TEL AVIV - The Israeli military said Wednesday it had cleared troops of responsibility for the killing of a Reuters cameraman in the Gaza Strip, saying the decision to fire a tank round at him was "reasonable."
Fadel Shana, 24, was killed on April 16 along with eight other civilians when an Israeli tank fired at him as he filmed it from around 1.5 kilometres (a mile) away.
"The decision to authorise the shot was reasonable given the circumstances of the incident," the military said in a statement. "No further legal action will be taken."
"The facts show that the incident occurred against the backdrop of severe hostilities in the area. Earlier in the day three IDF (Israeli army) soldiers had been killed in an attack," it added.
The military said the tank crew identified "suspicious figures" and mistook Shana's camera for a weapon.
"Only in retrospect was it discovered that the suspicious figures were Reuters cameramen wearing vests, and that the object mounted on a tripod was a camera and not an anti-tank missile or a tripod-mounted mortar," it said.
Reuters' own investigation and witnesses said Shana was wearing a blue flak jacket and driving a vehicle both clearly marked with press and TV tags, and that none of those killed or wounded were militants.
Reuters said on Wednesday it was deeply disturbed by a conclusion that severely curtails the freedom of the media to cover the conflict by effectively giving soldiers a free hand to kill without being sure they were not firing on journalists.
Shana filmed two tanks positioned about 1.5 km (a mile) from where he was standing for several minutes before, in a chilling final 2 seconds of video, his camera captured one tank firing a shell that burst overhead, showering the journalist and others with thousands of metal darts known as flechettes.
Their blue flak jackets, like the car, were marked "PRESS". The army said the troops could not see those signs. Journalists in Gaza say they have rarely seen militants wear flak jackets.
Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger said: "I'm extremely disappointed that this report condones a disproportionate use of deadly force in a situation the army itself admitted had not been analysed clearly.
"They would appear to take the view that any raising of a camera into position could garner a deadly response."
Reuters wrote to ask precisely why the soldiers ruled out the possibility that Shana was a cameraman, why the fact he stood in full view of the tanks for some minutes did not suggest he had no hostile intent and why the tank crew, if concerned but unsure, did not simply reverse a few metres out of sight.
The Foreign Press Association in Israel said the army had a "long line of cases clearing its soldiers of deadly negligence".
It added: "The army is obligated to clearly identify its targets before firing, especially in areas where civilians and journalists are present. The mere suspicion of possible hostilities should not be enough to justify overwhelming deadly force.
"We hope that the army's conclusion does not appear to give soldiers free licence to fire without being sure of the target, greatly hindering the media's ability to cover the conflict."
In New York, Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists said: "These findings mean that a journalist with a camera is at risk of coming under fire and there's not that much that can be done. That's unacceptable.
"It's difficult to believe ... that the IDF took the necessary precautions to avoid causing harm to civilians -- as it is obliged to do under international law."