On 6 April 2018, the second large Friday demonstration of the Great March of Return in Gaza, Israeli occupation forces shot and killed nine Palestinians at the mass popular demonstration. Among those targeted by Israeli occupation snipers was well-known Palestinian photojournalist and videographer Yaser Murtaja, whose work was known internationally and who had been retained by the Norwegian Refugee Council to cover the events of the March. Murtaja, 30, was wearing a protective vest prominently labeled with the word “PRESS.” International protests have responded to the killing of Murtaja, including vigils organized by close friends and fellow journalists in global cities.
Yaser Murtaja’s last footage:
Murtaja was a prominent member of the community of journalists in the Gaza Strip and a founder of Ain Media, which was known for photographing Gaza footage using aerial drones. After shooting down Murtaja as he filmed the demonstration, infamous far-right, racist Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman attempted to justify his killing by labeling him as affiliated with Hamas. Lieberman also claimed that there were “no innocent people in Gaza.” While Lieberman’s words indicate the murderous intention of the Israeli occupation state toward Palestinians who have the right to resist and to choose their political affiliation, the comments in the case of Murtaja are particularly absurd, noted the International Federation of Journalists.
Murtaja had, in fact, been detained by security forces of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza under the authority of Hamas in 2015, while documenting the demolition of a Palestinian home. He was beaten by security forces and required hospitalization. Murtaja was the married father of a 15-month-old son. He was one of six Palestinian journalists shot or injured during the march. The others were Adham al-Hajjar, a cameraman for Medi1TV of Morocco; Khalil Abu Adhreh, cameramen for Al-Aqsa TV; Ibrahim al-Zaanoun, a freelance photographer; Ezz Abu Shanab, editor for Sky Press Agency; and Saber Nureldine, photographer for the European Press Photo Agency.
In a report in the New Yorker, Murtaja’s business partner, Rushdi al-Sarraj, spoke about the project he was working on: a documentary about the Great Return March. “Yaser and I were preparing a documentary about the Great Return March that started a week and a half ago,” said al-Sarraj. “Yaser thought of making a documentary about it and picked some characters to follow: a nurse, a doctor, a twelve-year-old student, all of whom had joined the protests.”
“We talked about the stories we wanted to cover – families affected by violence, as well as children again exposed to trauma and their ensuing nightmares,” said Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which commissioned Murtaja to film footage of the march shortly before he was killed. “Two days later, he was killed by an Israeli sniper while peacefully observing the demonstrations. He was killed doing his job: recording his people’s right to protest for their human rights.”
When Murtaja was buried in a mass funeral in Gaza on Saturday, 10 April, his body was wrapped in a Palestinian flag as well as a “PRESS” vest. Murtaja has been honored with protests, vigils and memorials in Gaza and in several global cities, including London, Portland, Istanbul and New York.
In Portland, Oregon, people gathered with candles and flowers, laying them before a Palestinian flag with photos of Murtaja on 10 April.
Nour al-Ghussein, a young Palestinian woman from Gaza, delivered a powerful, evocative memorial at the vigil. She was currently working on a documentary film, called “Between Two Borders,” with Murtaja.
“I knew Yaser for so many years. He was a close friend, he was like family…I lived in Gaza for 20 years before coming here. I know the feeling of losing someone, of losing your house, of being scared, under fire, feeling insecure. But I did not know it is so much harder to be away from your family, to not be back home, sharing such a painful death….Not being there is so hard.”
In Istanbul, a display in Taksim Square honored Murtaja, displaying cameras alongside posters of the slain journalist, under the slogan, “You Can’t Kill the Truth.”
In New York City, crowds, including local organizers with Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network and many other Palestinian and solidarity organizations, gathered in Union Square on 8 April for a vigil remembering Murtaja. The demonstration was organized by Palestinian youth who had worked with and befriended Murtaja, including Walaa al-Ghussein, Nour’s sister.
In Madison, Craig and Cindy Corrie, the parents of Rachel Corrie, joined Joe Catron and Islam Maraqa and members of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project to express their remembrance of Murtaja. This solidarity photograph was taken at one of the ongoing events on the International Solidarity Movement spring tour, in which Catron, also the U.S. coordinator of Samidoun, and Maraqa are touring North America to inform audiences about the work of the ISM.
In London, the National Union of Journalists held a vigil in remembrance of Murtaja on 12 April, calling for justice and accountability for his killing. Participants carried Palestinian flags and photos of Murtaja.
The NUJ joined more journalists’ organizations in expressing outrage at the killing of Murtaja and demands for accountability. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement in which they “condemned comments by Israel’s defense minister over the weekend that appear to justify the killing of Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja in Gaza, and called on authorities to hold to account anyone who shot journalists with live ammunition.”
Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists – the global journalists’ alliance that includes the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate – stated that the Israeli government is “fabricating lies to justify murder,” in response to Lieberman labeling Murtaja a “terrorist.” “It is clear that after Israeli soldiers murdered a journalist the Defence Minister is more interested in spouting propaganda and engaging in a cover-up than in carrying out a thorough and transparent investigation and bringing Yasser’s killers to justice,” said IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger. “It is time for the Israeli authorities to stop fabricating lies to justify murder and it is time to stop targeting Palestinian journalists.”
The IFJ has responded to past Israeli attacks on Palestinian journalists, including their imprisonment. For example, Palestinian journalist Omar Nazzal was on his way to a conference of the European Federation of Journalists – an IFJ affiliate – when he was seized by occupation forces at the Karameh crossing to Jordan and thrown in administrative detention without charge or trial.
Ain Media itself issued a statement, noting that the Israeli occupation bears full responsibility for the targeting of Yaser, wearing a helmet and press shield and clearly actively filming. “We affirm that we will knock on all doors and work in every legal institution to hold the Israeli occupation accountable for this heinous crime,” it said.
Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network denounces the killing of Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja and notes that this killing takes place as part of a systematic attack on Palestinian journalists that includes targeting them for death, injury and imprisonment. Israeli occupation forces have repeatedly targeted journalists, and Palestinian journalists are routinely subjected to imprisonment, frequently administrative detention without charge or trial. The cases of Mohamed al-Qeeq, Omar Nazzal and Bushra al-Tawil are three among dozens that underline this policy, alongside historic assassinations of Palestinian writers like that of groundbreaking novelist, writer and revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani in 1972. The work, the images and the words of Palestinian journalists are critical in sharing the Palestinian experience, narrative and struggle with the Palestinian people, the Arab world and international audiences. Palestinian journalists must receive international solidarity and Israeli occupation forces must be held accountable, including through global sanctions and an arms embargo, for their targeting of Palestinians who document the stories of their people.
The martyrs of the Great Return March in Gaza (list compiled by Shahd Abusalama)
1. Omar Wahid Samour, 31 — the farmer who was killed around dawn.
2. Mohammed Kamal al-Najjar, 25.
3. Jihad Zuhair Abu Jamous, 30.
4. Amin Mansour Abu Muammar, 22.
5. Ibrahim Salah Abu Sha’er, 17. Defence for Children NGO investigations “confirmed he was 17 years old when he was killed, not 22 years as reported by news media. Under international law, any person below 18 years is considered a child.”
6. Nagy Abdullah Abu Hjeir, 25.
7. Musab Zuhair Al-Soloul, 23.
8. Abd al-Qader Mardi al-Hawajri, 42.
9. Mahmoud Saadi Rahmi, 23.
10. Mohammed Naeem Abu Amro, 26.
11. Ahmed Ibrahim Ashour Odeh, 19.
12. Jihad Ahmed Farina, 34.
13. Abdel-Fattah Abdel-Nabi, 18. Shot by a sniper from his back before camera.
14. Bader Fayiq al-Sabbagh, 22.
15. Sari Walid Abu Odeh, 27.
16. Hamdan Isma’il Abu Amsha, 23.
17. Fares Al-Ruqab, 29.
18. Ahmad Omar Arafah, 25.
19. Osama Khamis Qdeih, 38.
20. Majdi Ramadan Shabat, 38
21. Hussein Muhammad Adnan Madi, 13.
22. Subhi Abu Atawi, 20.
23. Mohammad Said al-Haj-Saleh, 33.
24. Sedqi Faraj Abu Atawi, 45.
25. Alaa al-Din Yahya Ismail al-Zamli, 15.
26. Hamza Abd al-Al, 20.
27. Yaser Murtaja, 30, journalist shot dead while wearing a Press vest at the protest
28. Ibrahim Al-‘ur, 19
29. Mujahed Nabil Al-Khudari, 25.
30. Marwan Odeh Qdeih, 45, succumbed to wounds.
31. Mohammed Hjeila, 30, killed in an airstrike in eastern Gaza on April 12.
32. Abdallah Al-Shahri, 28, killed in an airstrike on April 12.