the Khan Younis area, illustrating the clear image quality and zoom capabilities of some drone models used by Israel.

With some drone models used by the Israeli military, visibility is clear enough that a drone operator could see a press vest, experts told Forbidden Stories. “Under no condition could one imagine soldiers having permission to shoot at a person who clearly carries the sign of press … and did not take part in any hostilities,” said Asa Kasher, who drafted the 1994 IDF Code of Ethics.

“I’m sure he filmed until the end”

On December 15, Samer Abu Daqqa, a 45-year-old Al Jazeera cameraman and father of four, was filming the destruction in central Khan Younis with friend and colleague Wael Al-Dahdouh, one of Gaza’s most revered journalists. Abu Daqqa and Al-Dahdouh, both wearing press vests, accompanied a Civil Defense crew – a unit of first responders and firemen. As they finished reporting and returned to the crew’s vehicles, they were hit by what witnesses, independent organizations and Al Jazeera alleged was a drone strike.  “I fell to the ground,” Al-Dahdouh told Al Jazeera Arabic from his hospital bed. “I could barely stand, I felt dizzy, and I was expecting a second missile to hit at any moment.”

When he looked around, he saw that three members of the Civil Defense crew had been killed. A little farther lay a wounded – but alive – Abu Daqqa. Bleeding from his right arm, Al-Dahdouh managed to reach the Civil Defense vehicles hundreds of meters away. “I asked the ambulance men to go back for Samer, but they said we had to leave immediately and send another car to avoid being targeted,” Al-Dahdouh told Al Jazeera. Drones, he said, were all around them. 

After ambulances were blocked from reaching Abu Daqqa for over five hours, rescuers arrived on site.  Bilal Hamdan, a first responder, recounted how a colleague “found Samer Abu Daqqa’s body torn to pieces.” Civil Defense rescuers concluded that he was hit by at least two strikes. They also found Abu Daqqa’s press vest leaning against a wall. “For us, this was evidence he was alive at first, that he took off the jacket because it was heavy.”

Funeral of Al Jazeera cameraman Samer Abu Daqqa, killed while on assignment on December 15, 2023

“I’m sure that he filmed until the end” Ibrahim Qanan, a colleague and friend of Abu Daqqa’s, said. “He was such a professional, and the sweetest person,” adding that his camera was totally destroyed in the attack. (An Israeli military spokesperson said Abu Daqqa’s case is being examined internally.) 

Al Jazeera confirmed it is presenting Abu Daqqa’s case to the International Criminal Court (ICC), requesting the prosecutor probe the case as a possible war crime and crime against humanity. Lawyer Rodney Dixon said Al Jazeera has seen no evidence of military necessity to target the group, and that “therefore it amounts to the deliberate targeting of civilian journalists.” 

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“A strategy of disproportionate response”

For lawyer and researcher Khalil Dewan, Israel’s drone warfare is highly troubling. “It’s a legal obligation to exercise distinction between combatants and non-combatants,” he said, “and while the IDF claim to be the most moral army in the world, that is subject to debate given the media reporting on a colossal level of civilian casualties.”

Reporting by the consortium, backed by several drone experts, found the IDF has all the technological and military capabilities to avoid collateral damage when targeting, which they have done “many times,” a French expert on AI and military technology, who requested anonymity, told the consortium. “But right now, that’s just not the political will. The political will is actually a strategy of disproportionate response.”

As revealed by +972, a partner in this project, the Israeli military has expanded authorization for bombing nonmilitary targets and loosened constraints on civilian casualties since October. It is also using several artificial intelligence systems to generate targets. Lavender, an artificial intelligence–based program used to generate a kill list of over 37,000 people, has served as a blueprint for signature drone strikes since October 7, the consortium found

Reporting by +972 and Local Call found that Lavender’s method of identifying targets for assassination involves rating almost the entire Palestinian population in Gaza based on certain characteristics that supposedly make them more likely to be a militant. According to a book written by the head of Israel’s elite intelligence division Unit 8200, who pioneered the army’s use of AI, relevant characteristics could include being in a Whatsapp group with a known militant, changing cell phones and addresses frequently.

