The night was sultry, quiet. The air heavy with the smell of burnt diesel.
My friend Mike, a US Army soldier was on a tour of duty in a recent Middle East conflict. He was on the perimeter - in a free-fire zone protecting his combat unit - a couple of hours into his watch.
Boredom and having the s--- scared out of you are the two hallmarks of being a combat soldier. Nerves get frayed; tension underlies every moment even off-duty where action though rare, is but a heart beat away.
Mike watched his sector, his mind wandering between peering through the glow of his night-vision goggles and fighting the temptation to space out. Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he saw movement; someone was approaching. More than one person, five, eight; eleven as it turned out.
He quietly took aim and fired. Mike's night vision was instantly lost by the repeated muzzle flash of his M-16. This was followed a second later by a sustained blaze as the M-60 gunner to his left opened up raking the targets with machine gun fire. They were immediately accompanied by other gunners on the perimeter who kept firing until they were ordered to stop. U.S. standard operating procedures dictated no warning shots especially at night. Simple logic - there's no way of telling if enemy's clothing are stuffed with explosives or not.
Silence ensued, broken only by the rapid metallic ticking of the cooling machine gun barrel and the occasional scuff of a boot in the dirt. Soldiers went back to their positions and waited as their sight and hearing became accustomed to the night once more.
In the morning a curtsey glance at the target area revealed little left of those who approached. A report was filed and life went on; a new day had begun.
A couple of items worth noting here.
First it's a true story. The second, it's a soldier's job to avoid getting killed. The third is that approaching a combat ready patrol even during the day, is foolhardy. Fourth, doing so can be fatal and often is.
In May 2003, Briton James Miller, a seasoned combat news camera-man, found this out when he approached an Israeli Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) in the dark of night emerging from a Palestinian house in Gaza to do so.
He and his colleagues walked into the night - at 11pm - carrying a small flashlight and a white flag and approached the APC which was situated in the no-man's land between Gaza and Egypt; patrolling the area to intercept suicide bombers, terrorists and smugglers. The wide area was cleared flat during the day by Israeli bulldozers. Miller, for whatever reason, intended to tell the soldiers that they - the news crew - were leaving the area. He decided he couldn't wait for daylight.
As they approached the APC the female in the group of three called out "Hello? Hello?" and "we are British journalists" assuming that the Israeli soldiers in the APC spoke English. The news crew believed that these soldiers were the same ones who had addressed them earlier, in Arabic. As it turned out they were a part of a Bedouin unit. It was a rash assumption that these soldiers could understand English.
A single shot rang out. Miller was fatally struck in the neck. Five other shots followed; not automatic fire but single spaced shots. The other members of his team, though badly frightened, escaped unharmed.
Examine for a moment the two scenarios. Both are practically the same. Both are in combat zones. Both involve people who walked deliberately into harms way. The outcome however was very different.
The American troops followed their training and by pouring gun-fire in the direction of the incursion eliminated the threat; everyone died. The Israeli patrol, showed far more constraint, firing six or seven shots. They had no idea if they were being approached by Palestinians carrying a Rocket Propelled Grenade or a suicide bomber. The waving flashlight was a distraction threatening to destroy any night-vision the Israeli soldiers had. It is safe to assume that if they had intended to kill the other members of the approaching group they could have but chose not to.
The other difference is that the British courts who investigated the incident decided that the shooting of Miller was murder. Murder, no less; in a combat zone. They wanted to prosecute the soldiers involved who were later cleared of wrong doing by the Israeli government.
Following a British trial the Israeli soldiers (not present) were found guilty of murder. The British threatened to attempt to have the soldiers extradited to face charges. Just recently the Israeli government gave Miller's family 1.5 million pounds. The family says that this is as close to admitting guilt that the Israeli government came to. Guilt to what I have to ask? Millers actions were reckless and arrogant.
Miller's family does not deserve to receive any money from the Israeli government. Not a penny. That they did receive any should be viewed in the context in which it was given; a gift to end the fuss. The funds that Israel gave the family, at the very least, deserved gratitude for the generosity with which they were given. The gift was not an admission of anything. Nor should it be. It was the result of diplomatic black mail on Britain's part.
Compensation was in order from Miller's employers or the British government who were directly accountable for his being in the area. The British government's loud protests were to drown out the obvious lack of coordination on their part in letting Miller film in a hot combat zone in Gaza. They were responsible for his well-being and ultimately for his untimely death.
Miller himself should have faced charges - difficult when you're dead admittedly - for endangering his news crew by bringing them on a fool's errand into the night as he did. He also endangered the family whose house he was in prior to setting out, as well as the other film crew who recorded the incident.
The entire event was documented in a film called 'Death in Gaza' which won awards in 2004. HBO showed it and I was fortunate enough to see it twice. You can see the final section featuring the shooting here on youtube. It is the last of an eight-piece reel and I recommend you watch it all to understand the context. The film crew traveled through Gaza with children who were filmed living their lives which included preparing bombs and peppered the Israeli bulldozers with rocks. The news crew were guarded by heavily armed Palestinians.
The British establishment's fuss over the incident reflects badly considering their own practiced insensitivity to their army's actions over the years. For example, as a young boy I watched the British Army shoot and kill 13 people in Northern Ireland - unarmed peace demonstrators - for whom justice or checks never came; no cash awards there, as Britain continues to cover-up a crime on its own doorstep. U2's "Bloody Sunday" keeps it immortalized, despite the British Governments wish for it to be swept under the carpet of history.
See the video for yourself (link below). The narration has that a-typical British monotone - you know this isn't going to end well. Otherwise it is an excellent documentary.
Miller's blood money could be better used in Israel for many pressing domestic needs.
I call on the Israeli government to rescind this decision and let the Millers apply for, and receive compensation, from British sources which is where the blame and guilt truly lies.
1. Final hours of James Miller's life (HBO/YouTube) "Death in Gaza"
2. Will James Miller's Family Ever Get the Justice They Deserve?
3. Israel rejects UK ultimatum to try soldier
4. Israel pays 1.5m pounds to family of British journalist killed in 2003 Gaza shooting