Remembering Issam Abdallah, Reuters Journalist Killed Covering Israeli Missile Strikes in Lebanon
Written by GRB on 16/10/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.
On Friday, an Israeli artillery strike reportedly landed among a group of international journalists covering clashes near Lebanon’s border with Israel, killing 37-year-old Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah, who was part of a Reuters crew providing a live video signal. Six others were injured in the strike, including reporters for AFP — that’s Agence France-Presse — and Al Jazeera.
The Lebanese army said in a statement Israeli troops fired the shell that struck the journalists. Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry has requested a complaint be filed by Beirut’s mission to the United Nations over what it called a, quote, “flagrant violation and a crime against freedom of opinion and press,” unquote. The Israel Defense Forces say the incident is being looked into. Reuters says it’s, quote, “urgently seeking more information, working with authorities in the region, and supporting Issam’s family and colleagues.”
Just before the show, just before yet another funeral for Issam, I spoke with one of his closest friends, Lama Al-Arian. She’s an international producer for Vice News based in Beirut, Lebanon. I asked her to describe what happened.
LAMA AL-ARIAN: Well, Amy, since the bombing of Gaza began, there’s been a lot of tensions and flare-ups in the south of Lebanon between Israel and different groups there, and he was one of the many journalists who traveled there to cover what was happening.
He was in a group, in a press scrum, in a group of journalists, who were standing right in front of the Israeli border, clearly marked as press, you know, wearing their jackets, wearing their helmets and doing just live positions. They weren’t embedded with any sort of group. They were just there, you know, to tell the story of what was happening in the south. He even posted a selfie a few — maybe like 30 minutes before the events took place, you know, just showing what was happening. He was wearing his jacket and his helmet.
And then, you know, speaking to journalists who were there and also watching the Reuters live feed, which caught the moment they were hit, two Israeli strikes — we’re not sure what kind of artillery yet — hit them. And one of them, unfortunately, killed our friend and beloved journalist Issam and injured six other journalists, including Christina Assi, who’s still undergoing surgery at the moment.
AMY GOODMAN: And who did they all work for?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: There were journalists from the AFP. There were journalists from Reuters. There were journalists from Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera had been there for many days doing lives from this very position. Nobody thought that they were unsafe there. Issam was somebody who used to call me reckless and say that “I’m worried about you,” because he was somebody who really valued safety. And he’s been to many conflict zones. And he just always put safety of colleagues and himself, you know, even before the story. And so, that’s why many of his colleagues and his friends think they were targeted, because there were no, like, Hezbollah members or any members of armed groups in that area. It was just a group of journalists who were hit.
AMY GOODMAN: And where did the airstrike come from? And where exactly did it hit?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: It came definitely from the direction of Israel, because they were standing right in front of the border. Of course, there’s going to be investigations into this, but this is from eyewitnesses who were there, including his colleagues who survived the attack. The Lebanese army has also made a statement saying that it came from the direction of Israel and it was an Israeli strike. The Lebanese prime minister said the same thing, the acting prime minister, Najib Mikati.
And when the Israeli officials were asked about this, they, of course, haven’t taken any responsibility yet. The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations even was a little bit callous. He says, “We’re sorry. We’ll look into it. But we’re in a time of war, and things happen.”
So, it came — you know, as his colleagues, eyewitnesses and friends say, and many, many official reports, it came from Israel, but it’s very unlikely that there will be any accountability.
