A Palestinian photojournalist died in a Gaza hospital early Saturday morning after an Israeli sniper shot him in the stomach on Friday during the second weekend of a planned six-week long protest in the border region between Israel and the coastal enclave, an official in the Hamas-run Health Ministry in the Strip said in a phone call.
Pictures and videos show 30-year-old Yaser Murtaja after he was shot Friday afternoon in the border region near Khan Younis, wearing a protective jacket with “PRESS” marked on the front of it. He worked for the Gaza-based Ain Media Company.
Ashraf Abu Amra, an eyewitness, said he and Murtaja were some 150 to 200 meters away from the border fence when Murtaja was shot.
“We were taking pictures of the Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and live fire on young protesters... then we started to move up to take pictures of wounded protesters,” Abu Amra told The Jerusalem Post
in a phone call. “Yaser was in front of me and all of the sudden he fell to the ground. I realized he was wounded and then helped the first aid responders carry him away.”
During the past two Fridays, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have participated in border- region protests to support the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes in Israel.
When asked about Murtaja on Saturday, the army said: “The IDF uses means such as warnings, riot dispersal means and, as a last resort, firing live rounds in a precise, measured way. The IDF is committed to preventing infiltrations into Israeli territory and threats against IDF troops and Israeli civilians… 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.”
The IDF has described the protests in the border region during the past two weeks as “a violent riot,” asserting that protesters have thrown Molotov cocktails and rocks at its soldiers, opened fire on them, set tires on fire and attempted to pass into Israel’s borders.
Israeli security officials have also warned Palestinians that approaching the border fence puts their lives in jeopardy.
However, human rights groups and Palestinian officials have accused Israel of targeting “unarmed civilians.”
“The army again used deadly force yesterday without justification,” Amit Gilutz, a spokesman for B’tselem, said in a text message on Saturday. “Live fire against unarmed demonstrators who do not threaten anyone is immoral and illegal.”
ON FRIDAY , Israeli security forces shot dead a total of nine Palestinians in the border region and wounded more than 1,300 others, according to Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Health Ministry. The Palestinian Red Crescent put the injury count at 704. Israeli security officials have argued that Palestinian injury counts are inaccurate and inflated.
On the previous Friday, at least 15 Palestinians were shot dead in the border region, many of who the IDF identified as members of armed groups.
Eyewitness Abu Amra argued that the army “intentionally” targeted Murtaja to frighten other journalists from covering the soldiers use of force against Palestinians near the border fence.
“The soldiers could see us with our flak jackets and cameras and we could see them. We were in the area just after prayers,” he said. “They intentionally shot him so that other journalists will hesitate to cover the army’s use of force in the areas where the clashes are happening.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman suggested that Murtaja had been flying a drone in the border region.
“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,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters on Saturday. “We won’t take any risks.”
Abu Amra denied that Murtaja was flying a drone.
However, Murtaja, on his Facebook page, had posted two aerial photos taken at the border in the past week. It was unclear if he had taken them himself.
At least three other journalists were wounded last Friday in other locations, Gaza-based officials said. There have been no Israeli casualties in the protests.
On Saturday evening, the National Journalists Association asked IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot to review reports that IDF soldiers shot in the direction of reporters during the Gaza-Israel border clashes.
“We are convinced that the IDF is a partner to the values of democracy, including freedom of the press. Journalists – from any nation – are in conflict zones to report what is going on. An army of a democratic state is not supposed to harm journalists who are doing their jobs. That is why we take the fact that journalists were hurt very seriously,” the association said.
Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire condemned what the group described as Israel’s disproportionate response and called for an independent investigation into the incident.
Earlier on Saturday, Murtaja’s family and colleagues carried his remains, wrapped in a Palestinian flag and a flack jacket marked “PRESS”, during a funeral procession for him in Gaza City.
Hamas Politburo Chairman Ismail Haniyeh delivered a speech at Murtaja’s funeral.
“Yasser exposed and scandalized the enemy that indiscriminately kills,” Haniyeh said, referring to Israel.
In a Facebook post on March 24, Murtaja posted an aerial photo of Gaza and stated his wish to take photos from the sky.
“I hope the day comes when I can take this photo from the sky and not from the ground,” he said. “My name is Yasser Murtaja and I am 30 years old and live in Gaza City. I have never traveled abroad.”
Reuters contributed to this story.