Palestinian journalist slain by IDF was vetted by US, State Department says

Yasser Murtaja’s company was approved to receive funding from government agency, which would involve checks with Israel security officials

People take part in a protest against the killing of a fellow journalist Palestinian Yasser Murtaja on April 11 April, 2018 at Istiklal avenue in Istanbul. (AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE)
People take part in a protest against the killing of a fellow journalist Palestinian Yasser Murtaja on April 11 April, 2018 at Istiklal avenue in Istanbul. (AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE)

A Palestinian journalist shot dead by Israeli forces during protests at the Gaza border was vetted to receive funds from the US Agency for International Development.

Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, confirmed on Tuesday the check into Yasser Murtaja’s media company.

“My understanding is that he was vetted according to US Government guidelines,” she said.

Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that Murtaja was a high-ranking official in Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip. USAID vetting, in the case of Palestinians, includes checking with Israeli security officials as to whether the applicant has ties to terrorists, Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, told NPR.

Hamas and Murtaja’s family and colleagues have denied any association between Murtaja and Hamas. Liberman did not provide evidence for the claim, nor did officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office when they repeated it on Twitter. In the past, Israeli authorities have released photos of slain Palestinians in Hamas uniform or provided other evidence to support their claims that the dead were members of terrorist groups.

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)

Liberman and the officials in Netanyahu’s office did not attribute the claim to any agency. JTA requests on Twitter to two of Netanyahu’s spokesmen to elaborate on their Twitter claims of Murtaja’s Hamas affiliation did not receive replies. The army and intelligence agencies have declined media requests to confirm or deny Liberman’s assertion. The Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff has ordered an investigation into its military’s response to the Gaza border protests.

Murtaja’s killing stirred outrage and calls for investigations from journalists’ groups, including from the Israeli Journalists Association. He was wearing a protective vest marked PRESS and was 300 yards from the security fence.

On Wednesday, a global journalist body said Murtaja had been detained and beaten by Hamas security forces in 2015 while filming, seeming to counter Israel’s claims of his involvement with the terror group.

A case file from the International Federation of Journalists, seen by AFP, said Murtaja and three other colleagues were filming the demolition of a home near the Israeli border when a man demanded to see their documents.

After they refused, a jeep belonging to the Hamas security forces arrived and “pulled the photographer Yasser Murtaja into their jeep without explaining what was going on.”

It said inside the van he was beaten by Hamas police, leading to his eventual hospitalization. After an interrogation, his photographs were eventually seized.

Murtaja and the other journalists were interviewed by an IFJ researcher at the time, the file said.

IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger accused Liberman of a cover-up.

“It is clear that having murdered a journalist the Israeli defense minister is more interested in spouting propaganda and engaging in a cover-up than in carrying out a thorough and transparent investigation and bringing Yasser’s killers to justice,” he said in a statement.

Shehri would be the 34th Palestinians killed by Israeli fire over the past two weeks, according to Palestinian tallies. At least 26 were killed during protests.

Israel says it opens fire when necessary to stop damage to the border fence, infiltrations and attempted attacks. It alleges that Hamas, whose leaders have said the demonstrations are ultimately aimed at erasing the border and liberating Palestine, is seeking to use the protests as cover to carry out violence.

Last Friday, during the second week of a series of events set to culminate on May 15, about 20,000 Palestinians demonstrated along the Gaza border in what Israel has described as a riot orchestrated by Hamas, and what Palestinians say was supposed to be a peaceful protest.

Israel’s army spokesman Ronen Manelis specified that evening that eight explosive devices and numerous petrol bombs were thrown during the day, and that the IDF faced several attempts “to cut through the fence…. There were attempts to carry out acts of terrorism … using the smoke [from burning tires] for cover,” Manelis said.

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