AMY GOODMAN: Did Issam die immediately?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: It seems from the videos that were published online, the very grim videos, that he did die immediately. You can hear other colleagues screaming in the background, saying, “My legs! My legs! I can’t feel my legs!” You have Dylan from the Associated Press — or, sorry, you have Dylan from AFP, who immediately ran to help his colleague. He put a tourniquet over her leg. When the second strike came — he was saying yesterday he wasn’t sure if it was the first strike or the second strike that killed Issam. But, unfortunately, I’ve been looking for his voice in any of the videos that have been published, especially immediately after the attack, when I was trying to figure out if my friend was safe or not, and I couldn’t hear his voice. So I think it was an immediate death.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: I read on Twitter that a journalist had been injured, and I immediately started to call his friends. And they were all, you know, trying to also find out more information. And I kept calling his phone. And usually during any big incidents that happen in the country, like the Beirut explosion, he just declines my phone call. But this is the first time that I didn’t get like a declined phone call or him picking up, saying, “I’m busy. I’m working, but I’m OK.” And so, I just — unfortunately, I — I just felt that it was him who had passed away. We knew that he was with the other journalists that day. And it was a Reuters live feed that had caught the moment of impact, which, you know, he was running with two of his other colleagues who traveled here from Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: When was the last time you saw him?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: I was actually just with Issam and a group of his friends two days before he passed away and a day before he traveled to the south. He was telling me that he was going to cover these events, but he was also mentioning, you know, how broken up he was about the images coming out of the Gaza Strip and also how upset he was by the coverage of many Western media outlets regarding this war. He had also told a friend earlier that this — he had also told a friend earlier last week that, you know, he was worried about safety concerns along the border. And what he feared most was that if he was to pass away or to die, nobody would name his killer.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about the funeral?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: The funeral was, of course, extremely sad. It took place in south Lebanon, you know, amongst the olive and pomegranate trees, which he loved so much. We’ve taken trips there in the past, where we drank coffee in the homes of his aunts, who all live there. And I know that he loved Lebanon very much. He loved the south very much. It took place, again, in his hometown, Khiam, which is a place that saw a lot of war and destruction previously. It was under, I think, 22 years of Israeli occupation before it was liberated May 25th, 2000. So, of course, there’s a lot of symbolism there. And it was attended by a lot of officials from many different political parties and, of course, many, many journalist friends of his. He was buried along with his press jacket, and on top of his grave, they lined his grave with his cameras.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did he become a journalist?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: I think the reason why Issam really became a journalist is to tell stories from this region that he cared about so much and that he thinks is very misunderstood by Western media. And he worked for Reuters for a very long time covering many different stories. He covered the Egyptian revolution in 2011, which I know he was very proud of. He covered stories from Lebanon. After the explosion, he was one of the first journalists to go straight to the port, and he interviewed injured people. He always took risks to make sure that people’s voices got out there. He covered the war in Ukraine. He was interviewing grieving mothers. He was in Turkey after the earthquake for weeks interviewing people living in the rubble. He was there when they were pulling people out from under the rubble. He was there, you know, covering funerals. And he just always wanted to show the humanity of people suffering.
AMY GOODMAN: And why had he gone to the border that day with the other journalists?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: He went to the border that day because there was, you know, back-and-forth fire between Israel and different armed groups in Lebanon. Because of what was happening in Gaza, you know, tensions and flare-ups started to happen at the border. And that was his job. His job was to go and tell people what was happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Lama, I’m talking to you today right before you’re going to another funeral for Issam?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: Yes. He was somebody who was extremely loved within the community. And, you know, it’s very common in Muslim and Arab culture to go and spend the first week with the family. So that’s what we’re going to be doing to try to give them as much support as possible, to the family members, to the journalists, who’ve also had to mourn their colleague but also keep working, reporting on what’s been happening in Gaza, reporting on what’s been happening inside Lebanon, and also the very real — also preparing for the very real possibility that there could be, you know, another war here.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Lama, your sister Laila wrote a piece about your family and about your grandfather buying land in Gaza, investing his life savings, and about what’s happened to your own family in this last week in Gaza. Could you tell us about that?
LAMA AL-ARIAN: Of course. I mean, this is what I’ve been telling friend, like, who’ve been sending condolences. This is the second time this week, you know, friends from around the world have had to send me condolences. Earlier this week, my mother lost 11 of her extended family members in a single airstrike on her family home inside Gaza. And that was already very difficult on my mother and, of course, on our family. I didn’t know these family members very well, but it was still extremely heartbreaking to see videos of people who share our last name on the internet pulling out dead children from the rubble and injured people. And, you know, amongst the people that were killed was a 6-month-old baby named Zeineddine [phon.].
AMY GOODMAN: That was Lama Al-Airan, an international producer for Vice News, speaking to us from Beirut, Lebanon, about her dear friend Issam Abdallah, the Reuters videographer killed last week reportedly in an Israeli airstrike while reporting on the Israel-Lebanon border. The strike injured six other journalists, as well.