Yaser Murtaja Was Killed by Israel While Reporting From Gaza. His Death Is One of Many.

Israel has a long-standing pattern of killing Palestinian journalists and attacking media institutions.

Alex Kane

Cameras are laid on banners reading and translating 'You Can't Kill The Truth' during a demonstration in the memory of Yaser Murtaja, a Palestinian reporter who was shot in the abdomen by Israeli troops while covering the 'Great March of Return' and succumbed to his wounds, in front of Galatasaray High School in Istanbul, Turkey on April 11, 2018. (Photo by Munir Zakiroglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The last moments of Yas­er Murtaja’s life were caught on cam­era, and the footage shows the 30 year old doing what he had ded­i­cat­ed his life to: jour­nal­ism that chron­i­cles real­i­ty in the Israeli-occu­pied Gaza Strip.

"Why are the Israelis using such excessive force against Palestinian civilians and against journalists in particular?”

In a video clip post­ed by the Quds News Net­work, a Pales­tin­ian media out­let, Mur­ta­ja is shown using a video cam­era to cap­ture a chaot­ic scene of Pales­tin­ian pro­test­ers, smoke from tires burn­ing and peo­ple screaming. 

The next scene shows Mur­ta­ja, wear­ing a jack­et with the words PRESS embla­zoned on it, on the ground, bleed­ing. He would lat­er die because of the Israeli-fired gun­shot wound.

Mur­ta­ja was one of at least six Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists shot by Israeli forces on April 6, while cov­er­ing a protest in the Gaza Strip against Israel’s block­ade and denial of Pales­tin­ian refugee rights. Israeli sol­diers have shot and wound­ed at least 12 Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists since March 30, when Pales­tini­ans start­ed a mass protest encamp­ment dubbed the Great Return March” near Israel’s mil­i­ta­rized bar­ri­er with Gaza. The march is named for the Pales­tin­ian demand that they be allowed to return to lands they and their fam­i­lies were expelled from in 1948 — in what is now Israel.

Mur­ta­ja was the only Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ist killed by Israel that day, and his death set off wide­spread out­rage among press free­dom groups and human rights advocates.

The Israeli gov­ern­ment killing is a wor­ry­ing sign. Not only are auto­crat­ic and bar­bar­ic non-state actors killing jour­nal­ists, but a coun­try that calls itself a democ­ra­cy [is also killing jour­nal­ists],” Sherif Man­sour, the Mid­dle East and North Africa Pro­gram Coor­di­na­tor for the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists, told In These Times. The attempts by Israeli offi­cials to jus­ti­fy this killing is not just putting salt on the wound, but is try­ing to blur some of the lines that peo­ple are try­ing to estab­lish about safe­ty for jour­nal­ists in armed conflict.”

But the killing of Mur­ta­ja was not an excep­tion­al event. His death is indica­tive of Israel’s dis­re­gard for the rights of Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists to do their jobs — and high­lights Israel’s years-long pat­tern of killing Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists and attack­ing Pales­tin­ian media institutions.

Pales­tine: Where jour­nal­ists become targets

Gaza has borne the brunt of Israeli vio­lence in recent years, expe­ri­enc­ing three sep­a­rate Israeli mil­i­tary oper­a­tions that killed more than 3,700 peo­ple just in the past 11 years. And it is in Gaza, a coastal enclave under a dev­as­tat­ing block­ade by Israel and Egypt, where Israeli forces have opened fire on jour­nal­ists the most. Since 1992, Israel has killed 15 jour­nal­ists, most of them Pales­tin­ian, accord­ing to the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists. Nine of those killed by Israeli fire were work­ing in Gaza, and six were report­ing in the occu­pied West Bank.

Why are the Israelis using such exces­sive force against Pales­tin­ian civil­ians and against jour­nal­ists in par­tic­u­lar?” asked Rami Almeghari, an inde­pen­dent Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ist based in Gaza who has cov­ered the Great Return March encamp­ment. This is an indi­ca­tion that Israelis under[value] the lives of Pales­tini­ans, even Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists, and this is some­thing that needs to be inves­ti­gat­ed by con­cerned inter­na­tion­al bodies.”

Almeghari told In These Times that while report­ing on the cur­rent wave of protests in Gaza, he met a 19-year-old free­lance pho­tog­ra­ph­er shot in the leg by Israeli sol­diers, an injury that forced doc­tors to ampu­tate the leg.

He was lying on his abdomen when he got a gun­shot into his leg while he was doing some free­lance work,” said Almeghari. Despite the fact that it was appar­ent that he was a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Israeli forces shot him in the leg.”

Almeghari added that Israeli tar­get­ing of Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists may occur because the army wants to black­out cov­er­age on the ground” — an asser­tion that is not far-fetched. A recent­ly dis­closed Israeli mil­i­tary police inves­ti­ga­tion found that in 2012, Israeli com­man­ders ordered sol­diers to beat and arrest Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists to dis­rupt cov­er­age of anti-occu­pa­tion protests in the West Bank. 

When con­front­ed with out­rage over fir­ing on Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists, Israeli author­i­ties have turned to a well-worn jus­ti­fi­ca­tion: The jour­nal­ists were mem­bers of Hamas, the armed Pales­tin­ian group that rules Gaza.

