Slain Gaza Journalist, Branded Hamas Militant by Israel, Received U.S. Grant

State Department says $11,700 USAID grant to a firm co-founded by Yaser Murtaja was vetted. Israel's defense chief says Murtaja was on the group's payroll, providing no evidence

Mortally wounded Palestinian journalist Yasser Murtaja, 31, is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border, April 6, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

A media firm co-founded by a Palestinian journalist killed by Israeli gunfire on the Gaza border over the weekend, who Israel says was a Hamas militant, recently received a grant from the U.S. government.

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Yaser Murtaja was shot Friday while covering a mass demonstration near the Israeli border. He was carrying a video camera and wearing a flak jacket marked with the word "press" when he was shot.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters on Tuesday that Murtaja had been on the Hamas payroll since 2011 and held a rank similar to captain. He said Murtaja had used a drone to collect intelligence on Israeli forces along the border.

Lieberman provided no evidence to support his claims.

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Lieberman accused Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, of using the media, as well as ambulances and medical patients, as cover to carry out attacks.

The defense chief said he didn't expect objectivity from the international media, but that he wants "Israelis, including journalists, to really come with an open mind."

At the funeral last week, Murtaja's body was draped in a Palestinian flag with his flak jacket reading "press" placed upon it as it was carried through the streets of Gaza.

Hamas' leader, Ismail Haniyeh, attended the funeral in a sign of respect. But no gunmen were visible at the ceremony, as is common when members of militant groups are buried.

The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that the media production company co-founded by Murtaja had recently received an $11,700 grant from the U.S. government.

Murtaja's company, Ain Media, became a USAID program beneficiary last month under a program that supports private sector development. The TV production company has done projects, including aerial drone filming, for foreign media clients such as the BBC and Al-Jazeera English.

Murtaja had been hired to begin work for the Norwegian Refugee Council, a major international aid organization. The group released footage showing what it described as his "last work." He died two days before he was to start his new job.

The NRC's secretary-general, Jan Egeland, called Murtaja's death "heartbreaking," and has called for accountability for "the shooting of an innocent civilian."

In Gaza, Murtaja's brother, Mutasem, angrily denied Lieberman's claims.
"He spreads lies to get himself out of the impasse," he said. "Yasser was filming the protests with simple cameras to show they are peaceful."

The State Department said Tuesday the grant was still in its early stages, and no equipment or technical assistance has been provided. It said the grant was vetted according to strict U.S. government requirements of USAID-funded assistance.