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Palestinian journalist shot to death while covering protest in Gaza

Palestinian photojournalist Yaser Murtaja covered many funeral processions during the 2014 war in Gaza.

Now his colleagues are covering his death.

They surrounded his body, holding their cameras high, as he was taken out of Gaza's main hospital on Saturday. They marched through the streets on their way to the funeral prayers in the central mosque of the territory. Wrapped in his body was a Palestinian flag and a blue bulletproof vest.

A day earlier, Murtaja, 30, was on the Gaza border with his camera, covering demonstrations of the bloodiest violence Gaza has seen since. the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls the Palestinian territory.

For more than a week, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered near the fortified border fence of Israel with the declared objective of demanding the return to lands lost by their families in the 1948 war that led to the foundation of Israel . But Israel accused Hamas of fomenting violence under the guise of a civil protest.

Many protesters stayed behind the border fence, picnicking in the barley fields and organizing a camp, but some young Palestinians burned tires and threw rocks at the fence. Israel said there were also attempts to launch rudimentary explosives and damage or penetrate the border fence, as well as a couple of militants who fired on soldiers.

Israel said its troops fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire to prevent masses from crossing into Israel and to protect its border fence and soldiers. Gaza officials said Israeli troops killed at least 29 Palestinians since last Friday and wounded hundreds. Palestinians and some rights groups say that troops are firing at people even when they are unarmed or do not pose an immediate threat.

On Friday afternoon, Murtaja was 300 yards from the fence, documenting Palestinians burning tires, said photographer Rushdi Serraj, a close associate who said he was next to Murtaja when he was shot. "Suddenly, he screams," I'm hurt, I'm hurt, my stomach ", said Serraj

The photos show Murtaja on the ground, wearing a protective vest marked with" PRESS "in large English letters . His family said he was hit by a bullet in an exposed side of his torso not covered by the front or back of his vest.

The Union of Palestinian Journalists in Gaza said that five other Palestinian reporters covering the border protests were injured by Israeli fire. NPR encountered two of them, in hospital beds with serious leg injuries, who said they were taking photos at the border and wearing PRESS-branded vests when they were shot.

Adham Hajjar, 32, says he was wearing a vest marked "PRESS" when he was shot in the leg while covering protests at the Gaza-Israel border on Friday (Daniel Estrin)

The Israeli army said that does not intentionally attack journalists and is investigating the matter. Hours before Murtaja was shot, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said soldiers used lethal fire only as a last resort.

"No one is shot when standing and looking, they are shot after commanders specifically approve them against a specific person or threat," Conricus said.

On Saturday night, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman seemed to suggest that Murtaja had blown a drone over the soldiers when he was shot. He also said that Hamas men had disguised themselves as journalists. He did not provide evidence to support the claims.

"It is not known who is a photographer and who is not," said Lieberman. "Whoever uses drones over Israeli soldiers needs to understand that he is putting himself in danger."

The Foreign Press Association in Israel and the Palestinian territories asked the Israeli army to conduct a quick and open investigation, and show restraint in areas where journalists work.

Murtaja's colleagues said that he had done video work for the BBC, VICE and other international media, and that they had worked with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in his 2017 documentary, Human Flow . He was also a leading videographer for Ai Weiwei's video installation, Journey of Laziz which recently exhibited Israel's main museum, the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem. The visual artist shared photos of Murtaja on his Instagram account on Saturday.

The video showed the last tiger from Gaza, walking in his cage. An animal welfare group, Four Paws International, later evacuated the tiger from what it called the "worst zoo in the world", which had few resources.

Videographer Khaled Al Ashkar said that Murtaja once joked that he wanted the animal welfare group to get him out of Gaza as well. Israel and Egypt have blocked Gaza over the past decade, since Hamas took control, and travel from Gaza is severely restricted.

On March 24, Murtaja posted a photo on Facebook: a bird's eye view of the Mediterranean coast of Gaza, taken with her drone. He wrote: "I hope that one day I can take a picture while I am in heaven", that is, on a plane.

He signed: "My name is Yaser Murtaja, I am thirty years old, I live in Gaza City, I have never traveled!"

Correction: April 8, 2018 12:00 a.m. – Israel said its troops fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire to prevent the masses from crossing into Israel and to protect their border fence and soldiers. An earlier version of this story was incorrect when it said that Israel said the Palestinians fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire.

Copyright NPR 2018.

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