Israel Blocked Evacuation of Al Jazeera Cameraman Hit by Airstrike

“It was as if a storm had targeted us.” On the afternoon of December 15, an Israeli airstrike slammed into the Farhana school in Khan Younis where Al Jazeera Gaza bureau chief Wael al-Dahdouh and his cameraman, Samer Abu Daqqa, had just wrapped up filming the aftermath of an earlier bombardment in the area.

Dahdouh was thrown to the ground. “I lost balance to the point of faintly losing consciousness until I regained my strength,” he told The Intercept. “I tried to get up in any way because I was sure that another missile would target us — from our experience that’s what usually happens.” Dahdouh realized he was bleeding profusely from the arm and that if he didn’t get medical attention, he would die. He had also temporarily lost much of his hearing from the blast. He looked over and saw the three Civil Defense workers who had been accompanying the two journalists had been killed.

“In those milliseconds I thought I couldn’t offer him anything. I couldn’t. And he couldn’t move, he couldn’t get up.”

Then, he saw Abu Daqqa lying on the ground some distance away. “He was trying to get up and it seemed like he was screaming,” Dahdouh said. “In those milliseconds I thought I couldn’t offer him anything. I couldn’t. And he couldn’t move, he couldn’t get up. I decided to take advantage of the remaining glimmer of hope, which was to try to go towards the ambulance.”

Dahdouh somehow managed to make his way across the rubble to an ambulance hundreds of meters away and was evacuated to a nearby hospital. But Abu Daqqa, wounded in the lower part of his body, could not walk to the ambulance and was left lying on the ground. Hours went by, but emergency workers were unable to reach him without approval from the Israeli military. As his life slipped away, Al Jazeera posted a live counter on its broadcast showing the number of hours and minutes since Abu Daqqa had been wounded. When emergency crews were finally able to reach Abu Daqqa over five hours later, he was dead.

A still from a video published by Al Jazeera of Samer Abu Daqqa speaking to a colleague while working in Gaza in early December before he was killed by an Israeli airstrike on Dec. 15, 2023.

Screenshot: Al Jazeera

Over the course of those five hours, humanitarian organizations and fellow journalists repeatedly pressed the Israeli military to facilitate the evacuation of Abu Daqqa, according to people involved in the efforts as well as chat logs obtained by The Intercept from multiple journalists. The in-depth timeline of the hours before Abu Daqqa’s death shows that Israeli forces did not allow safe passage for emergency crews for hours, though they were aware a journalist was urgently in need of help.  

All told, Abu Daqqa had lain wounded and bleeding just two kilometers away from the nearest hospital, yet no one could reach him for well over five hours while his colleagues and much of the world watched. The Israeli military were well aware that an Al Jazeera journalist was lying helpless, The Intercept’s reporting shows, yet it did not allow emergency teams to safely pass for nearly four hours and did not send a bulldozer for over an hour after that. (The Israeli military did not respond to questions from The Intercept.)

Much of the evidence points toward a targeted Israeli strike on the Al Jazeera journalists. “In this area there was no one but us. Therefore there was no room for error by the Israeli army considering that drones, large and small, were in the sky in the area,” Dahdouh said. “They knew everything we were doing the whole time, and we were targeted as we were returning — of this there is no doubt.”

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis, on Dec. 15, 2023. Israeli leaders told U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Thursday that Israel will continue its military offensive in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza Strip, despite the international calls for a ceasefire. (Photo by Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis, on Dec. 15, 2023.

Photo: Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua via Getty Images

Dahdouh, Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in Gaza, and Abu Daqqa, a veteran cameraperson for the network, arrived at the Farhana school at around noon that day to cover the aftermath of an Israeli bombardment in the area, Dahdouh told The Intercept. Wearing helmets and flak jackets with the word “press” emblazoned on them, they made their way toward the school in an ambulance with a crew of uniformed Palestinian Civil Defense workers — a government branch responsible for emergency services and rescue — who had coordinated with and received approval from the Israeli military through the Red Cross to be in the area, according to Dahdouh.

Repeated Israeli airstrikes had left many of the roads impassable with rubble blocking the streets. Dahdouh said that on their way to the school, the ambulance had to stop at least three or four times over a distance of just 600 to 800 meters for the crew to clear rubble to allow for it to pass. Eventually, the Al Jazeera journalists and Civil Defense workers covered the final distance to the school on foot with the ambulance drivers agreeing to wait for the team up the street.

Dahdouh and Abu Daqqa spent around two and a half hours filming in the school and surrounding area, the buzz of Israeli drones filling the sky overhead the entire time. At around 2:30 p.m., they started to make their way back to the ambulance when an Israeli airstrike hit. 

Dahdouh put pressure on his wounds and stumbled to the ambulance, a distance of some 800 to 1,000 meters. Upon reaching the ambulance, he immediately told the emergency workers to go in and rescue Abu Daqqa. They insisted on first evacuating Dahdouh to a hospital and said they would send another ambulance to retrieve Abu Daqqa. Videos of Dahdouh in Nasser Hospital show him wincing in pain as he is treated for his wounds and calling for Abu Daqqa to be saved. “Coordinate with the [Red] Cross,” he says repeatedly. “Let someone get him.”

