Days after Israeli troops fatally shot a Palestinian photojournalist covering protests on the Gaza border, Israel's defense minister alleged the photographer had served as a high-ranking member of the military wing of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas since 2011.
But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the photojournalist had passed a U.S. government vetting process for his media company to receive a U.S. aid agency grant. The U.S. does vetting to ensure grant recipients have no ties to militant organizations or activities.
The seemingly conflicting claims by Israeli and U.S. officials about the photographer's identity are raising new questions over a killing that drew international media coverage and calls for an investigation.
On April 6, photojournalist Yaser Murtaja, 30, was shot by Israeli forces while reporting on Palestinian protests at the Gaza-Israel border, Palestinian officials and witnesses said. Images from the scene show Murtaja wearing a protective vest clearly marked "PRESS."
U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said government vetting of Murtaja began in late 2017. The officials said that last month Murtaja's Gaza media production company, Ain Media, became a beneficiary of a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told NPR the United States relies on Israeli intelligence to vet Palestinian organizations and individuals for links to militant groups before awarding them USAID grants. Nauert said the U.S. was looking into questions about Murtaja's alleged Hamas affiliation.
Israeli officials declined to elaborate on the defense minister's claims and would not say why the journalist was shot. The Israeli military says it is investigating. Palestinian rights advocates argued the claims of Hamas affiliation were intended to retroactively justify the killing.
There is an ongoing battle to assign blame for the violence on Gaza's border with Israel, the largest and bloodiest demonstrations Gaza has seen in years. Israeli troops have killed at least 30 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,000 in more than a week of protests, according to Palestinian officials, and Israel has rejected accusations of excessive use of force.
Murtaja was about 300 yards away from the Israeli border fence filming Palestinians burning tires when Israeli soldiers shot him, said Palestinian photographer Rushdi Serraj, who worked with Murtaja and was with him when he was shot.
A freelancer and co-founder of Ain Media, Murtaja was reporting independently at the time. His work has featured on the BBC, Vice and other global media, as well as on Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's documentary, Human Flow.
"Journalists are civilians, and security forces have a duty to ensure that they can work safely," said Sherif Mansour, Middle East coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Israeli authorities must thoroughly investigate the killing of Yaser Murtaja, rather than sustain their record of making empty pledges to probe the killing of journalists during conflict and other dangerous assignments."
Over the weekend, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested Murtaja had endangered himself by flying a drone above soldiers at the border. Murtaja's colleague Serraj denied he had a drone with him at the border when he was shot. On Tuesday, Lieberman offered a different explanation, in response to a reporter's question at a press conference.
Murtaja was a "terrorist with a prior association with the military arm of Hamas. He holds a rank similar to captain. He was paid regularly beginning in 2011 and he used a drone to collect intelligence on [Israeli army] forces at the front," Lieberman said. "I hope those same journalists and media outlets that were so outraged and spoke about the poor journalist just faithfully doing his job publish the correct facts."
Lieberman did not provide evidence to support his claims. The Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence service, told NPR that "all the relevant information about the matter is in the army's hands," but the Israeli army declined comment, as did the Defense Ministry, Prime Minister's Office, an Israeli defense body in charge of Gaza affairs and Lieberman's office.
Defense Minister Lieberman "has the tendency to reach conclusions which the [Israeli army] or the Shin Bet are more cautious about," said Yossi Melman, an Israeli intelligence and security affairs reporter for the Israeli paper Maariv. "He's like a loose cannon ... but I don't think he has a tendency to lie when it comes to state security matters."
One of the shooting victim's brothers, Hamza Murtaja, denied the photojournalist had been a Hamas member. Serraj, Murtaja's colleague and co-founder of local media production company Ain Media, said Yaser Murtaja was a professional photojournalist who had worked with international media outlets, and that their company only bought its drone in 2015 — and did not have it back in 2011, as the defense minister appeared to suggest. "This is a stupid lie by Lieberman," Serraj said. "He wants to justify his soldiers' murder against journalists."
Hamas and other Palestinian factions issued banners mourning Murtaja's death, and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh eulogized him at his funeral. But Hamas stopped short of claiming him as one of its own, as Hamas has written on banners and posters for others killed on the border during recent protests. Spokesman Hazem Qasem dismissed Lieberman's claims.
As international calls mount to investigate the violence, Israel has named several of those killed as being affiliated with Hamas' military wing. Israeli forces have even released videos to show their shooting victims in action, including a pair of gunmen opening fire and others tampering with the border fence.
The Israeli army does not provide specifics on its rules of engagement as deployed during border protests, but it says service members fire on those posing a threat to Israel's sovereignty — trying to breach the border — or endangering soldiers.
In some instances, Israel has not specified what actions the Palestinians took that led Israeli forces to kill them.
Palestinians and rights groups accuse Israel of killing Palestinians at the border when they did not pose an immediate threat.
One video clip, released by Palestinians and widely viewed online, appears to show a young man — whom Israel accused of being a Hamas militant — being shot and killed while attempting to run away from the fence, with his back to soldiers.
"The only time you are allowed to shoot live ammunition is when someone poses an immediate threat. The army is doing exactly the opposite," said Yael Stein of B'Tselem, a liberal Israeli group documenting rights abuses against Palestinians.
Yohanan Plesner, head of the nonpartisan think tank the Israel Democracy Institute and a captain in reserves for an Israeli special forces unit, said he believed Lieberman's claim of Murtaja's Hamas affiliation. But he said a Palestinian's affiliation to an organization cannot be the reason for opening fire, but rather what action the person took that posed a threat, according to the Israeli army's rules of engagement.
"It doesn't lead me to shed a tear for his fate," Plesner said of Murtaja's alleged Hamas ties. But he added, "this in and of itself is not a criterion" for opening fire.
The Israeli military says it is conducting an internal investigation into soldiers' actions on the border.
In a separate incident, a recently surfaced video, showed soldiers cheering and cursing Palestinians as a Palestinian was shot at the Gaza border. The Israeli army said the incident took place in December before recent border protests. The army said the Palestinian shot had instigated a "violent riot" but that soldiers' comments in the video "do not suit the degree of restraint expected."