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Competing narratives over Palestinian journalist Yasser Murtaja after his death in Gaza

Israel says he was a Hamas operative. But that is challenged by the 30-year-old's Facebook account and his recent US government vetting

    "You cannot kill reality" - images of Yasser Murtaja from a banner at an anti-Israel protest in Istanbul (Photo: Getty Images)

    Some say he was a brave journalist, whose death points to Israeli disregard for media freedom. Others claim he used his press vest as a cover for darker activities and was even a salaried member of Hamas’s military arm.

    Yasser Murtaja has become the Palestinian icon from the latest clashes with Israel since his death last weekend.The 30-year-old loved filming from drones and was known for his infectious smile.

    But Israel says Gazans received lots of warnings not to approach the border, which Mr Murtaja violated. It insists it does not target journalists and claimed he had terror ties.

    “I hope that those journalists who went out of their way and talked about the poor journalist who did his work faithfully will publish all the facts, that there will be no illusions here,” said Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, after alleging Mr Murtaja was on Hamas’s payroll.

    Mr Murtaja’s limited horizons as a young Gazan have made him, for many, a symbol of the Palestinian cause, especially after a Facebook post from a few weeks ago went viral.

    “My name is Yasser,” he wrote. “I am 30 years old, live in Gaza City and I have never travelled before in my life!”

    Mr Murtaja’s employer, Ain Media, says it “will knock on all doors and will continue with legal institutions to hold the Israeli occupation accountable for this heinous crime.”

    Britain’s National Union of Journalists too accused Israel of “outrageous behaviour which must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”

    General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “Murtaja and his colleagues were clearly identified as working journalists. There is an urgent need for an independent investigation into this incident.”

    Many Palestinian journalists are claiming Israel attacked press on purpose. “I think that the army directly targeted photographers last Friday,” Gaza photojournalist Muhammad Zanoun told the +972 website.

    The IDF released a statement soon after the incident insisting that it does “not intentionally target journalists.”

    Soldiers are doing their best to ensure Israel’s security in difficult circumstances, it said, and “are operating in accordance with clear rules of engagement that are tailored to this scenario.” The military has been warning Gazans to keep away from the fence for weeks, it added.

    Mr Lieberman went further, saying Mr Murtaja was paid monthly by Hamas’s military arm since 2011 and had a rank equivalent to captain.

    An Ain Media Facebook post from last year is being taken by some in Israel as suggestion that the company saw its drones as part of Palestinian military efforts.

    A video of Mr Murtaja holding a drone is accompanied by a message saying: “Our planes are in the sky and our soldiers are on the ground. Our troops are ready for all scenarios.”

    But Mr Lieberman’s comments came as it was revealed the US State Department had vetted Mr Murtaja and his company, and awarded a grant worth $11,700 (£8,200) through Usaid, its international development agency.

    “My understanding is that he was vetted according to US government guidelines,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert at a press briefing.

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