The head of Al Jazeera’s bureau in Ramallah, Walid al-Omari, was doing just that. Omari told The Intercept that he first contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross at 3:35 p.m. and asked them to liaise with the Israeli military to facilitate a rescue effort for Abu Daqqa. Omari said he kept in close contact with the ICRC both locally and abroad and that they put in a “great effort” to try and coordinate with Israeli authorities.

KHAN YUNIS, GAZA - DECEMBER 15: Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Al-Dahdouh receives medical treatment at Nasser Hospital after was wounded by shrapnel during an Israeli airstrike on Khan Yunis, Gaza on December 15, 2023. (Photo by Hani Alshaer/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Al Jazeera correspondent Wael al-Dahdouh receives medical treatment at Nasser Hospital after he was wounded by an Israeli airstrike on Khan Younis, Gaza, on Dec. 15, 2023.

Photo: Hani Alshaer/Anadolu via Getty Images

Dahdouh said he later learned from colleagues that early on in the ordeal, when ambulances initially approached the area to reach Abu Daqqa, Israeli forces fired in their proximity, forcing them to return and wait for approval from the Israeli military to go in. He also said Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance crews had demanded a Red Cross vehicle accompany them so that they would not be targeted by the Israeli military.

Meanwhile, news had begun to spread about Abu Daqqa’s dire state.

Orly Halpern, a freelance reporter and producer based in Jerusalem, learned what had happened when an acquaintance sent her a link to a story at 3:08 p.m. Halpern decided to post about it on a WhatsApp group of over 140 journalists of the Foreign Press Association, or FPA, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit representing reporters from over 30 countries. According to screenshots of the WhatsApp group obtained by The Intercept, at 4:27 p.m. Halpern outlined what happened and wrote: “Samer Abu Daqqa is seriously injured and still trapped at the school. The ambulance is waiting for Israeli forces to let it evacuate him. But that has yet to happen….Walid al-Umari, the AJ bureau chief said that ICRC is trying to liaise with the IDF. But still no progress. It has been two hours since they got hit. Maybe we can all call the IDF spox and demand that he be allowed to be evacuated.”

She continued in another post three minutes later: “What matters is to save the cameraman. And the Israelis need to allow the ambulance to reach him.” Halpern tagged Ellen Krosney, the FPA’s executive secretary, and added, “would the FPA be able to contact the IDF, too?” At 4:57, Krosney responded, “I’m getting involved in this.”

Meanwhile, other journalists in the group worked to confirm Abu Daqqa’s location, and one posted a photo of a map showing the position of two schools in Khan Younis — Haifa and Farhana — while another journalist confirmed that Abu Daqqa was at Farhana.

Halpern then posted contact information for three Israeli officials at 5:17 p.m., including the press office for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, an Israeli Defense Ministry agency, as well as the contact information for three senior Israeli military spokespeople.

Explaining her reasoning for sharing the contacts, Halpern told The Intercept, “I believe there is power in numbers. Even more so when those numbers are journalists. I don’t think my voice alone would have gotten the army to do something, particularly if the Red Cross hadn’t succeeded. But I thought that if many journalists contacted the army, along with the Foreign Press Association, then the army might be more pressed to act, particularly knowing that we were aware of the situation and that we would report on it.”

At 5:27 p.m., a full three hours after Abu Daqqa was wounded in the airstrike, Krosney wrote that Israeli authorities had still not granted permission for emergency teams to reach him: “Ambulances still not cleared, but I am in touch with IDF, who know about this. And they know the fpa members are deeply upset.”

Halpern continued to urge journalists in the group to individually message Daniel Hagari or Richard Hecht — both Israeli military spokespeople whose contact information she had just shared — to pressure them to facilitate a rescue effort. “If everyone who cares about fellow journalists writes a message to Hagari or Hecht and tells him that we as journalists are following this case, then there’s a much better chance that this will be resolved before Samer dies, if that’s still possible,” Halpern wrote.

“What matters is to save the cameraman. And the Israelis need to allow the ambulance to reach him.”

In parallel, a more focused effort by a smaller group of more senior FPA members was yielding responses from the army, but no real action. At 5:31 p.m., a journalist in the smaller group had messaged an army official and was told that the IDF was aware and handling the situation. Two minutes later, he got a new message back saying that the military’s Southern Command, which oversees Gaza, had been informed, but there were problems with “passage” from the school to the hospital. This was despite the fact that it was the Israeli military that had reduced many of the streets to rubble in earlier airstrikes and maintains near-constant drone surveillance of Gaza.

