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Israel accused of 'cover-up' and 'propaganda' in Gaza reporter's death

The International Federation of Journalists has called claims that Yasser Murtaja was a Hamas member 'lies to justify murder'
A photograph of slain Palestinian journalist Yasser Murtaja is displayed at his funeral in Gaza (MEE/Mohammed Asad)

Israeli's defence minister has been accused of “fabricating lies to justify murder” for claiming that a Palestinian journalist shot by Israeli forces while covering protests in Gaza was a member of Hamas.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on Wednesday accused Avigdor Lieberman of falsely claiming that the journalist Yasser Murtaja was a member of Hamas, even though it had previously arrested and beaten him during his work.

Murtaja was shot dead during demonstrations along the Gaza borderline on Friday as part of the “Great March of Return” while wearing a press vest, prompting renewed criticism of Israel's open-fire policy.

Lieberman accused the journalist on Tuesday of being an active member of Hamas, the Islamist ruling group in Gaza, claiming that the 30-year-old had received a salary since 2011 and held a rank similar to captain in Hamas's armed wing.

Lieberman has provided no evidence to back his claims.

IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger strongly denounced Lieberman’s comments.

“It is clear that after Israeli soldiers murdered a journalist, the defence 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,” Bellanger said in a statement.

“It is time for the Israeli authorities to stop fabricating lies to justify murder and it is time to stop targeting Palestinian journalists.”  

IFJ reissued a file dating back to 2015, when the organisation had documented how Murtaja was detained and beaten by Hamas security forces in 2015 while filming.

The file, 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 hospitalisation. After an interrogation, his photographs were eventually seized.

Meanwhile, a US State Department official said on Tuesday that Murtaja’s news organisation, Ain Media, had recently been vetted and approved for a US Agency for International Development (USAID) grant amounting to $11,700 - further sowing doubts regarding Lieberman’s claims of Hamas membership.

Use of force

The journalist's killing will also form part of a prosecution case brought by the General Federation of Arab Journalists against Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC), following an emergency meeting in the wake of Murtaja's death, official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa reported on Thursday.

The federation on Wednesday appointed a team of lawyers to prosecute Israel.

Israeli forces have killed at least 31 Palestinians and wounded hundreds of others since 30 March, when Palestinians in Gaza began mass protests along the borderline with Israel.

There have been no Israeli casualties.

On Sunday, Lieberman had also drawn ire by declaring on Israeli public radio that "there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip".

Demonstrators in the besieged enclave, where almost 1.3 million of the small territory’s two million inhabitants are refugees, are demanding their right to return to their pre-1948 homes.

The six-week protest, which began on 30 March marking Palestinian Land Day, is set to end on 15 May - the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe), in which more than 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced by Israeli forces in 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the European Union have called for an independent investigation into Israel’s use of force, which Israel has repeatedly rejected.

On Saturday, the EU raised questions over whether Israeli troops engaged in "proportionate use of force".

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