Editor’s Note: Robert Mahoney is the deputy executive director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Israel still refuses to learn the lesson that live fire is not a means of crowd control. Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja paid the price for that failure this month when an Israeli sniper mortally wounded him as Murtaja covered protests at the Gaza-Israel border fence.
The 30-year-old freelance photographer and documentarian was wearing a flak jacket with the word “PRESS” emblazoned across it. He was clearly not a protester and not a threat to the soldiers and paramilitary police hundreds of yards away. Yet a single shot entered his side where a vest provides no protection.
Five other journalists were wounded by gunfire that day, raising questions among reporters about whether the press was being deliberately targeted. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) denied targeting reporters and said it would investigate Murtaja’s death.
But journalists, both local and foreign, can’t wait for the outcome of that investigation. They need to know now that they can venture out to cover demonstrations without being hit by snipers, whom the IDF placed along the border fence in the lead-up to the protests. After all, journalists are civilians and are entitled to the protection of international humanitarian law.
That said, the possibility of more deaths among journalists, not to mention the protesters, in the coming weeks remains real.
Palestinians have launched what they call the Great March of Return ahead of the May 14 anniversary of the founding of Israel 70 years ago, when many of their ancestors were forced to flee homes in what is now the Jewish state and live in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank.
Many residents have protested peacefully. A handful have resorted to violence. Yet others have only approached the fence that keeps nearly 2 million Gazans packed in a 25-mile-long sliver of Mediterranean coastline.
CNN put the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli fire since the protests began on March 30 at 31. And the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the wounding by gunfire of some local journalists across Gaza over that period.
In the aftermath of Murtaja’s death, the Israeli government sent out two distinct messages. First, the military appointed a brigadier general to investigate the IDF’s reaction to the protests in general, and the shooting of the journalist in particular.
Then, at the political level, defense minister Avigdor Liberman blamed the victim. He accused Murtaja of being a militant member of Hamas, the party that governs Gaza and which is viewed as a terrorist organization by Israel and many of its Western allies, including the United States. He accused Murtaja of using a drone to collect intelligence along the border, though he provided no evidence for either assertion.
Murtaja’s colleagues deny he belonged to Hamas. In fact, Murtaja’s production company, Ain Media, received a USAID grant last month after strict vetting by the US government, according to the Associated Press. Murtaja was even detained and beaten by Hamas security forces for filming in 2015, according to the International Federation of Journalists.
Three Palestinian journalists with Murtaja also denied that he was operating a drone camera at the time of his death, although he had used aerial photography as part of his media work in the past. The IDF refused to back up Liberman’s drone claim. In any case, flying a drone, an increasingly popular piece of news-gathering equipment globally, should not be a death sentence.
It’s regrettable that Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu hasn’t reined in his defense minister, who smeared a journalist as a terrorist after he was shot and killed. Is this going to be tactic in the future to justify the breaching of international law, which protects civilians and journalists in armed conflict?
Israel’s State Comptroller, an independent watchdog of the executive branch of government, has emphasized in reports following previous violence in 2003 and 2017 that the government has failed to develop and implement nonlethal means to deal with demonstrations. And in a report published just last month on Israel’s conflict with Hamas in 2014, the Comptroller said the huge delays in the IDF’s investigation of its own conduct undermined the effectiveness and credibility of the military’s accountability mechanisms.
This is not the first time Israel has been in the spotlight for killing journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists documented the targeting of buildings housing Hamas-affiliated news outlets and journalists in Gaza in a previous round of fighting in 2012. The inquiries into that and other bouts of fighting yielded no improvement in safety for journalists. Seventeen journalists have been killed in Israel and the Occupied Territories since CPJ began keeping records in 1992 – 15 of them by Israeli fire, and no one has been held accountable for their deaths.
Human Rights Watch has reported that senior Israeli officials have now called for the use of live ammunition against Palestinian protests, despite the fact that those protests pose no imminent threat to life. This would appear to violate two basic principles of the law of armed conflict – distinction and proportionality, which Israel, as a party to the Geneva Conventions, is bound to uphold.
Under the law of armed conflict, the military must always clearly distinguish between combatants and civilians, and journalists are classed as civilians. Also, the use of force must be proportional to the perceived threat or, when applied to a military target, must minimize harm of damage to civilians or civilian targets.
“Testimonies of correspondents on the Israeli side about the rate of firing and Palestinian reports of 800 people wounded attest to quite permissive orders given to the snipers,” writes military commentator Amos Harel in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. “This situation leaves a lot to the discretion of relatively young soldiers.”
Using live ammunition as a first resort instead of nonlethal rounds puts journalists, particularly photographers and camera operators who must be at the front lines to get pictures, at terrible risk.
Israel insists it fires in accordance with the rules of engagement and says its snipers aim for the lower part of the body.
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Israel is a democracy and a nation of laws with international commitments that it needs to honor.
Journalists are civilians and entitled to protection. In fact, UN Security Council Resolution 2222, of May 2015, urges member states to ensure accountability for crimes committed against journalists.
The army has sent about 100 snipers along with regular troops to vulnerable points along the border fence, according to media reports. In the past week the world has seen the result of that deployment, and there’s still a month of planned Palestinian protests to come.
If we are to avoid more tragedies like that of Yaser Murtaja, the world’s press needs to put the Netanyahu administration on notice – stop smearing journalists as terrorists and stop firing live ammunition as a first response to disperse crowds of civilians, who will inevitably be accompanied by reporters.