The smaller group got another message at 6:22 p.m. that the military was still working on it. At 6:27 p.m., four hours after Abu Daqqa was wounded, Halpern received word from her producer in Gaza that ambulances were still unable to reach the school. Meanwhile, Omari, who had been added to the WhatsApp group shortly after the discussion began, wrote: “The road is closed. A destroyed building blocks the road, they need bulldozer to open it. They can’t reach the school.” Halpern then posted to the group that they needed to request the Israeli military to send in a bulldozer to clear the way. At 7:02 p.m., Tania Kraemer, a Jerusalem-based correspondent for Deutsche Welle and the chair of the FPA, responded: “In touch with the IDF Orly. No news yet on the above.” At 7:23 — now after five hours of bleeding — the smaller group was told that the IDF was sending a bulldozer within 10 minutes and that it would take 20 minutes to reach the location.

Meanwhile, Halpern posted an update on the larger group chat at 7:25 p.m. that the Israeli military had approved a Palestinian bulldozer to come through.

It was too late. Palestinian emergency crews had finally managed to reach the school after a Palestinian-operated bulldozer cleared a path for an ambulance only to find Abu Daqqa dead. At 7:55 p.m., Halpern posted a message in the group chat she had received from her producer in Gaza that he had been killed.

KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA - DECEMBER 15: The stretcher carrying the body of Al Jazeera TV cameraman Samer Abu Daqqa, who was killed while working in an airstrike, is seen on December 15, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. World Health Organisation's Executive Board adopted a rare resolution on access for life-saving aid into Gaza and respect for laws of war, with the UN health chief reiterating an immediate ceasefire as "nowhere and no one is safe" in Gaza. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

A stretcher carries the body of Samer Abu Daqqa in Khan Younis, Gaza, after his body was recovered in the evening hours of Dec. 15, 2023.

Photo: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

Al Jazeera reported that Abu Daqqa had been subjected to continued shelling while he tried to crawl to safety. Dahdouh and Halpern said they received reports that Abu Daqqa was found without his flak jacket, several meters from where he was wounded.

The FPA released a statement shortly afterward, saying it was “alarmed by the [Israeli] military’s silence and [called] for an immediate inquiry and explanation as to why it apparently attacked the area and why Samer could not be evacuated in time to be treated and potentially saved.”

The next day, Al Jazeera announced it was preparing a legal file to submit to the International Criminal Court, or the ICC, over what it called the “assassination” of Abu Daqqa by Israeli forces in Gaza. The brief would also encompass “recurrent attacks on the Network’s crews working and operating in the occupied Palestinian territories.” In a statement, the network said, “Following Samer’s injury, he was left to bleed to death for over 5 hours, as Israeli forces prevented ambulances and rescue workers from reaching him, denying the much-needed emergency treatment.”

Gaza is now the deadliest place for journalists on record.

Reporters Without Borders also included Abu Daqqa in a war crimes complaint the group filed with the ICC regarding the deaths of seven Palestinian journalists killed in Gaza between October 22 and December 15.

Gaza is now the deadliest place for journalists on record. The Palestinian Journalist Syndicate has documented the killing of over 100 journalists in just three months. Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that more journalists have been killed in the first 10 weeks of the Israel’s war on Gaza — nearly all of them Palestinian — than have ever been killed in a single country over an entire year. Many of the journalists still alive in Gaza have lost multiple family members and their homes.

(EDITORS NOTE: Image depicts death.) The Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Al-Dahdouh, center, amongst fellow mourners at the funeral of Al Jazeera cameraman Samer Abu Daqqa in the center of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. On Monday, Gaza's Hamas-run health authorities put the death toll in Gaza at more than 19,400 Palestinians. Photographer: Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Al Jazeera correspondent Wael al-Dahdouh, center, attends the funeral of Al Jazeera cameraman Samer Abu Daqqa in Khan Younis, Gaza, on Dec. 16, 2023. Dahdouh was injured in the same Israeli attack the previous day that killed Abu Daqqa.

Photo: Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dahdouh himself has become a symbol of both the suffering and resilience of Palestinian journalists in Gaza. In October, his wife, son, daughter, and grandson were killed in an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp where they had sought shelter after their house was bombed. On Sunday, his eldest son, Hamza, also a journalist, was killed alongside another journalist, Mustafa Thuraya, in an airstrike on their car in the western part of Khan Younis.

“Holding the killer accountable is the least that can be done so that they don’t escape punishment every time, which leads to the continuation of the targeting and attacks of Palestinian journalists without accountability and without trial,” Dahdouh said. “The targeting and destruction of offices, like Al Jazeera’s offices; the targeting of Palestinian families, such as is the case with my family; and the targeting of homes, like my home that was destroyed and where there are no houses around it in the first place, so they know they are targeting the house of the head of Al Jazeera. It is clear that this is all happening in the context of pressure and punishment of Palestinian journalists by the Israeli military. Yet, as I always say, despite all the hurt and pain, we will continue in carrying this message and fulfilling our duty and relaying information and pictures and news to our viewers, so they can be the first ones with everything that is happening in the Gaza Strip.”

Ryan Grim and Natasha Lennard contributed reporting.

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