Forbidden Stories
Gaza Project

Samer Abu Daqqa’s final reporting trip, amid the ruins of Khan Younis

On December 15, 2023, Samer Abu Daqqa and Wael Al Dahdouh were reporting for Al Jazeera in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. While being accompanied by Civil Defense rescue workers, they were hit by Israeli fire. Abu Daqqa and three other people were killed. All footage was lost. Through testimonies and an open-source investigation, we retraced the day of their final reporting trip.

(Visual : Mélody Da Fonseca)

Key findings
  • Samer Abu Daqqa had just been filming near the Farhana school when he was hit by an alleged Israeli drone strike. We managed to interview one of the first responders on the scene, who says Abu Daqqa was hit by  more than one strike.
  • We found a former student of the school, Ruaa, aged 17 and now displaced to Rafah. Since the start of the war, her brother and sister have been killed. She doesn’t know what has become of her classmates.
  • The Civil Defense was on a mission to recover an excavator stuck in the courtyard of the school. Through the analysis of publicly available images, we located the machine three months later.
  • Khan Younis, a city of 400,000 inhabitants before the war, is now reduced to ruins. The Farhana school’s road has been nearly 75% destroyed.
  • An Israeli military spokesperson said Abu Daqqa’s case is being examined internally. Al Jazeera and Reporters Without Borders referred the case to the International Criminal Court.

By Eloïse Layan

June 25, 2024

with Walid Batrawi and Youssr Youssef

When journalists Samer Abu Daqqa and Wael Al-Dahdouh arrived at the end of Al-Zeini Road in the city center of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, the Farhana school for girls had been deserted. As elsewhere in the Gaza Strip, classes had ceased on October 7. In the first days of Israel’s war on Gaza, following Hamas’ terror attacks on Israeli soil, the school’s Facebook account posted safety instructions, followed by the names of a teacher and a student who had become early fatalities of the war. Then, the account went silent.

On December 15, the school buildings were still standing, their exteriors tinted the same shades of yellow and dark red that are typical of public schools in Gaza. The solar panels once mounted to one building’s roof had disappeared, and a sea of rubble surrounded the Farhana grounds. The Al Jazeera journalists began packing up their equipment to head home. The school had been their final shooting location, after having spent two hours filming around the neighborhood.

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Just a few meters outside of Farhana, the team was hit by a strike, which Al Jazeera claims came from a drone. Civil Defense employees Nour Saqr and Hosni Nabhan – part of a unit of rescue workers and firefighters that reports to the Hamas Ministry of Interior – had been accompanying the journalists and were reportedly killed instantly, according to Wael Al Dahdouh. So, too, was Rami Bdear, a videographer for the Ministry of Interior who was documenting the Civil Defense’s work that day. Because Rami Bdear was also a correspondent for the Palestinian outlet New Press, his death has sometimes been counted among journalist deaths. Some of his Facebook posts are openly pro-Hamas. (Hamas is described by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.)

Wael Al-Dahdouh, Al Jazeera’s  Gaza Bureau Chief and a leading figure in Palestinian journalism, was wounded in the arm.

In his testimonies to Al Jazeera, Al-Dahdouh recounted having seen the men’s bodies “in pieces.” He also said he saw his colleague Abu Daqqa – a 45-year-old cameraman with a 20-year career at Al Jazeera, as well as a wife and four children in Belgium – seriously injured in the area of his legs, but still alive. “I saw that he could move his head, but couldn’t get up,” he recalled. “There was nothing I could do.”

Al-Dahdouh was bleeding and fearful of further strikes. On foot, he made it across the hundreds of meters separating him from the Civil Defense vehicles in which the team had arrived earlier. He was rushed to Nasser Hospital.

Yazan Abu Daqqa’s tribute to his father Samer Abu Daqqa on instagram.

It wasn’t until five hours later that the Civil Defense was able to return for Abu Daqqa, after an excruciating wait for the Israeli military’s green light. By then, night had already fallen, and the rescuers called out Abu Daqqa’s name as they scanned the area with their flashlights. They found his bulletproof vest marked “press” against a wall, as if he had discarded it. Then, a few meters farther, his body. 

For the rescuers, this – in addition to the multiple wounds they found – was evidence that Abu Daqqa had managed to crawl several meters before being hit by a second missile or missile shrapnel. According to a relative of Abu Daqqa who saw his body, he had been hit in the left leg, the right eye (as corroborated by public photos of his face), and the right flank. His camera was destroyed, and his footage lost, one of his journalist colleagues told us.

For four months, Forbidden Stories and its media partners have investigated the deaths of more than 100 journalists in Gaza. We have also endeavored to relay their final reporting projects. The following is Abu Daqqa’s.

