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Killing of 2 Gaza cameramen by Israeli fire raises questions about choice of targets

The unprecedented killing of two cameramen for Gaza's Hamas TV station in a missile strike raised questions about whom Israel considers to be militant operatives, and thus legitimate targets.

Israel said the expanding Hamas media empire is part of the Islamists' "terrorist operations," although it stopped short of branding everyone working for it as a potential target in its offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Al-Aqsa TV, which employed the two journalists, said they were killed on the job, and it accused Israel of trying to silence those documenting the suffering of Gaza's civilians.

On Wednesday, the funeral procession for Mohammed al-Koumi and Hussam Salama set off from Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, just a few hundred meters (yards) from where the Israeli missile had struck their car a day before. Several dozen Al-Aqsa TV staffers marched behind the bodies. A wreath sent by Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas read: "With blood we write. With blood we film. They will not be able to silence the truth."

Al-Aqsa TV is the centerpiece of Hamas' increasingly sophisticated media operation, launched in 2004 with a small radio station. By the start of Israel's Nov. 14 Gaza offensive, Al-Aqsa TV and Radio had about 400 employees, including a network of reporters closely covering the Israeli airstrikes.

Al-Aqsa reporters do not pretend to be objective and clearly work in the service of Hamas, using its lingo and loaded terms in on-air comments. The station has generally been accurate in reporting casualties in the past week and does air some other views within the Palestinian political spectrum.

Al-Koumi and Salama were on assignment Tuesday at Shifa Hospital, the central intake for serious injuries, said Al-Aqsa TV chief Mohammed Thouraya. They left in the late afternoon to head to a feed point to hand over their material when their car was struck, he said.

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said Wednesday the two were targeted as Hamas operatives, but would not elaborate.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said those working for Hamas media cannot be considered journalists.

"They are an integral part of the Hamas structure and no one can deny that fact," he said, adding: "All those involved in targeting Israeli civilians directly or indirectly should not feel that they have impunity."

Regev stopped short of saying all Hamas media employees were potential targets, but would not say where Israel drew the line.

During the offensive, Israel has steadily widened the range of Hamas-affiliated targets. Over the weekend, it began striking homes of Hamas operatives, causing a spike in civilian casualties, and it also fired missiles that damaged the offices of Al-Aqsa TV and Al-Quds TV, a Lebanon-based broadcaster sympathetic to Hamas.

Under the rules of war, media can only be targeted if they contribute to combat, such as relaying military orders, according to the international group Human Rights Watch.

"However, civilian broadcasting facilities are not rendered legitimate military targets simply because they broadcast pro-Hamas or anti-Israel propaganda," the group said. "Just as it is unlawful to attack the civilian population to lower its morale, it is unlawful to attack facilities that merely shape civilian opinion; neither directly contributes to military operations."

The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders condemned the killing of the Gaza journalists as a "clear violation of international standards."

Soazig Dollet of the group noted that at the time of their deaths, the two cameramen were working.

"Even if Al-Aqsa TV is close to Hamas, those two journalists should not have been targeted because they were not involved in hostilities (at the time) and not contributing to the military effort," she said.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of foreign journalists found themselves ducking for cover in recent days as Israeli airstrikes hit uncomfortably close to their offices and hotel.

Early Wednesday, a missile blast pulverized a Gaza government compound about 100 meters (yards) away from a high-rise building where the office of The Associated Press is located. Debris flew onto the roof terrace, sending a reporter and a cameraman diving to the ground. Several windows were shattered, but no one was hurt.

Around the same time, a missile hit an empty lot across the street from a road lined by seaside hotels where many foreign reporters are staying.

Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal said the blast broke a window in his hotel room, but a heavy curtain protected him.

"It was more upsetting and shocking than it was dangerous," he said. "I don't have any war experience. ... So this is all new for me. ... But I can't reasonably say I was surprised. This was inevitable."

Bradley said he was surprised at how precise some of the Israeli airstrikes have been.

Regev, the Israeli spokesman, alleged that Gaza militants seek out foreign journalists as unwitting human shields.

He noted that earlier this week, an Islamic Jihad militant was killed by a targeted missile strike in an apparent hiding place in a high-rise that also houses local and foreign news outlets. He said that in such cases, Israel was trying to be as surgical as possible with its airstrikes.

The Foreign Press Association for Israel and the Palestinian territories urged both sides Wednesday to do their utmost to protect journalists.

"In recent days, Israel has struck a number of buildings housing the offices of major international news organizations, while Palestinian militant groups have fired rockets from nearby office positions," the FPA said.

The FPA said it believes the Israeli military is aware of the locations of the media offices in Gaza.

At the same time, the Israeli military has refused to offer assurances that buildings housing foreign media outlets would be avoided, or that warnings would be provided.

Fred Abramhams of Human Rights Watch said that "journalists in a war zone are putting themselves at risk and have very little to complain about if they are near a legitimate target."

However, "it would be an absolute violation if they are being targeted," he said.

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Associated Press writers Lauren E. Bohn in Jerusalem and Sarah El Deeb in Gaza City contributed reporting.