Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday said a Gaza journalist who was reportedly killed by Israeli gunfire over the weekend was a member of Hamas.
The claim was immediately rejected by one of Yasser Murtaja’s colleagues, who called the statement “ridiculous.”
Palestinians say Yasser Murtaja was shot Friday while covering violent mass demonstrations near the Israeli 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.
Liberman told reporters on Tuesday that Murtaja was a “terrorist” who had been on the payroll of the Hamas terror group since 2011. He said Murtaja had used a camera drone to collect intelligence on Israeli forces along the border.
“This is a member of the military arm of Hamas who holds a rank parallel to that of captain, who was active in Hamas for many years,” Lieberman said. “Once again we see how Hamas uses the media, ambulances and patients, including cancer patients who are sent to hospitals in Israel,” to carry out “terrorist missions.”
The defense minister provided no evidence to support his claim about Murtaja.
Murtaja was well known in the Gaza media scene, working for the local production company Ain Media.
Rushdi Al-Serraj, director at Ain Media and co-founder with Murtaja, said Liberman’s statements were “ridiculous comments that are not worth responding to. Yasser has been working for years in the press and making films for the United Nations, China and others,” he said.
“They killed a journalist and should confess it is a crime.”
Murtaja’s brother, Mutasem, also angrily denied Lieberman’s claims. “He spreads lies to get himself out of the impasse,” he said. “Yasser was filming the protests with simple cameras to show they are peaceful.”
The US State Department, meanwhile, said Ain Media had recently been awarded an $11,700 grant from the US government. The company became a USAID program beneficiary last month under a program that supports private sector development.
The State Department said Tuesday the grant was still in its early stages, and no equipment or technical assistance had been provided. It said the grant was vetted according to strict US government requirements of USAID-funded assistance.
Murtaja was known to operate camera 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.
On Monday the Israeli army refused to confirm comments made by Liberman on Saturday that Murtaja was shot dead because he was operating a drone over IDF troops.
Hundreds attended Murtaja’s funeral in Gaza City, including Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas. Haniyeh said journalists were attacked by Israel while trying to show a “true picture of a blockaded, downtrodden people.” The Hamas chief told mourners “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.”
Haniyeh stated that the media was on “the front lines” of the Palestinian struggle and vowed that “a thousand” others would take Murtaja’s place.
Murtaja’s death prompted an international outcry, including by media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, which accused Israel of shooting him intentionally.
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.
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.
Photographs from the area show Murtaja 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.
Yaser did not use the drone at the day he was killed and he was wearing the vest having the press signs pic.twitter.com/jTg6KiooZd
— فلسطين الآن (@paltimes2015) April 8, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.