By The Editorial Board – The New York Times
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.
Yasser Murtaja was a self-taught photojournalist who reported on his community and had the distinction of doing camerawork for a documentary by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident and artist.
Normally, that wouldn’t be a life-threatening career. But Mr. Murtaja, 30 years old and the father of a 15-month-old son, lived in Gaza, the enclave of nearly two million Palestinians ruled by ruthless Hamas militants that has been devastated by an 11-year blockade by Israel and Egypt and three wars between Israel and Hamas that have killed thousands of Palestinians and about 100 Israelis.
On Friday, Mr. Murtaja was shot and killed by Israeli security forces while covering protests that over the past two weeks have drawn tens of thousands of Palestinians to Gaza’s border with Israel, demanding to return to lands their families lost in the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s founding.
At times, some of the younger protesters have moved close to the border’s no-go zone, burning tires and throwing rocks at the fence. Israel has said some Gazans have tried to toss crude explosives, shoot weapons and breach the barrier.
But in general, the protests have been peaceful, with many demonstrators staying far back from the heavily fortified fence to picnic and hold a tent camp sit-in. There has been no apparent reason for Israel to use live ammunition.
The government claims that the protests are a cover for a more violent Hamas agenda, including encouraging Gazans to penetrate the fence and push into Israel. Israel has a right to defend its border, but in the face of unarmed civilians it could do so with nonlethal tactics common to law enforcement, such as the use of high-powered fire hoses.
Since the protests began, Israeli forces have killed at least 29 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,000. On the day Mr. Murtaja died, eight other Palestinians were killed and five other journalists were among a thousand injured. There have been no known Israeli casualties.
The fact that Mr. Murtaja and the wounded journalists wore protective vests with signs proclaiming “PRESS” on the front has prompted suspicion that Israel deliberately targeted the journalists, as Reporters Without Borders, an activist group, and Rushdi Al Sarraj, Mr. Murtaja’s friend and sometime collaborator, have alleged. In an interview with The New Yorker, Mr. Al Sarraj recalled how the Israeli Army had earlier boasted that its soldiers were so precise and competent they “know where they put every bullet and where every bullet landed.”
The Israeli military has said its forces did not intentionally shoot journalists. But that assertion was undercut by Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defense minister, who said on Tuesday that Mr. Murtaja was a Hamas captain who had used a drone to collect intelligence on Israeli forces. That volatile charge is at odds with independent news reporting and, if it is false, could put other journalists at grave risk. Mr. Lieberman provided no proof for the claim and further demonstrated his disdain for justice, rule of law and the role of a free press by arguing on Sunday that there are “no innocent people” in Hamas-run Gaza.
Human Rights Watch said it reviewed videos of the protests — in which a demonstrator was shot in the leg while praying and a man was shot while throwing a rock — showing that victims posed no threat to Israeli troops. Meanwhile, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, urged Israeli soldiers to disobey open-fire orders because using live ammunition against unarmed people is unlawful.
An independent investigation into the killings is needed. But on March 31, after the first deaths, the United States, in support of Israel, blocked a proposed United Nations Security Council statement condemning the Israeli response, urging a transparent inquiry and affirming the right of Palestinians to demonstrate peacefully.
Such ideas should not be controversial. But ordinary Palestinians have few defenders, and much of the world has been shockingly mute about what’s happening in Gaza. Journalists have a right to work, and people have a right to demonstrate peacefully — and to assume that responsible authorities will ensure that they can do so without being shot.
Israel, a democracy with its own vigorous press and engaged citizenry, should understand that better than most.