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Palestinians bury dead, including journalist, killed by Israeli fire

Thousands march for Gaza – US rejects Kuwaiti statement on violence

GAZA: Demonstrators assist Palestinian journalist Yasser Murtaja during clashes with Israeli security forces following a protest near the border with Israel east of Khan Younis on Friday. — AFP

GAZA CITY: Palestinian mourners in the Gaza Strip yesterday buried their dead, including a journalist, after Israeli troops killed nine during the latest border clashes in a week of bloodshed. Thousands of protesters approached the border fence around Gaza for a second Friday in a row, burning tyres and hurling stones at Israeli forces, who responded with tear gas and live ammunition. In addition to the nine dead, at least 491 were wounded by Israeli gunfire, the health ministry in the Hamas-run enclave said.

Israel said there were around 20,000 protesters and that they were seeking to breach the border. Numbers were down from the previous Friday, when tens of thousands approached the border in demonstrations that saw Israeli forces kill 19 Palestinians, making it the bloodiest day in Gaza since a 2014 war. The demonstrations largely abated by yesterday, but three Palestinians were wounded by Israeli forces in a small clash east of Gaza City in the afternoon, one of them seriously, according to the Palestinian health ministry. No Israelis were injured on either day and the latest deaths have sparked fresh calls for an investigation.

Among those killed on Friday was Yasser Murtaja, 30, a photographer with the Gaza-based Ain Media agency, who died from his wounds after being shot, the health ministry said. Murtaja’s company confirmed his death, with witnesses saying he was close to the front of the protests in southern Gaza when he was hit. An AFP picture taken after he was wounded showed Murtaja wearing a press vest as he received treatment. His brother Mutasim, also a journalist, said he was next to him when he was shot. “The target was very clearly journalists,” he said. “Yasser went forward to take the true pictures to show the world,” he told AFP. “Then the bullet hit him in his stomach.”

Israel’s army said it “does not intentionally target journalists”. “The circumstances in which journalists were allegedly hit by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) fire are not familiar to the IDF, and are being looked into,” it said in a statement. Murtaja’s body was taken from the hospital to his home in Gaza City yesterday morning, with dozens of journalists following, many fighting back tears. It was wrapped in a Palestinian flag, with a press flak jacket placed on his stomach. Ismail Haniya, the head of Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, attended the funeral and said that journalists were attacked by Israel while trying to show a “true picture of a blockaded, downtrodden people”.

In the West Bank political capital of Ramallah, around 50 Palestinian journalists held a vigil for Murtaja. Christophe Deloire, secretary general of watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said Murtaja was “obviously the victim of an intentional shot” and that his organization “condemns with indignation the deliberate shootings of the Israeli army against journalists”. Deloire urged an independent investigation of the incident.

The Foreign Press Association operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories urged the Israeli army “to show restraint in areas where journalists are operating and to conduct a fast and open investigation into this incident”. The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate said five other reporters were also shot and wounded by the Israeli army during Friday’s protests, despite wearing clothes clearly identifying them as journalists. A group of over 70 international NGOs operating in the occupied Palestinian territories meanwhile condemned Friday’s “unlawful killing of civilians in Gaza”, calling for “an independent and transparent investigation”.

Murtaja recently worked on a documentary about the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, which was shown on Al-Jazeera Arabic. But he also focused on other topics, where frequently used drones, which seem to have been something of an escape from life in Gaza. “My name is Yasser Murtaja, I am 30 years old, live in Gaza City and have never travelled,” the journalist said in a March post on Facebook accompanying one of his drone photos from high above Gaza. “Today I take a shot and I am up in the air, not on the ground.” Hind Khoudary, a friend and fellow journalist, said he was “a beautiful person both inside and out”. “His reputation with everyone was as someone very kind,” she added, tears welling in her eyes.

Weeks of border protests have been called to demand the return of Palestinians to land they were forced from or fled after the founding of Israel 70 years ago. They come with tensions high as the United States gears up to shift its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem after recognizing the disputed city as the capital of the Jewish state. Protesters on Friday said economic woes were also fuelling frustration in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade for a decade. Egypt has mostly closed its border with the territory in past years, leaving the cramped area of two million people largely sealed off.

Late Friday, Kuwait called on the UN Security Council to investigate the deaths, but the US is likely to veto such a probe. The Security Council also failed to approve Kuwait’s draft press statement on the Israeli use of brutal force against innocent Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the second statement of its kind. Before submitting the document, the permanent representative of Kuwait to the UN Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi hoped that no member country would object to the new statement, but the US did.

Thousands of Arabs rallied in northern Israel yesterday in solidarity with the people of Gaza, some of them holding pictures of Murtaja. And in London, hundreds gathered in support of the Palestinians in Gaza, condemning the firing of “live ammunition into crowds of unarmed civilians” by Israeli forces as “illegal and inhumane”.

Israel rebuffed international calls for investigation into last Friday’s killings, with the army saying troops opened fire “in accordance with the rules of engagement”. Late Friday, Israeli army spokesman Brigadier General Ronen Manelis classified the operation along the border as a success. “None of our troops were wounded, the fence was not crossed,” he said, noting that what happened last week had “deterred Hamas, which prevented the masses from approaching the fence”.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday accused Hamas of “sending terrorists under the guise of civilians to harm our sovereignty”. Israel accuses Hamas, with whom it has fought three wars since 2008, of using the protests as a cover to carry out violence. It alleges more than half of those killed on March 30 were members of militant groups, including Hamas’s armed wing. Hamas claimed only five of the dead and said they were participating “in popular events side-by-side with their people.” – Agencies

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