Report shoots down Hamas' claims of 'journalist' deaths in war with Israel

Abdullah Murtaja appeared on the list of 17 "journalists" killed in the summer conflict between Hamas and Israel, even though in a video shot before his death he spoke of fighting Israel and becoming a martyr. (Screengrab)

Abdullah Murtaja appeared on the list of 17 "journalists" killed in the summer conflict between Hamas and Israel, even though in a video shot before his death he spoke of fighting Israel and becoming a martyr. (Screengrab)

A new report claims Hamas owes the world a retraction for its claim that Israeli forces killed 17 journalists during last year's war in Gaza.

The terrorist organization, which clashed violently with Israel last summer when the Jewish State moved to destroy tunnels it said Hamas used to mount attacks from the Palestinian territory, claimed the journalists were killed as they tried to cover the fighting. But a closer look by the Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre found that eight of the 17 dead were full-fledged terrorists and the rest were lower level, non-combatant Hamas operatives who worked for Hamas media organizations.

“Not only are the Palestinians trying to claim immunity for their military terrorist operatives, they are also trying to defame Israel by claiming it deliberately killed those "journalists" and prevented them from doing their jobs,” the report stated.

"Hamas are taking terrorists and calling them journalists."

- Reuven Erlich

One of the men referred to by the Gaza office of the Ministry of Information as “Heroes of Truth” was Abdallah Fadel Mortaja, who was actually a Hamas fighter who also worked for Hamas’ Ministry of Information. Mortaja made a video will looking forward to his martyrdom before he was killed on Aug. 25, and in a subsequent documentary, Mortaja's fellow terrorists spoke openly of his active involvement in fighting against Israel.

Shortly after Mortaja’s death, UNESCO was one of many international organizations to condemn Israel, but more than three months after the conflict ended, after looking more closely into the case, the UN agency admitted it had been duped by Hamas.

“The original statement issued on 29 August was in line with UNESCO’s policy of condemning all killings of journalists,” UNESCO said in November. “Information has been brought to the attention of UNESCO that Mr Murtaja was a member of an organized armed group — an active combatant, and, therefore, not a civilian journalist. This has come to light in a video [that] was posted recently on the Internet with Abdullah Murtaja speaking as a member of an organized armed group. UNESCO therefore withdraws the statement of 29 August."

The latest report raises the question of who counts as a journalist, said ITIC head Reuven Erlich. True journalists cannot be targeted under international law, but when they are covering the fighting on behalf of their government, their role becomes ambiguous.

“There is a very important question that needs to be answered,” said Erlich. “Who is a journalist? If you are an ISIS fighter in Syria or Iraq sending images of an execution, are you a journalist? Can you give every terror operative a camera and make him a “journalist,” then [suggest] that he is protected by international law? I doubt it. Unquestionably, Hamas are taking terrorists and calling them journalists. Tomorrow morning, maybe ISIS will call all its people who use a camera “journalists.” Why not?”

Hamas used the death tolls during the fighting to appeal for international support and try to paint Israel as the aggressor. Foreign governments, humanitarian groups and media organizations reported Hamas' death toll figures during the fighting, despite Gaza Ministry of Information and the Palestinian Health Ministry both having a well-established track record of slick manipulation of images and statistics in previous conflicts with Israel.

Three days after a article called the figures into question, other media outlets followed suit.

“Over the past week the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has been used hundreds of thousands of times, often to distribute pictures claiming to show the effects of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza,” a BBC statement read. “A #BBCtrending investigation has found that many of these images are not from the latest conflict and not even from Gaza. Some date as far back as 2009 and others are from conflicts in Syria and Iraq.”

A New York Times analysis at a similar point in the war looked at 1,431 names on a list of the dead. They reported that, “the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll: They are 9 percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, but 34 percent of those killed whose ages were provided.” The Times also stated that, “Human rights groups acknowledge that people killed by Hamas as collaborators and people who died naturally, or perhaps through domestic violence, are most likely counted [among the dead] as well.”

Israel's military is currently conducting a series of investigations into alleged incidents of inappropriate use of force during the 50-day war> The Israel Defense Force, has openly reported a casualty count of 72 lives lost, amongst whom, 66 were soldiers. To this day no Palestinian official has given any definitive details of the number of combatants killed on their side, amongst a death toll that varies between 2,170 to 2,310, according to a variety of Palestinian, Israeli, and international sources. There is also evidence that many names have been counted twice, or even multiple times. 

The ITIC, after extensive research into around 1,200 names made public, has concluded that nearly half  of the dead were actually combatants.

Hamas officials in Gaza did not return repeated calls for comment.

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: