GAZA CITY — Yaser Murtaja had often filmed from the sky, but he never lived to fulfill his dream of flying on an airplane through the clouds.
It was one of his last posts.
Murtaja, who was married and had a 2-year-old son, died Saturday after being shot the day before while covering protests at the edge of the Gaza Strip.
His work had appeared on networks such as Al Jazeera, and in 2016 he worked as a cameraman for Ai Weiwei’s documentary, “Human Flow,” which covered the global refugee crisis, including Palestinians in Gaza. The Chinese visual artist posted photos of Murtaja on his Instagram account on Saturday.
Murtaja had tried tirelessly to see beyond blockaded Gaza, including to travel for a training course with Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar, but he never managed to leave, friends and family said.
Only a tiny proportion of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza are ever able to get out due to tight travel restriction by Israel — which says such limitations are necessary for security reasons due to the militant group Hamas controlling the area — and only sporadic opening of the Egyptian border. For many young people, the 140-square-mile strip of territory on the Mediterranean is the only world they know.
Murtaja was laid to rest Saturday in the land he never left. His body was carried through the streets of Gaza City draped in a Palestinian flag and the blue-and-white vest marked “PRESS” that he was wearing when he was shot.
Murtaja, whom friends and family described as ambitious and always smiling, was one of nine people fatally shot on Friday after Israeli troops used live ammunition as tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered to protest at the heavily guarded boundary with Israel.
Five other journalists were injured by live fire, as well, according to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate. They were clearly identifiable as journalists, the syndicate said, raising further questions over Israel’s insistence that its use of snipers on the crowds at the border is carefully targeted.
The Israeli military said it fired live rounds in a “precise, measured way” as part of its mission to protect Israeli communities near the fence. It said it does not intentionally target journalists and that the circumstances in which the journalists were allegedly hit by Israeli fire were “being looked into.”
Ahmed Murtaja, the slain journalist’s 30-year-old cousin, said the family wants an investigation and has submitted details to a local human rights group.
The Palestinian journalists were at the border covering the latest of the six-week-long “Great March of Return” protests at the border.
The majority of the crowds have been peaceful at the mass rallies, which have drawn first-time demonstrators, as well as families, in what appears to be a wide cross-section of Palestinians in Gaza. However, crowds of largely young men nearer to the fence have thrown rocks and molotov cocktails.
Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel, has called on residents to attend the demonstrations, as have other factions in Gaza. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who attended a funeral prayer service for Murtaja at al Omri mosque, said the protests are “part of the awareness battle.”
Israel says Hamas is trying to use the demonstrations as a cover to carry out attacks and that shooting is a last resort used to protect its border fence, its soldiers and Israeli communities from “violent rioters” and attacks. But the use of live ammunition against the protesters has been widely criticized by human rights groups, who argue it is illegal.
More than 1,000 people — including nearly 400 on Friday, when a 14-year-old boy was also among those killed — have been shot over the past week, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.
The Israeli military has said those numbers should be treated with “extreme caution,” but officials have said they cannot confirm whether the numbers are unfeasible compared with the amount of ammunition that has been used.
After the first day of unrest at the border a week ago, the Israel Defense Forces’ official spokesman account tweeted that the military knew where “every bullet landed.” However, that post was later deleted.
While the Palestinians’ numbers are difficult to fully verify, accounts of paramedics, medical officials, surgeons, hospital logs and the sheer pace of gunshot injuries coming from the crowd at points during the protests have all pointed to high figures. Most of those injured with live ammunition were shot in the legs, medics say.
Israel has remained defiant amid criticism of its use of force, saying at least 10 of the 31 people shot dead over the past week are known militants. The Israeli military had dropped leaflets in the lead-up to the protest instructing Palestinians to stay at least 300 meters (328 yards) away from the fence and warning live ammunition would be used.
On Friday, thousands of tires were set ablaze, creating a thick black fog that protesters hoped would guard them from the Israeli snipers.
Shady al Assar, 35, who was with Murtaja just before he was shot, said they were about 100 meters from the border at Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, when he lost sight of his friend in the thick black smoke. Assar said he picked up his camera to photograph an injured person being carried toward him before realizing it was Murtaja.
Murtaja was wearing a helmet and a protective jacket, according to multiple journalists who saw him. However, the bullet entered his side, rendering the protective plates on his front and back useless, they said.
“He was kind, gentle and caring, eager to become the best journalist he could be, because his aim was always to document the Palestinian people's suffering,” said Rori Donaghy, a Middle East consultant and former news editor at the Middle East Eye website, who spent time with Murtaja in Gaza. “It’s really sad.”
Of the five other journalists who the reporting syndicate said were injured Friday, several were freelancers, while one was shooting for the European Press Agency, and another worked for the Hamas-affiliated television channel Al-Aqsa.
As he waited at the graveyard for Murtaja’s body to arrive, Wissam Nassar, a freelance photographer who has worked for The Washington Post and the New York Times, said he had exchanged messages with his friend Thursday night to discuss where they would be going for the next day’s demonstrations. It was the last time they were in touch.
Nassar recalled how he had been photographing young men as they waited to try to get permission to cross the border with Egypt in February when he saw Murtaja.
Judging it a near-impossible feat to leave through Israel, Murtaja instead focused his energy on the Egyptian border, which opens sporadically, relatives said.
Murtaja made it through the Palestinian side, his passport stamped on the way out. But upon arrival at the terminal at the Egyptian side, the border had been unexpectedly closed, and he was turned back, Nassar said.
“He joked that he missed Gaza so much, he came back,” said Nassar.
Hazem Balousha in Gaza City and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this story.