In the early hours of April 7, we received a message that Palestinian photojournalist Yaser Murtaja had succumbed to his wounds in a hospital. He had been shot by Israeli snipers in Gaza a day earlier.
The tragic news was delivered in a WhatsApp group for Palestinian journalists and activists, which was meant to provide updates on the situation in Gaza.
Just two days before his murder, Yaser, who was also in the group, messaged us to explain that he was working on a documentary on the Great March of Return. He never finished his documentary, never came home to his wife and two-year-old son and, instead of reporting news, he became the news.
The message came as a shock to us. His friends were in disbelief and those of us that never met Yaser but knew of him as a journalist comrade met the news with pain and a realisation that we are never truly safe. No press card, no shield can save us from murder.
That the Israeli army would shoot a journalist wearing a press vest was not really surprising to us. They’ve done it before. I myself have been beaten and injured while wearing my press vest. For Israel, it didn’t matter that he was a journalist.
Being a Palestinian already puts a target on your back, even if it says “press” in big blue letters on it. As the Israeli defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said a day after Yaser’s death on behalf of the Israeli political and military establishment: “There are no innocent people in the Gaza strip.”
While the fact that Israel broke international conventions killing a journalist should be scrutinised, this is not how we should examine what happened in recent days.
The Israeli army killed 29 people and injured more than 2,000 during the peaceful protests in Gaza. As such, Yaser’s death is no more outrageous of a crime than the murder of the other 28 people. Because just like them, he was killed for being Palestinian.
For Israel, international laws safeguarding journalists and freedom of the press have the same value as the conventions on basic human rights – they mean nothing. The entire state of Israel is built on violations of international conventions. It is for this reason that we must address Yaser’s killing outside the parameters of his journalism and put it in the context of the reality all Palestinians live in.
So yes, Yaser’s murder demonstrates yet again that Israel disregards the rights of journalists, But more importantly, it also shows that the Israeli state violates Palestinians’ rights, whether they are journalists or not.
The disregard by Israeli soldiers was not merely to Yaser’s press gear, but to the value of his life in its entirety, as a young Palestinian man from Gaza.
We Palestinians – simply put – are an impediment to Israel’s greater colonial project, and that means none of us is “innocent” in their eyes. We, by virtue of our existence, threaten their state.
But when we are murdered mercilessly by our occupier, we almost always die a second death – we are also killed by the mainstream narrative. Yaser got a short-lived spotlight for being a journalist, but the rest of the victims remained nameless and faceless. He was afforded a momentary uproar, but what if Yaser were not in journalist gear, where would his name, life, and story be?
We Palestinians have our rights violated on a daily basis; the targeting of Yaser is simply a symptom of the larger Israeli occupation and not an anomaly.
However, any time Palestinians protest for the right to life and dignity, the mainstream narrative disregards the context of occupation and apartheid. Almost always it is suggested that our call for dignity and justice is part of the latest “unrest” in the region, without recognising that the unrest and tension began with the imposition of a colonial project on our lands, one that is built on our dispossession and the blood of our people.
When Palestinians hurl rocks and burn tires, media would not report this as us having no other way to challenge the military might of an occupier and desperately trying to hide from its snipers in the smoke; it would instead suggest that this is us “rioting” and being “violent”.
It is almost always implied that these are two equal sides in a conflict, and even worse – that one side has a “civilisational” mission, while the other is simply barbaric.
Having this type of media backing, the Israeli army spokesperson felt comfortable tweeting after the latest killings in Gaza: “Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.”
This not only means that Israeli forces are well aware of what they’re doing, but are consciously and actively shooting Palestinians, whether they are journalists like Yaser, or teenagers like 16-year-old Alaa Zamli and 14-year-old Hussein Madi.
Tragically, Yaser’s killing is the norm in Palestine. Whether we are protesting in the streets, hurling stones, or simply, as journalists, documenting the grave injustices of Israeli actions, we are being killed for it, incarcerated, beaten, held at checkpoints, our homes demolished, and our children abused in prisons.
Israel likes to promote itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. Yet it gladly tramples on the democratic rights of Palestinians. And when, today, Palestinians in Gaza are coming out in the thousands to resist without arms, to use the right of protest which any democracy should protect, they are met with Israeli bullets.
Yaser, like the other victims, did not deserve to die. His murder, like the rest, is a crime committed by an occupier who has violated for decades international law. They all deserve our outrage and our condemnation.