Israeli officials contend that Palestinian reporter’s use of a drone during Gaza Strip protest was perceived as a threat
During last Friday’s violent protest along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Palestinian journalist Yasser Murtaja was killed by Israeli forces. The reporter, who founded the Gaza-based news agency ‘Ain Media,’ was covering the second installment of the so-called “March of Return,” which, like the inaugural demonstration a week prior, descended into mass confrontations between tens of thousands of Gazans and the IDF, resulting in the deaths of nine Palestinians.
A funeral service held Saturday was attended by hundreds of people including Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas terrorist group that has ruled the Palestinian enclave since 2007 and which is spearheading the protests along the frontier. Murtaja’s body was carried through the streets of Gaza City wrapped in a Palestinian flag along with the blue-and-white “PRESS” vest he was wearing when he was shot.
As has become common with almost everything relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are conflicting interpretations of the circumstances that led to Murtaja’s death. The Israeli military contends that he was operating a footage-capturing drone along the border, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman asserting in the aftermath of the incident that, “anyone flying drones above [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers must know he is putting himself at risk. We won’t take any risks.”
Israel Radio, citing an unnamed source in Gaza, corroborated Liberman’s account of the incident, whereas several eye witnesses, including Abu Amra, a Palestinian journalist who claims to have been with his close friend Murtaja when he was shot, adamantly denied that a drone had been deployed.
On Tuesday, the Israeli news site Walla! reported that Murtaja was himself a Hamas activist, who in 2015 attempted to smuggle a drone into Gaza to aid in Hamas’ intelligence-gathering. Sources told Walla! that Murtaja was in constant contact with senior officials in Hamas’ internal security services, many of whom also attended his funeral.
Professor Robbie Sabel, a legal adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained to The Media Line that, according to international law, “only combatants are legitimate targets and because journalists are civilians, the IDF would not have the authorization to shoot.” He qualified, however, that “if Murtaja was operating a drone over Israeli forces, then it is legitimate for the IDF to say he is not acting as a journalist. The drone could have been used for any purpose [and] in the split-second decision-making process on the battlefield, the force used would have been appropriate.”
In this respect, the IDF released a statement stressing that “[Israeli] troops have been dealing with shootings against them, placing of explosive devices on the [border] fence, throwing of grenades, firebombs and stones, as well as smoke screens.… In response, [the army is] operating in accordance with clear rules of engagement that are tailored to this scenario.”
Alan Baker, a former senior legal adviser to the IDF, expressed confidence that the military acted correctly. “The use of a drone in this atmosphere can be seen as an aggressive activity, as it could potentially harm soldiers or civilians. You just have to look to Iraq to see instances where civilian drones have been used to drop grenades or used to spy on enemy operations.
“It is standard procedure in all conflicts not to target members of the press who are fulfilling their function,” he expounded, “but if there were reasonable suspicions of [Mujarta] using a drone for military action, the IDF is legally justified to use whatever force necessary to neutralize the target.”
By contrast, several groups have expressed skepticism over claims that Murtaja posed a credible threat. “All [evidence] indicates that he had his press credentials clearly displayed on his clothing when he was shot, and the possibility of a deliberate targeting must be seriously envisaged during the inquiry,” Ernest Sagaga, head of Human Rights and Safety at the International Federation of Journalists, wrote in an email to The Media Line. “If such a scenario were established,” he continued, “it would constitute a serious violation of journalists’ rights who are entitled to protection at work. Security forces are required to exercise caution and proportionality to ensure that no harm comes to innocent civilians.”
Amnesty International is another organization that has criticized Israel’s use of live-fire during the Gaza protests, with a spokesperson relating to The Media Line that “lethal force should only be used against targets that are an imminent threat to life.” As regards Murtaja’s case specifically, the representative added that “if he was clearly marked as press and unarmed then there should have been no reason to use such [tactics].”
According to Sabel, the incident has made stark the overall danger associated with reporting from conflict zones. “In any battle situation journalists can be hurt,” he concluded, “and by entering this war zone [along the Gaza border], they are taking a significant risk and are endangering themselves.”
Nevertheless, as is common practice for the Israeli military, there will be an investigation into Murtaja’s death, the focus of which will undoubtedly center on whether or not the reporter could realistically have been perceived as a combatant because of his actions, and, in the event, if the IDF acted in accordance with international norms.
(Benji Flacks is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)