Murtaja is carried through Gaza City. Photo by Mohammed Zaanoun/Splash News
Filmmaker and photojournalist Yaser Abdul Rahman Murtaja was laid to rest Saturday after his body was carried through the streets of Gaza City - in the land he long sought but never managed to leave - draped in a Palestinian flag and the clearly marked PRESS flak jacket he was wearing when he was killed by an Israeli sniper at peaceful border protests. Hundreds of mourners and dozens of journalist protesters turned up to mark the murder of Murtaja, one of nine people killed Friday by Israeli forces in the second protest in Gazans' six-week "Great March of Return," scheduled to culminate on May 15's Nakba Day to mark Israel's expulsion of up to 750,00 Palestinians in 1948. At the first protest a week ago, Israelis likewise opened fire on up to 30,000 peaceful protesters, killing 16 and injuring up to 1,400. At Friday's action, according to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, Israeli forces also shot and injured five other journalists, all clearly identifiable as such.
Like them, Murtaja was wearing a flak jacket with a large "PRESS" sign when he was shot in the stomach; he died later at the hospital. A co-founder of Gaza-based Ain Media, which did TV work for BBC, Al Jazeera and other foreign outlets, Murtaja was one of the first journalists in Gaza to use camera drones. In 2016, he worked as a cameraman for Ai Weiwei's documentary, “Human Flow” about the global refugee crisis, and he was currently working with the Norwegian Refugee Council to document the impact of ongoing violence on the mental health of Gaza's children, 300,000 of whom are already deemed in need of critical social and psychological help. The married father of a two-year-old son, Murtaja was described by colleagues as "a good guy, always smiling and loved by everybody." Like many of the 2 million young Palestinians in Gaza, he'd never been able to leave the 140-square-mile strip, though he tried. Two weeks ago, he posted on Facebook an aerial shot of Gaza City's port. “I wish that the day would come to take this shot when I’m in the air and not on the ground,” he wrote. “My name is Yaser Murtaja. I’m 30 years old. I live in Gaza City. I have never traveled!”
Israeli officials, being Israeli officials, were defiant in the wake of Murtaja's killing. Their savage defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, who last week said there were “no innocent people in the Gaza Strip” suggested Murtaja was responsible for his own death: "I don’t know who he is, a photographer, not a photographer. Whoever operates drones above [Israeli] soldiers needs to understand that he is endangering himself.” A military statement announced (yet another) investigation - perhaps because the International Criminal Court has already warned Israel that its brazen, ongoing shooting of civilians constitutes a war crime - but also insisted that IDF forces do not fire on journalists (except for those six?) and, in sinister language evidently meant to sound reassuring, that they use snipers in "a precise, measured way."
Their remarks and Murtaja's death have been met with righteous rage by international rights advocates and Gazans who, after years of occupation, blockade and violence, "have nothing left to lose." Ain Media expressed gratitude to media reports on the case, vowed to "try the Occupation" for Murtaja's killing, and pledged to "knock on all doors" of international rights groups to hold Israel legally responsible "for this heinous crime." The Norwegian Refugee Council also vowed to hold Israel accountable for the killing of a journalist who was "killed doing his job - recording his people’s right to protest for their human rights.” Their secretary-general blasted all the Occupation's evils: The longtime "collective punishment" of economic hardship and, now, the "abominable" shooting of peaceful protesters - "while running away, while waving flags, while praying, while reporting, while giving first aid and while working on their land." In Murtaja’s haunting, final footage of the protests, newly released by the Council, we see just that: Crowds of Palestinians gathering in protest tents, walking, talking, cooking, taking photos, and then the eruption of smoke, chaos, gunfire, victims felled by the same violence that a short time later claimed Murtaja, documenting it. “Not only are we denied our rights," notes Abd Elrazak El Gherbawi, a Gazan and Council employee, "but we’re killed for asking for them.”
Earlier at the protests
Filming for Weiwei
Nothing left to lose. Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters