Shooting war: Gaza’s visual storytellers under ‘blatant’ attack The Israeli war on Gaza

Yasser Murtaja and Rushdi Al-Sarraj were two friends who shared a love of making films about life in Gaza. In 2012, they established their own production company, Ain Media – Its slogan: “Deeper than you see” – with only one camera.

Little did the two visual poets know that their passion would cost them their lives.

Epidemic He was the first to be killed, targeted by a sniper while documenting the Great March of Return in 2018, a protest in which Palestinian demonstrators demanded to be allowed to return to the lands from which their families were displaced in 1948 with the founding of Israel. Al-Sarraj He died last year shortly after Israel launched its war on Gaza when his home was hit by two missiles. He was eating breakfast at the time, says his widow, Shorouk Aila, an investigative journalist and producer.

Yaser Murtaja (L) and Roshdi Sarraj (R)
Ain Media founders Yasser Murtaja (left) and Rushdi Al-Sarraj (courtesy of Shorouk Ayla)

“He suffered a very serious head injury,” says 29-year-old Ella. “I could see his brain inside. He was alive for 20 minutes, then he died.”

Ain Media also mourns videographer Ibrahim Lafi, 21, who was killed under heavy bombardment near the Beit Hanoun crossing, or Erez crossing, on the border between Gaza and Israel at the beginning of the war. Two others – Haitham Abdel Wahed, 25, and Nidal Wahidi, 33 – are currently missing.

“It’s really heavy to feel like your career is a threat,” Ella says. She says there is no time to mourn the attacks.

The killing and disappearance of Ain Media photographers highlights the devastating ways visual journalists in Gaza have endured as they work to cover the war while under fire, with limited food and water, and during power and communications outages. More journalists have been killed in the current fighting than in any other war over the past three decades. But veteran visual journalists say their peers have been particularly targeted. They say that despite the seriousness of all wars, the Israeli attack on Gaza was different.

Over the past four months, photographers, videographers and camera operators in Gaza have been the eyes of the world, ensuring that the civil catastrophe unfolding in the Strip is not forgotten. With Israel banning foreign journalists from entering the Strip, Gaza reporters were often the only ones reporting on the crisis.

The struggle has seen the emergence of a new generation of talent, some big-name professionals, others freelancers, all one click away from losing everything.

They captured aerial views of rubble-strewn moonscapes and frozen tent camps. Wide-angle images of Gazans leaving their homes behind, of countless bodies in mass graves and of crowds scrambling for food with utensils held aloft; Medium shots of premature babies in Al-Shifa Hospital, deprived of incubators, their tiny bodies writhing under fluorescent lighting; Close-up shots of mothers grieving over their dead children.

Palestinian paramedics prepare premature babies, who were evacuated from Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, for transfer from a hospital in Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, to Egypt.
Palestinian paramedics prepare premature babies evacuated from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City to transport them from a hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip to Egypt, November 20, 2023. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Names like Write dear, a photojournalist who came to embody the power of digital activism, exploded out of nowhere as the humanity of his work moved millions. Al-Azayza now has more followers on Instagram than US President Joe Biden.

Sometimes, in a tragic twist, Gaza’s visual journalists themselves become the story. Al Jazeera camera operator Samir Abu Daqa, 45, was left to bleed for five hours just a few kilometers from the nearest hospital after an Israeli drone airstrike. According to eyewitnesses, Israeli forces refused to allow ambulances and medical teams to reach Abu Daqqa, who died.

Director of Al Jazeera’s office in Gaza Wael DahdouhHe survived the attack, but in January he lost his 27-year-old photographer son Hamza DahdouhIn an Israeli bombing – he was the fifth member of his family killed in the recent Gaza war.

Al Jazeera journalist Wael Al-Dahdouh's reaction while attending the funeral of his son, Palestinian journalist Hamza Al-Dahdouh
Al Jazeera journalist Wael Dahdouh attends the funeral of his son and fellow journalist Hamza Dahdouh after Hamza was killed in an Israeli raid in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 7, 2024 (Ibrahim Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

The Israeli army told international news agencies that it cannot guarantee the safety of journalists working in the Strip. Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says he sees a “deadly pattern” of attacks, detention and harassment.

“royal game”

As of January 20th Reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists 83 journalists and media workers have been killed since the war began on October 7. Of these, at least 22 were photographers, videographers and camera operators.

Using a camera in conflict has always been a dangerous profession. Visual journalists are close to the action, easily identifiable by their equipment and always run the risk of conveying their location. Gaza has accelerated a trend already seen in Syria, Libya and Ukraine, where people capture vivid images of conflict under fire from hostile forces.

“They’ve been actively targeted before, but it’s never been this brazen,” says the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist. Greg Marinovich, who spent 30 years covering conflicts around the world and now teaches visual journalism at Boston University and the Harvard Summer School. He co-authored The Bang Bang Club, a book recounting his experiences during apartheid-era South Africa, which is seen as a touchstone for photojournalists around the world.

South African photographer Marinovich was assisted with coverage by our colleague Nachoi
South African photographer Greg Marinovich, left, is helped by American colleague Jim Natshue after being shot in the chest in the town of Tokoza, east of Johannesburg, on April 18, 1994. In the background, South African photographer Ken Oosterbroek, who was killed in the shootout, is taken away ( File: Juda Ngwenya/Reuters)

“In South Africa, I would say most of the killings were accidental or careless. Journalists were seen as a royal plaything, but not entirely.” But that has changed radically, and part of that is the social media equation, this propaganda war. “Which is being waged endlessly. And journalists are seen as a big part of that. … You have to understand that you’re going to be targeted if you want to survive.”

Reuters video journalist dies Essam AbdullahCase in point, the 37-year-old who was shelled by an Israeli tank while filming a shooting on the Israeli-Lebanese border. He and his fellow journalists from AFP and Al Jazeera were wearing bulletproof vests, but were shot not once but twice as they pointed their cameras at an Israeli military site. AFP photographer Christina Assi (28 years old) was seriously injured and her leg was later amputated.

A man holding a video camera surrounded by a tree with flowers
Reuters journalist Issam Abdullah films an interview in Zaporizhya, Ukraine, on April 17, 2022 (File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

“It was definitely to prevent them from filming and reporting, even though they were clearly marked and had been there for about an hour,” Marinovich says. “A lot of people watch for evidence, so they can figure out whether you’re filming or not. If you report something people don’t like, you could be standing 100 meters (110 yards) away from them while they see what you’re doing. That can be an ugly situation Extremely”.

Israeli smears

Analysts say the risks facing visual journalists in Gaza have been exacerbated by Israeli efforts to legitimize their targeting. In November, the Israeli government claimed that several freelance photographers in Gaza who worked for major international media organizations participated in the October 7 attacks by Hamas on southern Israel, in which approximately 1,139 people were killed and 240 were captured. . Media organizations rejected these accusations.

News photographers rush to get as close to the action as possible, so the stakes couldn’t be higher. Ella says Ain Media’s photographers and videographers felt safer staying in hospitals and other centers to avoid being targeted while documenting victims.

Mansour says that Ain Media workers, like other journalists, were also subjected to defamation. “We have identified a pattern of the Israeli military’s response to evade responsibility, label journalists as terrorists, and spread false narratives about their association with Hamas, saying they have evidence to support their involvement in violence. When pressed, they do not provide anything.”

Al-Sarraj also faced such accusations. He has been a freelance film director, worked as a curator for news organizations such as Radio France and Le Monde, took photographs for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, and documented human rights violations for Amnesty International.

“We were happy that international organizations refuted these allegations and stood by the work presented by these independents,” Mansour says. “These smear campaigns have exposed people already in a very vulnerable and dangerous environment to imminent harm.”

In other conflict zones, you can always get out, he says. “Gaza is a strip 20 miles (32 kilometers) long and six miles (10 kilometers) wide.”

“They have no safe haven and no way out.”

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