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BBC Correspondent Witnesses His Driver's Murder in Israeli War Crime: Israel Must Be Called to Account Over the Killing of my Driver

By Jeremy Bowen
20 June 2000

Abed Takkoush was in a sunny mood the day he died. "It's over, Jeremy, the occupation's over", he said. "The Israelis have given up. They're going." A few minutes later, when we stopped to film across the border into Israel, Abed stayed in the car, to phone Muhammad, his son. Muhammad says his father was telling him not to worry because we were in a quiet place when the phone cut out.

It was noon, on 23 May when an Israeli tank shell hit Abed's car and killed him. He was 53, married with three sons. Abed's business card said "driver/producer". He was the kind of local fixer every foreign correspondent relies on. He seemed to know everybody in Lebanon. And he was a great driver.

Tuesday 23 May was the last full day of the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. Abed Takkoush had been working for the BBC in Lebanon since the civil war started in 1975. He'd seen everything the Israelis had done to his country since they first invaded in 1978. On 23 May he wanted to see the end of it.

Abed, the BBC's Beirut cameraman Malek Kanaan and I were moving through south Lebanon, filming villages and towns that had just been liberated. We were travelling on a road that runs along the border with Israel. Abed stopped close to kibbutz Manara, a settlement on the Israeli side. I walked back down the road with Malek to set up the camera.

I waved my arms at the kibbutz, which was about 750 yards away. I thought I could see people on an observation platform. The waving didn't seem necessary. There was no shooting or shelling going on in the area. The war seemed to have moved elsewhere. We were an experienced team. We all thought it was calm.

The Israeli tank shell smashed into the back of Abed's Mercedes on the right side. He was sitting in the driver's seat, at the front on the left. It was a special shell, designed to cut through armour and then explode inside the target vehicle. From about 50-100 yards away I saw a big ball of fire, then I saw Abed heave himself out of the window. His clothes were on fire. I couldn't see from where I was where he lay. I am told he must have died very soon afterwards, from massive internal injuries.

Malek and I took cover behind a low wall outside a petrol station. It felt cowardly, but after 10 minutes or so, when I stood up, the Israelis opened fire at me with the tank's machine gun. Later, an Israeli army officer told me that the soldiers who had killed Abed were out to get Malek and me.

At first, the Israelis blamed their allies, the South Lebanon Army, the militia they paid to do their dirty work. Then they promised an inquiry.

The Israeli army published its report last Friday. It said Abed's death was a tragic mistake. An Israeli tank fired the fatal shot but the crew followed the correct procedures. The report said they'd had an intelligence tip-off that Lebanese "terrorists" were going to attack Israeli armour. They saw a suspicious civilian car. They sought – and received – permission to destroy it.

The BBC has rejected the Israeli report. We believe there is strong evidence that the Israelis were recklessly and wilfully targeting civilians on that stretch of road – not just on 23 May but the day before as well. The wilful targeting of civilians by an army is a war crime. It is a grave breach of international humanitarian law as laid down in the 1977 protocol to the Geneva Conventions.

We have video and eye-witness evidence of what was happening. We even have video, taken from the Israeli side, of Israeli civilians watching Abed's car being destroyed. Some of them were carrying children. If the local Israeli tank unit, assigned to protect the kibbutz and its stretch of the border, really had believed an attack was coming, would they have allowed their own people to stand out in the open waiting for it to happen?

News teams working in dangerous places deserve protection. War is an inherently dangerous business. But we didn't blunder into a battle that day. We were targeted on an otherwise peaceful road.

We owe it to Abed and his family to find out exactly how and why it happened. Armies should not be able to get away with killing civilians. And if soldiers have broken the laws of war, they should be punished.

Jeremy Bowen is Middle East correspondent of the BBC
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