Al-Zeini street, Farhana school on the left, before the war

“Nobody had been able to film these neighborhoods yet”

In the late morning of December 15, the team met at the newly relocated Civil Defense headquarters near Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis. According to a witness from the Civil Defense, Abu Daqqa and Al Dahdouh put on their helmets and bulletproof vests, and had hoped to “film the destruction” at the city center. The team left at midday for Block 49, which was included in a map of evacuation zones posted to X (formerly Twitter) more than 10 days earlier by Lieutenant-Colonel Avichay Adraee, the Israeli military’s spokesperson for Arab media. Accompanying the map was the caption, “Dear residents of Gaza…. Obeying the evacuation instructions is the safest way to preserve your safety, your lives, and the lives of your families.”

Since December 1, several Israeli military units have been deployed in the city of Khan Younis. Satellite images from the morning of December 15 taken around 9:30 a.m.  show a plume of smoke – the hallmark of an explosion, according to several analysts – 700 meters from the journalists’ filming location, three hours before their arrival.

Israeli military describes Khan Younis as “the center of gravity of Hamas and a military and authoritarian symbol in which its senior military and political leaders were raised.” The head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, against whom the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested an arrest warrant on May 20, 2024, is himself a Khan Younis native. For the Al Jazeera team, it was crucial to get to the heart of the city, after it had endured fifteen days of fighting and bombing. And they were the first to do so.

“Nobody had been able to film these neighborhoods yet,” explained Al-Dahdouh from his hospital bed on the day of the tragedy. “Since the start of ground operations, not even the Civil Defense and the first aid crews have had access.”

The next day, on December 16, he added, “We wanted to show the world images never seen before … And indeed, we captured truly terrifying, unprecedented images of destruction.” According to Al-Dahdouh, the Civil Defense claimed at the time the mission had been coordinated and approved by the Israeli military. However, the Civil Defense told us that it was not involved in organizing the mission. Forbidden Stories and its partners were not able to establish whether the Israeli military was informed of the journalists’ arrival. 

To get to the shoot location, the Al Jazeera journalists set off in two vehicles marked with the Civil Defense logo. When they arrived at Al-Zeini Road, near the popular ice cream and fruit juice shop Rummana Refreshments, they found their passage blocked. Al-Dahdouh and Abu Daqqa, with their colleagues Nour Saqr, Hosni Nhaban, and Rami Bdear decided to continue on foot. As they advanced, the first ruins appeared. The Palestinian Production Bank building had been razed, targeted in a strike filmed live on October 11. It was in front of this bank that Abu Daqqa’s body would later be found, according to rescue worker Bilal Hamdan.

During a flash mob at Farhana school in 2020, students draw the word “Palestine.” (a similar flashmob also took place in 2022).

The team pushed on until reaching the Farhana school, just a few meters ahead of the town hall. There are lots of photos of the school before the war, with its stretches of lawn and its green and red basketball court in the courtyard. There’s also a video of a flashmob, which shows students marching onto the courtyard and forming the word “Palestine,” some of them carrying their state’s flag. Another video captures the time “the students became the teachers” for a day, as a teenage girl with a pink scarf explains to the camera. We tracked down this student and reached her by telephone. Her name is Ruaa, 17 years old and displaced to Rafah at the time we spoke to her. During a call on April 22, she told us about the “adventure” of studying at the Farhana school, and described it as “one of the most beautiful periods of my life … As for the flashmob, we wanted to show the world that we care about our country, which is occupied by Israel.” 

Ruaa also tells us about the waste of “that lost year” when she was finishing her studies in science. Her brother and sister were killed when her home was bombed on the afternoon of October 18. She is now in contact with only two of her classmates, and doesn’t know what has become of the others. Communication has been too difficult, especially since she lost her telephone and can only dial numbers she knows by heart. As for her neighborhood and school, she hasn’t been back, but has seen photos. “Everything has been destroyed, and it’s hard to recognize places,” she said. “I had very good memories, but now the school is a reminder of a bombing that killed Samer Abu Daqqa and wounded Wael Al-Dahdouh.”

Recovering an excavator from the school courtyard

In Gaza, construction equipment is sorely lacking. Abu Daqqa and Al-Dahdouh’s mission took them specifically to the Farhana school because the Civil Defense wanted to recover an excavator stuck in its courtyard. That digger is the last thing Abu Daqqa filmed. In addition to being a rescue worker, Nour Saqr was also a mechanic, and he would be able to examine the machine. 

“Over the last few days, he had been telling me about the difficulties he’d been encountering, the lack of equipment needed to get bodies out of the rubble,” Saqr’s brother told us from Greece, where he has lived for seven years. 