An Israeli military intelligence source, who asked to remain anonymous, told the consortium that while he has no proof of Lavender marking journalists as targets, it is “possible” that the program would mistakenly identify journalists as Hamas operatives. In one case the source had personal knowledge of, he said, a journalist was “almost killed.”  Several other sources said they were not aware of the Israeli military having a list of Palestinian journalists in Gaza to vet and filter out any who appear in AI-generated kill lists. 

“There are journalists who talk a lot with Hamas officials or militants,” another Israeli military source told the consortium. “It is likely for a journalist in Gaza to be in [Hamas] WhatsApp groups, and that the journalist would call them. So it makes sense that Lavender might label him as a Hamas militant.” 

Such mistakes have happened in the past. In the early 2010s, a leaked NSA document revealed the U.S. government mistakenly labelled Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, Al Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief, as an Al-Qaeda courier, placing him on a list of alleged terrorists. The document referred to SKYNET, an AI system that analyzes people’s metadata to detect suspicious “patterns of behaviour.” Identified targets were then allegedly executed in signature drone strikes

Like the Israeli military, the U.S. government insisted there was always a human in the loop. But according to Jennifer Gibson, a human rights lawyer familiar with Zaidan’s case, the system is so flawed that “whether the human hits the button is irrelevant if the computer picked the target.”

(When asked if any of the journalists hit by drone strikes were on the Lavender kill lists, an Israeli forces spokesperson said, “The IDF does not use artificial intelligence systems to identify military operatives.”)

“Diffusion of responsibility”

On November 13, Ahmed Fatima, a photographer for Al-Qahera News who worked for Press House Palestine, a nonprofit supporting independent Palestinian media, was shot dead by an Israeli drone while holding his wounded 6-year-old son 50 meters outside his house, according to witnesses. Fatima was trying to rush his child to the hospital after their house was bombed, his widow said

A few months later, on February 24, Abdallah Al Hajj, 34, was the victim of a drone strike that killed two other people. A photojournalist for UNRWA and the Jerusalem-based Al Quds, Al Hajj was one of the first journalists to document large-scale destruction in Gaza, thanks to his small quadcopter drone. His pictures were shared worldwide.

That day, he said, after filming in a displacement camp called Al-Shati, “I put my drone away and headed towards some fishermen. The second I asked for the price, I was targeted.” Now, he is undergoing treatment in Qatar, where members of the consortium interviewed him. “I was unconscious for three days,” he said from his hospital bed in Doha. Both of his legs were amputated above his knees.

The day after the attack, images that match the strike on Al Hajj were published by the Israeli military on X

(An Israeli military spokesperson said the attacks, respectively, were targeting “a Hamas terrorist infrastructure and military operative,” and “a terrorist cell using a drone.”)

“It shouldn’t happen, even a single one,” Kasher, the author of the Israeli military code of ethics, told Forbidden Stories. “No member of the press should have been killed under normal circumstances of hostilities in Gaza. It’s illegal. It’s unethical. The person who does it should be brought to court.” 

Accountability, however, is unlikely with drone warfare, Lisa Ling, former U. S. technical sergeant on drone surveillance systems, told Forbidden Stories in an interview. “There’s a diffusion of responsibility, where people have so little information, and there’s so many pieces that come into firing a drone, that, who is actually responsible would be hard to ascertain?”

An Israeli military spokesperson said, no airstrikes are “conducted without oversight, approval, and final execution by IDF officers,”  and that “The IDF directs its strikes only towards military targets and military operatives and carries out strikes in accordance with the rules of proportionality and precautions in attacks.”

When drafting the rules for targeted killings in the early 2000s, the IDF International Law Department stipulated that only individuals taking direct part in hostilities could be targeted. “The logic was, ‘I’m going to use it sparingly, against the most high-level people, only when I have no alternative,’” Gabriella Blum, who was involved in drafting these guidelines, told The Intercept in 2018. “That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.”

(TW) Wael Al-Dahdouh’s press vest displayed by one of his colleagues, following the attack that killed Samer Abu Daqqa in Khan Younis (link)

“I find it kind of nauseating to think that people could actually get used to” the constant presence of drones overhead, Ling told Forbidden Stories. “In the air, when you have a weaponized drone flying over you for an excessive amount of time, that is terror.” 

Since being hit, several journalists have told the consortium they’re now afraid to wear their press vests. Some keep them concealed in their bags, wearing them only when the cameras are rolling. And Ghaboun, now recovered, feels “the protective vest itself has become a means to target you, more than a means to protect you.”

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