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Gaza journalists as targets for Israeli snipers

I came home from covering the first of the Great March of Return demonstrations in the Gaza Strip on March 30 with two notions in my mind: The nerve agent I inhaled, which was dispensed by a drone, had not affected me, and press personnel were hit by accident — whether by gas canisters or live ammunition. It had seemed that Israeli snipers were shooting indiscriminately into the crowd that was peacefully protesting for the right to return.

I woke up the next morning to find black spots on my right shoulder and a tightness in my chest, proving I was wrong about the first notion. Luckily for me, my father-in-law, a dermatologist, immediately prescribed me some medication.

It was not until the following Friday, April 6, that I was proven wrong about the second notion. Israeli snipers killed Yasser Murtaja, 30, our ever-smiling fellow journalist, while he was covering the east Khan Yunis protest. That was when I realized that journalists were being targeted deliberately and systematically, with the purpose of terrorizing other journalists and impeding field coverage.

Rushdy al-Sourany, who co-founded a company named Ain Media with Murtaja, was standing two meters away from his partner when he was killed on April 6. “The Israeli sniper aimed for the spot that Yasser’s vest didn’t cover. It was obvious [they meant to] assassinate him,” he recounts.

Yasser was not the first journalist from the Murtaja family to be targeted by Israeli forces. Radio Alwan newscaster Alaa Murtaja was killed in the 2008 assault, and Al-AqsaTV correspondent Abdallah Murtaja was killed in 2014.

On April 13, the third Friday of the Great March of Return protests, 26-year-old journalist Ahmed Abu Hussein was targeted while he was reporting from east of the Abu Safiyeh gate in northern Gaza. A short video shows him standing at the back of the protest, between an elderly woman and a man, next to medical staff and wearing the distinctive blue press vest that identifies journalists, when he dropped to the ground. It was later discovered that an Israeli sniper shot him in the stomach.

Earlier on that Friday, dozens of gas canisters were dropped on the press tent and a medical station.

Abu Hussein was killed the same way as Murtaja. The bullets struck them both in the same spot, which is not covered by the blue vests, puncturing their abdomens. Murtaja died on the same day, while Abu Hussein died approximately two weeks after he was shot. Even after Murtaja’s death and then Abu Hussein’s, Israeli forces continued to target journalists covering the Great March of Return protests.

Indeed, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tried to justify the sniping of Palestinian journalists. He told the Israeli Army Radio (Galatz) that Hamas activists were disguised as journalists, and wearing Red Crescent uniforms and using ambulances to approach the security fence. “We do not take chances in those cases,” he said, adding that anyone who approaches the security fence would be endangering themselves.

The Legal and International Advocacy Committee of the Supreme National Commission for the Return Marches and Siege Breaking called upon regional and international media support organizations to take immediate steps to compel the Israeli military to respect the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention, particularly the legal stipulations that protect journalists and media professionals.

In their April 25 statement the committee points out that provisions grant special protection to journalists as a group that is especially susceptible to the dangers of armed conflict, both “journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict and national journalists in occupied territories,” the statement reads.

Journalist Nidal Ulayyan relates that he asked a medic not to stand close to him, explaining that he was looking out for the medic’s safety. Everyone on the field is a target; neither a blue vest nor a white coat will spare you.

“If you are taking part in a Great March of Return demonstration in eastern Gaza, do not stand close to a journalist.” This is not written on a sign, it is the advice protesters told each other on the Monday that Israel committed a massacre against unarmed citizens in Gaza, killing 62 people and wounding more than 3,000, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry spokesperson.

On that day, the deadliest in the Great March of Return protests, most medical stations and press locations were targeted with nerve gas, affecting more than 50 journalists. Photojournalist Yasser Qudaih, 32, who works for the local Falasteen newspaper, was shot with live ammunition.

Like Murtaja and Abu Hussein, Qudaih was shot in the abdomen. He immediately fell into a coma, and was taken to the Shifa Medical Complex and admitted into intensive care. By midnight, he was transferred to Makassed Hospital in occupied Jerusalem, due to the severity of his condition.

Qudaih resides in Gaza City with his wife, journalist Rana al-Sharafy, and their three children, Salaam, Sama and Amir. The two of them are a journalism duo — Qudaih takes photos and Sharafy writes. In addition to the Falasteen newspaper, they work together for several international media outlets.

“Soldiers are deliberately trying to repress stories and photos,” 30-year-old Sharafy tells me, after her husband’s third surgical operation. “Yasser is an independent journalist; he is not affiliated with any military or political organizations. Israel has proven that, wherever and whatever they are, Palestinians are not safe from killing or maiming.”

She takes a long, deep breath and adds, “Thanks to Allah, Yasser woke up from his coma. He smiled at me, but he hasn’t spoken yet. We are waiting for his condition to stabilize before we go back to Gaza, where he will continue to receive medical care and I will continue to convey the truth as a journalist.”

Israel may have embarked on a mission to strike fear into the hearts of reporters, but journalists are still writing and taking photos, in an effort to show the world the truth. The vigils that were held in the West to mourn Murtaja’s death stand as a testament to this endeavor. They have prompted people globally to ask about the context he was killed in, how he was killed, what he was doing by the border and what is going on in the besieged Palestinian strip — and this embarrasses the occupation.

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Hamza Abu Eltarabesh