Barely a week before his death, on December 7, 2023, Rami Bdear, the Ministry of Interior videographer accompanying the team, made the same observation in an interview with journalist Ibrahim Qanan from Alghad TV. “Our fellow citizens think that the Civil Defense is powerful and that we’re able to carry out our work,” he said. “But we have only our arms!”

In a report published in 2017, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indeed reported equipment restrictions imposed by Israel, and said that the Civil Defense’s operational capacity “seems to have declined by 60% since 2008 in Gaza.” For its part, the European Union has supplied vehicles to the relief organization – for example, to the West Bank in 2015. However, it has not extended the same aid to Gaza since 2007, when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. Muhammad Al-Mughair, director of supply and equipment for the Civil Defense in Gaza, assured us, “We needed this excavator” from the Farhana school.

Farhana School, March 8, 2024, and the excavator stuck in the rubble (Credit: HassanEslaiah / Post Instagram).

We tracked down the location of the yellow Caterpillar excavator in March 2024. Three months after the deaths of the journalists and the rescue workers, it was stuck in a pile of rubble. We first spotted it in a video posted on Instagram by journalist Hassan Eslaiah on March 7, 2024. It shows the decomposing corpses of a man and his son in the middle of the Farhana school’s courtyard, the excavator visible in the background. The machine also appears in a second video recorded by the same journalist, this one showing the destruction done to the neighborhood. (In November 2023, Eslaiah was accused by the pro-Israel organization Honest Reporting of having been undercover with Hamas when reporting on the events of October 7, an accusation challenged by media outlet +972 and denied by Eslaiah himself through the publication Libération).

The school buildings had been gutted, the large pink gate outside was hardly standing, and the excavator’s cables and base had been extensively damaged. According to Al-Mughair, this was the very machine his team had come to find.

The Farhana school’s street 75% destroyed

Facebook post made by an Israeli soldier: “In Khan Younis, as in Shuja’iyya “harbu darbu” (“destroy them”)”

Abu Daqqa and Al Dahdouh had set out to film the initial destruction at the center of Khan Younis. Since then, the city has become a field of ruins: scattered piles of stones, entire floors of buildings destroyed, and gaping holes in the ground. Alongside one of many photos published online by Israeli soldiers, a caption reads, “Harbu Darbu” (“destroy them”) – a reference to a viral rap song with over 20 million views, calling for the bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Other soldiers take pictures of themselves with football banners from their hometown clubs, posing against the backdrop of wrecked buildings

According to data from UNOSAT, the UN’s agency for satellite imagery analysis, 55% of the buildings in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed or damaged. Khan Younis is the second worst-hit city after Gaza City. Using UNOSAT data, we estimate that some 75% of buildings have been damaged on Al-Zeini Road alone.

Destruction of the Farhana school district on April 1, 2024, UNOSAT data.

Since the withdrawal of Israeli troops, some residents have returned to Khan Younis, mainly to see the damage. Civilians, if their buildings even survived, have told us of burnt furniture and blown-out windows. At the Farhana school, the excavator is no longer there. According to the Civil Defense, it was recovered by a Palestinian construction company before the Israeli military left in April.

From their family’s home in Belgium, Abu Daqqa’s teenage sons continue to pay tribute to their father on social media. His name appears in a complaint filed by Reporters Without Borders and Al Jazeera for war crimes and crimes against humanity, now being examined by the International Criminal Court. When contacted by Forbidden Stories in May, the Israeli military said it “has never, and will never, deliberately target journalists,” a claim that Rodney Dixon, a lawyer for Al Jazeera, refutes.

“The group didn’t represent a military threat, and there was no military reason to attack them,” Dixon said. “And if it was just a big mistake, why didn’t the Israeli military make sure that Abu Daqqa could be immediately treated? His life could have been saved.”

Rodney Dixon says Al Jazeera hopes the ICC prosecutor will look at all evidence as rapidly as possible so that it may be a deterrent against other crimes on journalists .

In their latest reply to the consortium, dated June 20, referring to Abu Daqqa’s case, the Israeli military said the “incident is being examined by the General Staff’s Fact Finding and Assessment Mechanism (FFAM),” a body whose conclusions will determine whether there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal misconduct. According to the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard, “Cases that have been widely reported and created a public outrage eventually go to the FFAM. One of the reasons is to make sure that Israel can say, “Well this is being investigated.” I assume the Israeli authorities think it could serve as an argument of complementarity with regard to the ICC.” According to this principle, the ICC may only exercise jurisdiction when national legal systems fail to do so. Questioned by a consortium member whether an FFAM investigation could be used to prevent the ICC from conducting its own investigation, a senior official responded, “Of course, this is a consideration,” but denied they are “doing it to shield anyone.” Sfard added, “I do not think the FFAM is of such value that it indeed meets international standards that would prevent investigation and prosecution at the ICC.”

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