Family members, press freedom groups and Palestinian journalists have angrily rejected the Israeli military’s allegation that two reporters killed in an Israeli strike last weekend were “terrorists.”
The deaths of Al Jazeera journalist Hamza Dahdouh and freelance reporter Mustafa Thuraya caused a firestorm among press advocates overseas and Palestinians in Gaza. Hamza was the son of prominent Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Dahdouh, raising the killings’ profile.
Facing global outcry, the Israel Defense Forces said this week that the two reporters were members of militant groups. The IDF released what it said was a document listing Dahdouh as an operative of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and said it had further evidence showing that Thuraya was a Hamas commander.
NBC News has not verified the accusation or the document released by the IDF, which did not respond to a request for further information and evidence.
In a statement to NBC News, the Al Jazeera Media Network said 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,” the statement said.
The statement added that “Israel has a well-known history of making false allegations and of fabricating evidence” and called for the international community to hold the IDF accountable.
Israel has been criticized for the killings of journalists during and before the Israel-Hamas war, including Shireen Abu Akleh, a correspondent for Al Jazeera. Israel initially said she was killed on May 11, 2022 by errant Palestinian fire, though independent investigations, including by the U.N., concluded that she was killed by the Israeli security forces. The IDF later said she was likely killed by an Israeli soldier.
Before the war, The Committee to Protect Journalists, an American nonprofit that monitors press freedom, documented at least 20 cases of the IDF killing journalists, for which no one was held accountable.
CPJ told NBC News that the IDF has been inconsistent in its narrative of the journalists’ killings on Sunday.
“In this particular case, within four days, the IDF provided three different stories about the killing of the journalists, highlighting the inconsistency and contradictions in these narratives,” Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, CPJ’s advocacy and communications director, wrote in an email to NBC News.
The committee also called for “a swift and transparent investigation” into the circumstances surrounding the journalists deaths. So far, “the IDF has produced very little information about its investigation,” they added.
In a statement to the BBC on Thursday, Hamza’s family responded to the claim. “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,” the statement added.
Dahdouh and Thuraya were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Sunday as they were driving near Rafah in southern Gaza. Al Jazeera said they were traveling home after filming the aftermath of an airstrike, and denounced what it labeled a deliberate attack on Dahdouh and Thuraya’s vehicle.
Initially, the IDF said that it had targeted a “terrorist” in the vehicle.
“An IDF aircraft identified and struck a terrorist who operated an aircraft that posed a threat to IDF troops,” the IDF said in a statement. “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.”
Asked by NBC News on Monday if the IDF had evidence to support its allegation that an individual in the vehicle was a terrorist, IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari said the incident was “unfortunate” and an investigation was still ongoing.
“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,” Hagari said, adding that Hamas uses drones to collect intelligence on Israeli forces. “So we will investigate this incident and we will provide the data,” Hagari said.
In an earlier statement, the IDF said the men were operating a drone near Israeli soldiers, which prompted the strike.
NBC News has reached out to the IDF for comment on how they avoid mistakenly killing journalists who are using drones as part of their jobs, and have not heard back.
Al Jazeera managing editor Mohamed Moawad told NBC News on Monday that Thuraya was not flying a drone as the pair were driving.
Both Al Jazeera and the Palestinian Journalist Syndicate, a nongovernmental union accredited with the International Federation of Journalists, said that Thuraya was a well-known freelance drone operator in the community, whose work featured in foreign outlets such as Agence France-Presse.
After the attack, AFP’s global news director Phil Chetwynd said the agency was “shocked” by Thuraya’s death and its thoughts were with his family. “We vigorously condemn all attacks against journalists doing their jobs and it is essential we have a clear explanation as to what happened,” Chetwynd added.
After outrage and calls for independent investigations over the journalists’ death grew, the IDF then said in a statement on Wednesday that soldiers found documents identifying Thuraya as a Hamas squad commander and Dahdouh as a member of the Islamic Jihad’s electric engineering unit, as well as a deputy commander in a rocket unit.
Along with its statement, the IDF released a document with a logo of al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad, that it says is dated June 2022 and included Dahdouh’s name on a list under the title “electronic engineering,” according to an NBC News Arabic translation. The document requested that the names be approved with financial compensation but no additional information was provided.
Anan Quzmar, a Palestinian journalist based in the occupied West Bank who works for the Palestinian Journalist Syndicate, called the allegations and release of the Arabic document a “total fabrication.”
Quzmar said his organization consulted independent experts on militant groups and independent Arabic language translators to examine the veracity of the Arabic document and found several red flags, including “language, phrasing and wording [that] are absurd and uncommon.” NBC News has not independently reviewed this evidence.
“I think it’s reflective of Israel’s policy of targeting Palestinian journalists. These targetings have been covered but only in prominent cases has IDF engaged with the media. This is one of very few times that we have specific allegations pointed at somebody,” he said in a telephone interview from Tulkarem, a city in the West Bank.
In a statement posted on X, the syndicate said that “following intense media attention to his killing in a surgical strike, the Israeli military issued a statement with fabricated ‘evidence’ in order to justify the systematic killing of journalists in Gaza.”
So far 72 Palestinian journalists have been killed since the war began, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.