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Tensions Between Israel, UK Rise Over Killing of Award-Winning Filmmaker

Israel's refusal to investigate the shooting of a British documentarian stirs diplomatic fallout.
 
 
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Britain and Israel face a diplomatic and legal showdown this week over the death of James Miller, an award-winning British film-maker who was shot by Israel soldiers while working on a documentary in the Gaza Strip more than four years ago.

Israel has failed to respond to an ultimatum issued by Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general, to his opposite number, Meni Mazuz, on 26 June to launch a criminal investigation within six weeks against the officer suspected of firing the fatal shot. The deadline expires tomorrow.

Tel Aviv is refusing to be stampeded. In a previous case -- that of a British student, Tom Hurndall, killed by an Israeli sniper in 2003 -- it eventually yielded to British pressure and court martialled the soldier concerned. He was sentenced to eight years in prison for manslaughter.

The army's first instinct, as shown in both cases, is to protect its soldiers. A military spokesman said that "a cameraman who knowingly enters a combat zone, especially at night, endangers himself."

Moshe Cohen, a spokesman for Israel's Justice Ministry, said in a written statement yesterday that an earlier British request had been thoroughly checked and a decision to close the Miller case had been reported to London. "Now that the British authorities have decided once more to approach us, the matter will be attended to…. A response will be provided in an acceptable fashion, as soon as possible, in accordance with the timetables of the Israeli authorities."

Mr Miller's death was captured on video and was included in the film Death in Gaza, released by HBO in 2004, which went on to win three Emmys. Mr Miller had gone to the troubled region to film children on both sides of the conflict, but he was killed on his last day in Gaza before he could film the other side of the story.

In April, 2006, a London jury at St Pancras coroner's court returned a verdict of unlawful killing and said that Mr Miller, 34, had been "murdered." The Israeli army had dropped the case for want, it said, of enough evidence to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

The coroner, Dr Scott Reid, wrote to Lord Goldsmith inviting him to "consider starting criminal proceedings in the UK against members of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) for an offence of willful killing."

The only soldier who has been named, though only by rank and surname, is Lieutenant Heib, who commanded the armoured vehicle from which the fatal shots were fired.

To try him in Britain, Lord Goldsmith's successor, Baroness Scotland, would have to seek his extradition, which Israel would be expected to resist.

Mr Miller's family accused Israel of "an abject failure to uphold the fundamental and unequivocal standards of international humanitarian and human rights law." They are suing the Israeli government in the Tel-Aviv magistrates' court for compensation.

His wife, Sophy, said after the military investigation was closed: "The truth will come out and we hope the Israeli judicial system will mete out justice. This investigation does not serve the IDF, decent Israeli citizens, us his family, and above all James."

Their Israeli lawyer, Michael Sfard, said yesterday: "The family demands justice, both criminal and civil. They deserve that the man who shot their loved one for no reason whatsoever should be indicted and get what he deserves. As he left a widow and two children, they deserve to be compensated by the State of Israel. This is something the political and military echelons have promised time and again, but they have not fulfilled their promise so far."

Mr Miller was filming near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip with Saira Shah, who was named television reporter of the year in 2002 for Beneath the Veil and Unholy War, documentaries the two had shot for Channel 4 in her native Afghanistan. Mr Miller, who doubled as cameraman and director, had earlier won an Emmy and a Royal Television Society award for films on Serbian massacres in Kosovo. He was an experienced war photographer, having covered conflicts in Lebanon, Sudan and Algeria for a news agency.

Death in Gaza shows the two journalists leaving the home of a Palestinian family in the turbulent Rafah refugee camp at night, carrying a white flag. They were accompanied by a local crew from Associated Press Television News (APTN).

In an investigative report in October 2003, the journalist John Sweeney wrote: "They had walked about 20 metres from the veranda when the first shot rang out. The team froze. For 13 seconds, there is silence broken only by Saira's cry: 'We are British journalists.' Then comes the second shot, which killed James. He was shot in the front of his neck. The bullet was Israeli issue, fired, according to a forensic expert, from less than 200 metres away. Immediately after the shooting, the IDF said that James had been shot in the back during crossfire. It later retracted the assertion about where in his body he was shot, but until today it has maintained that he was shot during crossfire. There was no crossfire on the APTN tape."

Israeli and British forensic studies produced conflicting results. The Israelis said that acoustic tests on the video tape indicated that there were six shots. The second hit Mr Miller. Not all the shots, the Israelis said, came from the same source. So they could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that the fatal shot came from Lieutenant Heib's gun. Similar tests by Scotland Yard concluded that the first three shots came from a single source, the Israeli armoured car.

In an interview, distributed to promote the Death in Gaza DVD, Ms Shah admitted that they were worried about filming in Gaza, particularly Rafah. She accused Israeli soldiers of lack of respect for human life.

 
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