WASHINGTON (JTA) — A Palestinian journalist shot and killed by Israeli forces during protests at the Gaza border was vetted to receive funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, confirmed on Tuesday the check into Yaser Murtaja’s media company.
“My understanding is that he was vetted according to U.S. Government guidelines,” she said.
Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, had said that Murtaja was a high-ranking official of Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip. USAID vetting, in the case of Palestinians, includes checking with Israeli security officials as to whether the applicant has ties to terrorists, Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told NPR.
Hamas and Murtaja’s family and colleagues have denied any association between Murtaja and Hamas. Liberman did not provide evidence for the claim, nor did officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office when they repeated the claim on Twitter. In the past, Israeli authorities have released photos of slain Palestinians in Hamas uniform or provided other evidence to support their claims that the dead were legitimate targets.
Liberman and the officials in Netanyahu’s office failed to attribute the claim to any agency. JTA requests on Twitter to two of Netanyahu’s spokesman to elaborate on their Twitter claims of Murtaja’s Hamas affiliation did not receive replies. The army and intelligence agencies have declined media requests to confirm or deny Liberman’s assertion. The Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff has ordered an investigation into its military’s response to the Gaza border protests.
On two successive recent Fridays, Palestinian protesters gathered at the border with Israel demanding the right to return to lands they claim their ancestors held. Israeli forces have fired on the protesters, killing at least 30, saying they are backed by Hamas and some have been violent, including throwing rocks and burning tires as a smokescreen so some may cross the border.
Murtaja’s killing stirred outrage and calls for investigations from journalists’ groups, including from the Israeli Journalists Association. He was wearing a protective vest marked PRESS and was 300 yards from the security fence.