IDF won’t confirm defense minister’s claim of killed journalist’s drone

Army mum after Liberman indicates Yasser Murtaja was shot dead because he was flying a drone over Israeli troops during Friday’s Gaza clashes

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Demonstrators assist 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. Murtaja later died of his wounds. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Demonstrators assist 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. Murtaja later died of his wounds. (AFP/Said Khatib)

The Israeli army refused to confirm comments made by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Saturday that indicated a Palestinian photojournalist was shot dead the day before because he was operating a drone over IDF troops.

On Friday, Yasser Murtaja, who founded the Ain media company in Gaza, was killed while covering the violent demonstrations along the Gaza border. He was reportedly shot in the torso while wearing a vest emblazoned with the word “press” and filming in an area engulfed in thick black smoke caused by protesters setting tires on fire.

Hundreds attended Murtaja’s funeral in Gaza City. His death prompted an international outcry, including by media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, which accused Israel of shooting him intentionally.

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 army denied the charge on Saturday, saying in a statement, “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.”

However, later that day, when he was asked about the case, Liberman hinted that Murtaja had been intentionally targeted, specifically for flying a drone during the protest.

“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,” the defense minister said.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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 any chances.”

The Israeli military has repeatedly refused to comment on Liberman’s claim, saying only that the case was being investigated, though not explicitly refuting it.

Even if he had been operating a drone, it was unclear if that would make him a legitimate target for lethal force. These tiny aircraft are used by militaries around the world to gather intelligence and, in some cases, as weapons, if they’ve been outfitted with explosives, which would make their operators fair targets. However, as the technology has gotten dramatically cheaper and more available in recent years, drones have found significant use among civilians, especially photographers, which would make it more difficult for the IDF to claim that any use of them is inherently malicious.

Murtaja was indeed known to operate drones, despite it being illegal to import them into Gaza. However, family members, eyewitnesses and fellow journalists repeatedly denied that he was flying one on Friday when he was shot.

Photographs from the area show him using an elaborate camera rig during the demonstration, but not a drone.

“He was using a normal video camera all day,” photographer Ashraf Abu Amra told AFP.

Abu Amra also said Murtaja was several hundred meters away from the border when he was hit.

This is not the first time that the defense minister has made claims not supported by the army.

In October, Liberman said that rockets that hit the Golan Heights were intentionally fired at Israel by the Hezbollah terror group in Syria. The army, meanwhile, said it was unaware of such intelligence.

In that case, the defense minister later clarified that this was his own opinion and not the IDF’s assessment.

Some 20,000 Gazans participated in Friday’s second successive Hamas-backed “March of Return” at the Gaza border. The army said protesters burned tires and threw bombs, Molotov cocktails, and rocks at Israeli soldiers. Several attempts were made to breach the border fence. Soldiers responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases live fire. Palestinians said nine Gazans, including Murtaja, were killed and over 1,000 wounded in the clashes.

Palestinian protesters 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)

The protests were part of a planned six-week “March of Return” that is due to end in mid-May with both “Nakba Day,” marking the displacement of Arabs after Israel’s creation, and the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a plan that has infuriated Palestinian leaders.

Palestinian activists have insisted the protests are civilian-led and nonviolent, while Israel has said they have been used as cover for attempts at violence against Israeli troops and breaches of the border. Defense analysts say the marches are a new tactic by Hamas, which rules Gaza, to conduct terror operations in the confusion of the demonstrations, as the group’s rockets have been thwarted by Israel’s Iron Dome and its tunnels have been countered with a new underground barrier being constructed around Gaza.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of the Islamist Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip, speaks during a protest east of Khan Yunis on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

The army said it has spotted multiple attempts by terrorists to plant explosive devices along the Gaza border, a shooting attack on IDF troops by two well-armed Palestinian men dispatched by Hamas, as well as an attempted infiltration by a gunman wearing a suicide bomb vest.

Demonstrations largely abated by Saturday, but three Palestinians were wounded by Israeli forces in a small clash east of Gaza City in the afternoon, one of them seriously, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

On Sunday, the IDF General Staff announced that it was launching an investigation into the army’s responses to the Gaza protests, in addition to the internal probes being conducted by the Southern Command.

Israel has faced increasing international condemnation over the number of Palestinians killed in the “March of Return.”

On Sunday evening, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor warned that actions taken by the Israeli army and by Hamas during the last two weeks’ protests at the Gaza border may constitute war crimes.

An injured Palestinian protester is carried by fellow demonstrators during clashes with Israeli security forces near the border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

“Violence against civilians — in a situation such as the one prevailing in Gaza — could constitute crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (‘ICC’ or ‘the Court’), as could the use of civilian presence for the purpose of shielding military activities,” her statement read.

The European Union on Saturday said the deaths of Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border “raise serious questions about proportionate use of force” by Israel.

The Arab League’s UN Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said Arab ministers would discuss options to pursue the Palestinian issue at a meeting in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh on April 12 ahead of a summit of Arab leaders in the country on April 15.

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.

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