In the after­math of Murtaja’s death, Israel’s Defense Min­is­ter Avig­dor Lieber­man said the Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ist was a cap­tain in the Pales­tin­ian mil­i­tant group. Lieber­man offered no evi­dence for the asser­tion, and the U.S. State Depart­ment said that Mur­ta­ja received a USAID grant after being vet­ted in accor­dance with U.S. laws that pre­vent mon­ey from going to mem­bers of Hamas.

It wasn’t the first time Israel has used an alleged Hamas affil­i­a­tion to deflect calls for account­abil­i­ty after the killing of a jour­nal­ist. In 2012, dur­ing an Israeli assault on Gaza, an Israeli airstrike tar­get­ed and killed Mah­moud al-Kumi and Hus­sam Sala­ma, two Pales­tin­ian cam­era­men dri­ving in a car marked with the word TV.” Because they worked for Al-Aqsa TV, the offi­cial Hamas tele­vi­sion sta­tion, Israel said they were legit­i­mate tar­gets — an asser­tion reject­ed by Human Rights Watch, which said at the time that Hamas-run media are pro­tect­ed from attack under the laws of war unless direct­ly tak­ing part in mil­i­tary oper­a­tions.” The group found no evi­dence the cam­era­men played any part in fight­ing dur­ing the 2012 conflict.

There is a pat­tern of improp­er response that basi­cal­ly tries to paint the per­son as a ter­ror­ist. We try to chal­lenge the Israeli author­i­ties on this,” said Man­sour of the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists. Even being affil­i­at­ed with a Hamas TV sta­tion is not enough to kill journalists.”

No press free­dom under occupation 

Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists work­ing in the occu­pied West Bank must con­tend with their own unique chal­lenges. In con­tem­po­rary Gaza, Israel con­trols most of the bor­ders and Gaza’s air and sea space but does not nor­mal­ly deploy sol­diers with­in the strip. By con­trast, Israeli sol­diers are present deep into the occu­pied West Bank.

The 247 pres­ence of Israeli sol­diers brings them into near-dai­ly con­tact with Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists. And the Israeli army has not hes­i­tat­ed to unleash ammu­ni­tion and tear gas on Pales­tin­ian media workers.

The Israeli army is delib­er­ate and inten­tion­al in its tar­get­ing of jour­nal­ists,” said Issam Al-Rimawi, a Pales­tin­ian pho­to-jour­nal­ist, in an inter­view. They do not want jour­nal­ists to cov­er any form of Pales­tin­ian protest, not even peace­ful demonstrations.”

Al-Rimawi would know. He has been hit by Israeli fire numer­ous times while cov­er­ing demon­stra­tions against Israel’s mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion. In 2014, while pho­tograph­ing a protest near Israel’s Ofer mil­i­tary prison in the West Bank, an Israeli sol­dier shot him in the shoul­der with a rub­ber-coat­ed steel bul­let, an inci­dent that left him hos­pi­tal­ized. In Feb­ru­ary, Al-Rimawi was again shot by a rub­ber-coat­ed bul­let, this time in the hand.

But it’s not only Israeli fire that Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists have to con­tend with. Israeli forces fre­quent­ly raid Pales­tin­ian media insti­tu­tions, seiz­ing their com­put­ers and oth­er equip­ment under the pre­text of fight­ing incite­ment” to vio­lence. Israeli forces also fre­quent­ly arrest Pales­tin­ian journalists.

By the end of 2017, Israeli forces were hold­ing 22 Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists in Israeli mil­i­tary jails — some of them detained with­out charge or tri­al. In Feb­ru­ary 2018, Israeli troops arrest­ed Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ist Abdul Mohsen Shalaldeh.

In the wake of such arrests and mil­i­tary raids, press free­dom groups fre­quent­ly con­demn Israeli prac­tices that tar­get Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists. But the pres­sure these groups try to bring on Israel has had lit­tle impact on how Israel con­ducts itself.

This pat­tern of inter­na­tion­al con­dem­na­tion fol­lowed by lit­tle change in Israeli mil­i­tary behav­ior is play­ing out right now, in the after­math of the killing of Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ist Yass­er Mur­ta­ja in Gaza.

One day after an Israeli sol­dier killed Mur­ta­ja, Christophe Deloire, the sec­re­tary-gen­er­al of Reporters With­out Bor­ders, called for an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion lead­ing to the con­vic­tion of those respon­si­ble for this crime against press freedom.”

But instead of promis­ing to hold the sol­dier who killed Mur­ta­ja account­able, Israeli offi­cials have sought to jus­ti­fy the killing, say­ing he was a mem­ber of Hamas, or that he was fly­ing a drone that endan­gered Israeli sol­diers. (No evi­dence has emerged for either asser­tion.) And on April 13, Israeli forces once again opened fire on a jour­nal­ist in a press jack­et, shoot­ing the Pales­tin­ian pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ahmed Abu Hus­sein in his abdomen and crit­i­cal­ly wound­ing him.

This Israeli response makes it like­ly that noth­ing will be done to the sol­dier who killed Mur­ta­ja — mak­ing his death just the lat­est exam­ple of how Israeli sol­diers kill Pales­tin­ian civil­ians and jour­nal­ists with impunity.

Alex Kane is a New York-based free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East.
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