Wednesday 15 August 2018

Gaza mourns for young journalist shot by IDF

Hundreds attend funeral of reporter killed by Israeli forces at border clash, writes Raf Sanchez

Mourners and journalists carry the body of Yasser Murtaja, during his funeral in Gaza City yesterday. Photo: Mahmud Hams/Getty
Mourners and journalists carry the body of Yasser Murtaja, during his funeral in Gaza City yesterday. Photo: Mahmud Hams/Getty

Raf Sanchez

The Israeli military is facing widespread questions over why its snipers killed a Palestinian journalist who was wearing body armour clearly marked with a 'Press' sign.

Yaser Murtaja, 30, was shot in the side on Friday afternoon while covering protests along the Gaza border and later died from his injuries. At least five other Palestinian journalists were reportedly shot by Israeli troops during the protest, and three sustained tear gas injuries.

Murtaja, a freelance cameraman who had worked for the BBC and the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, was filming in the Khan Younis area of southern Gaza and was about 300m from the Israeli border fence when he was shot, his colleagues said.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said it was investigating the shootings.

"The IDF does not intentionally target journalists. The circumstances in which journalists were allegedly hit by IDF fire are not familiar to the IDF, and are being looked into," a spokesman said.

Family and friends of Murtaja accused Israeli forces of deliberately targeting him, saying there was no way a sniper could have mistaken him for a protester when he was clearly marked as a journalist.

Journalist Yasser Murtaja after being shot by Israeli troops, with his ‘press’ jacket clearly visible. Photo: AFP/Getty
Journalist Yasser Murtaja after being shot by Israeli troops, with his ‘press’ jacket clearly visible. Photo: AFP/Getty

"He was wearing a press jacket and a helmet," said Rushdi Serraj, a journalist who was with Murtaja when he was shot. "The vest was so visible. It's clear that they targeted him on purpose."

Health officials in Gaza City said a live bullet had penetrated the side of his abdomen and he succumbed to his wounds in hospital.

Freelance photographer Ashraf Abu Amra told Reuters he was next to Murtaja, whom he said was wearing a helmet and protective vest. Abu Amra said they were both clearly marked as journalists.

"We were filming as youths torched tyres. We were about 250m from the fence," said Abu Amra. "Israeli forces opened fire and injuries began. Yaser and I ran to film when suddenly Yaser fell to the ground.

"I screamed to him 'Yaser are you alright?'. He didn't respond and there was blood on the ground underneath him. I knew it was a bad injury and people carried him away," said Abu Amra.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) secretary-general Christophe Deloire condemned what the group described as Israel's disproportionate response and called for an independent investigation into the incident.

The Foreign Press Association echoed the call and urged the military to show restraint.

The European Union in a statement said the killings raised serious questions about the use of force. It added that reports by Israel of stones and fire-bombs being thrown along with attempts to cross the fence into Israel "must also be clarified."

So far, 31 Palestinians have been killed in the week-long protests, with hundreds more wounded. There have been no Israeli casualties.

Israel Radio, citing an unnamed source in Gaza, said Murtaja had been operating a camera drone on Friday.

"I don't know who he was, cameraman or no cameraman, anyone operating drones above IDF soldiers must know he is putting himself at risk," said Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. "We won't take any risks."

Abu Amra and two other Palestinian journalists said Murtaja was not operating a camera drone when shot.

On his Facebook page, Murtaja had posted two aerial photos taken at the border in the past week. It was unclear if he had taken them himself.

Murtaja was married with a two-year-old son. He had worked on Ai Wei Wei's Human Flow documentary about the refugee crisis. The artist posted a photograph of him on Instagram yesterday, showing him lying on the ground moments after he was shot.

Murtaja was the co-founder of Ain media, a local TV production company that has done projects, including aerial drone video, for foreign media clients such as BBC and Al Jazeera English.

He was one of the first to bring a drone camera into Gaza and his images captivated many of its residents who have never seen the territory from above since it has no airport or skyscrapers.

Just two weeks ago, Murtaja posted a drone photo of Gaza's seaport at sunset on his Facebook page with the caption: "I wished I could take this photo from the sky, not from land. My name is Yasser Murtaja, I am 30 years old. I live in Gaza City. I have never travelled."

Friends say it reflected his greatest wish - to escape Gaza's isolation.

Hana Awad, his colleague and close friend, said he had long dreamt of travelling and was recently granted an Al Jazeera scholarship for training in Doha. She described him as active and friendly and not at all interested in politics.

"We didn't know his political views. He was passionate about his job and wanted to travel and learn," she said of Murtaja.

Hundreds of mourners, among them many journalists, attended his funeral yesterday. His body was covered with a Palestinian flag and his press jacket laid beside him on the stretcher as it was carried through the streets of Gaza City to his home for a last farewell.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since a 2007 takeover and calls for Israel's destruction, has called for a series of protests until May 15, the anniversary of Israel's founding when Palestinians commemorate their mass uprooting during the 1948 war over Israel's creation.

The group hopes that the mass protests can create pressure to break a border blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since 2007, without having to succumb to demands that it disarm. The blockade has made it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern. It has also devastated Gaza's economy, made it virtually impossible for people to enter and exit the territory, and left residents with just a few hours of electricity a day.

Israel argues that Hamas could have ended the suffering of Gaza's two million people by disarming and renouncing violence.

Witnesses described the area in which Murtaja and others were shot as a chaotic scene in which protesters torched large piles of tyres, engulfing the area in black smoke that was meant to shield them from Israeli snipers. Footage showed that visibility was limited.

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