IDF denies deliberately targeting journalist killed in Gaza protest

Hundreds at funeral for Yasser Murtaja, shot while filming Friday in an area engulfed in smoke; Liberman: ‘Anyone who flies drones above soldiers is putting himself in danger’

Mourners and journalists carry the body of Palestinian journalist Yasser Murtaja, during his funeral in Gaza City on April 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
Mourners and journalists carry the body of Palestinian journalist Yasser Murtaja, during his funeral in Gaza City on April 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

The Israeli army on Saturday denied deliberately targeting a Palestinian journalist who the Palestinians say was killed while covering mass protests along the Israeli border the previous day, and said it was investigating the incident.

Hundreds, including Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, attended the funeral of well-known Palestinian journalist Yasser Murtaja. Murtaja reportedly died from a gunshot wound he sustained while filming Friday in an area engulfed in thick black smoke caused by protesters setting tires on fire.

Israeli troops opened fire from across the border, killing at least nine Palestinians and wounding 491 others in the second mass border protest in eight days, according to Palestinian figures. The deaths brought to at least 31 the number of Palestinians reported killed by Israeli fire since last week. Israel does not provide figures.

Murtaja was over 100 meters from the border, wearing a flak jacket marked “press” and holding his camera when he was shot in an exposed area just below the armpit, news agency reports said.

Palestinian journalists carry a portrait of journalist Yasser Murtaja, during his funeral in Gaza City on April 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

In a statement released later Saturday, the IDF said it did not deliberately target journalists and it was investigating the incident.

“For weeks we have been warning against coming close to the fence and calling on Gaza’s residents not to obey the orders of the terror group Hamas and refrain from terror activities and other violent acts against Israel,” the IDF said. “Despite this, since last Friday the IDF has been dealing with tens of thousands of people approaching the fence, all instigated by Hamas.”

“In response IDF forces are acting under clear orders designed for these circumstances. The IDF does not deliberately target journalists. The circumstances in which the journalist was supposedly hit by IDF fire are not known and they are being investigated,” the army said.

Demonstrators assist an injured Palestinian journalist Yasser Murtaja during clashes with Israeli security forces following a protest near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2018. He later died of his wounds. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Saturday night, “I don’t know who is or isn’t a photographer. Anyone who operates drones above IDF soldiers needs to understand he’s putting himself in danger.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at the faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu part at the Knesset, March 5, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Murtaja was known to use camera drones to capture photographs, and Israel Radio, citing unnamed sources in Gaza, reported that he was doing so when he was shot Friday. Several Palestinian journalists denied the claim to Reuters.

Liberman added: “We’ve seen dozens of cases where Hamas terrorists used ambulances, dressed up as Red Crescent personnel and disguised themselves as journalists. We won’t take an chances.”

The Union of Journalists in Israel on Saturday urged the IDF to investigate Murtaja’s death, saying it was “convinced that the IDF is party to the values of democracy, including the freedom of the press.

“Journalists — of any nation — are present in areas of confrontation to report on events. The army of a democratic country should not harm reporters who are doing their jobs. For this reason we view the fact that reporters were hurt gravely.”

Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, attended Murtaja’s funeral. He said journalists were attacked by Israel while trying to show a “true picture of a blockaded, downtrodden people.”

In this file photo taken on January 23, 2018 Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh delivers a speech in Gaza City (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The Hamas chief said “the Zionist occupation has been unmasked to the world and to the international public for the crimes it is committing against the Palestinian people. The intentional murder of the Palestinian journalist conveys the truth to all.”

He stated that the media was on “the front lines” of the Palestinian struggle and vowed that “a thousand” others would take Murtaja’s place.

On Friday Israeli military assessments cited on Israeli television said it was believed that everyone who was hit by IDF gunfire had been engaged in violence.

“Hamas sent children out ahead [toward the fence], cynically using them,” the IDF’s spokesman, Ronen Manelis, said on Friday night. Manelis specified that eight explosive devices and numerous petrol bombs were thrown, and that the IDF faced several attempts “to cut through the fence.”

Palestinian men wave their national flags as smoke billows from burning tires at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest, east of Gaza City in the Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

“There were attempts to carry out acts of terrorism … using the smoke [from burning tires] for cover,” he said, but the IDF had ensured the fence was not breached.

“The army did its job,” said Manelis. “The fence was not breached and [Israel’s] sovereignty was not harmed.”

The media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders accused the IDF of the “deliberate shooting” of journalists. “Palestinian photographer Yasser Mourtaja was wearing a vest marked “Press”: he was obviously the victim of an intentional shot,” said Christophe Deloire, the Secretary General of RSF, on Twitter. “RSF condemns absolutely the deliberate shooting of journalists by the Israeli army.”

“We call on the Israeli government to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2222 on the protection of journalists (adopted in 2015), demand an urgent independent investigation and the sentencing of the perpetrators of this crime against freedom of the press,” said Deloire.

Friday’s demonstration was the second of what Gaza’s ruling Hamas terror group said would be several weeks of “March of Return” protests which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine.

Gaza leaders have planned a series of so-called Marches of Return culminating in a planned million-strong march in mid-May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, and Nakba Day — when the Palestinians mark what they call the “catastrophe” that befell them with Israel’s creation.

Palestinian protestors burn tires during clashes with Israeli security forces on the Gaza-Israel border, east of Gaza City on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from the Strip. Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of Gaza. Israel says this is vital to prevent Hamas — which has fought three rounds of conflict against Israel since seizing Gaza, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and digging dozens of attack tunnels under the border — from importing weaponry.

Murtaja, 30, was the co-founder of Ain media, a local TV production company that has done projects, including aerial drone video, for foreign media clients such as BBC and Al Jazeera English.

He was buried with his press vest draped over his body.

Murtaja was not affiliated with Hamas or any other terror group. His death, along with the other recent casualties, seems likely to draw renewed criticism from rights groups that have branded Israel’s open-fire orders on the border as unlawful, after Israel’s defense minister warned that those approaching the fence were risking their lives.

Just two weeks ago, Murtaja posted a drone photo of Gaza’s seaport at sunset on his Facebook page with the following caption: “I wished I could take this photo from the sky, not from land. My name is Yasser Murtaja, I am 30 years old. I live in Gaza City. I have never traveled.”

Friends say it reflected his greatest wish — to escape Gaza’s isolation.

Hana Awad, his colleague and close friend, said he had long dreamed of traveling and was recently granted an Al Jazeera scholarship for training in Doha. She described him as active and friendly and not at all interested in politics.

“We didn’t know his political views, he was passionate about his job and wanted to travel and learn,” she said of Murtaja, who was the father of a 2-year-old boy.

Witnesses described the area in which he was shot as a chaotic scene in which protesters torched large piles of tires, engulfing the area in black smoke that was meant to shield them from Israeli snipers. Footage showed that visibility was limited and the faces of some of the activists were covered in black soot.

Israeli troops on the other side of the fence responded with tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets, and water cannons, as well as occasional live fire.

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