Palestinian photojournalist Motaz leaves Gaza after 108 days — What it means for reporting on ground

Israel's invasion of Gaza marks the deadliest period for journalists ever in modern history, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Published January 24, 2024

Motaz Azaiza, an independent Palestinian photojournalist who extensively documented Israeli aggression and the widescale destruction of Gaza has evacuated the Strip “with a broken heart” and is now in Doha, Qatar.

On Tuesday, Azaiza shared his decision to leave the besieged strip on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter) with his combined 19.4 million followers.

“I had to evacuate for a lot of reasons. You all know some of it but not all of it,” he wrote in the caption.

“This is the last time you will see me with this heavy, stinky [press] vest. I decided to evacuate today,” he said in the video.

“I’m sorry but, Inshallah (God willing), hopefully soon I will come back […] and help build Gaza again,” he said as he bid farewell to the friends and colleagues around him.

A day later, he shared his departure as he boarded a Qatari military aircraft at Egypt’s El Arish International Airport.

The 24-year-old Palestinian drew attention across the world after he began to capture the brutal on-the-ground realities in Gaza ever since Israel started its air and ground attacks on the tiny occupied Strip following Hamas’ Oct 7 attacks, in which the group killed 1,139 people and took more than 200 people captive, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s relentless offensive has so far killed at least 25,490 people in Gaza, around 70 per cent of them women and children, according to the health ministry in the territory.

Azaiza documented raw, unfiltered footage of wounded children and adults crushed under rubble as a result of countless Israeli air strikes.

“Should I be happy?” he stated in a clip as the plane headed towards Doha.

He went on to expand upon his decision, saying that he left Gaza with a “broken heart and eyes filled with tears”.

“There was no other option after 108 days of continuous massacres against us. It’s time to move somewhere else so I can do more work and I pray that I can be a reason to stop this war and help rebuild Gaza again,” he said on Wednesday.

“No time to rest. Keep calling for a ceasefire!” the photojournalist stressed.

People’s hero

Born and raised in the Deir Al-Balah Refugee Camp in Gaza, Motaz Hilal Azaiza did not intend to become famous. In 2021, he completed his studies in English Language and Literature at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University — a place that now lies in ruins due to Israel’s aggression.

Like numerous other graduates in Gaza, Azaiza faced unemployment as a photographer after graduation. Therefore, he created his Instagram account to show his land and its people in a positive light, contrasting the most mainstream coverage of the region.

He did, however, document Israel’s aggression in both 2014 and 2021. “It’s so cruel to even imagine it,” he said. “It was a paradise, now it is hell. I desperately dream of the days before, when I documented my people and my land. That’s all I can think about at the moment.

“I miss taking photographs of children playing on the swings, the elderly smiling, families gathering, the sights of nature and the sea, my beautiful Gaza. I miss all of that, and it pains me to remember it.”

After Israel began its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, he started documenting the tragic aftermath of constant strikes and the resilience of children and people in the strip.

His following on Instagram grew from about 27,500 to 18.4 million in the more than 100 days since Oct 7, according to an assessment of social media analytics by Al Jazeera.

Amid the conflict, he documented himself among Palestinian children, all displaying peace signs, accompanied by the caption: “We teach you life, people.”

He was also recognised on a global stage by organisations such as Time, GQ magazines and Vogue Arabia. He was named the Man of the Year by GQ Middle East for 2023.

Last year’s November issue of Vogue Arabia paid homage to the “heroic commitment” of three journalists, namely Azaiza, Plestia Alaqad, Youmna El-Qunsol and two doctors, Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah and Mohammed Al Ghoula for playing a vital role in Gaza’s humanitarian crisis.

Time magazine also included a photograph taken by Azaiza in its annual top 10 photos list.

A young girl stuck under her house rubble after it was bombed by Israeli airstrikes, Al Nusairat refugee camp, Oct 31, 2023. — Motaz Azaiza
A young girl stuck under her house rubble after it was bombed by Israeli airstrikes, Al Nusairat refugee camp, Oct 31, 2023. — Motaz Azaiza

In late October, he encountered a young girl trapped under the rubble of a house in the Al-Nusairat refugee camp after an Israeli airstrike. Despite seeing her through a hole, the darkness within the debris prevented him from knowing if she was alive or not.

“It’s not possible to see it with your own eyes. So I put the camera, I flipped the screen, and was seeing her through my camera,” he said.“

Using a low shutter speed on his camera, he brightened the image but could only capture a photo when a Civil Defence rescue worker illuminated her face while administering oxygen.

Azaiza expressed the emotional weight of the experience, emphasising the fortunate survival of the girl, “She’s so lucky she survived. What about people who, there was no hole for me to see them and they [were] still stuck under the rubble and they passed with no help.”

Despite the global traction on his social media, it is anything but easy for him. His family home in the Deir Al-Balah refugee camp was attacked killing at least 15 members of his family.

Why his evacuation matters

His decision to leave took everyone by surprise. Azaiza was one of the most popular voices on the ground who opened a window inside Gaza for the rest of the world.

His unfaltering dedication and consistent effort to deliver news over almost four months demonstrated the impactful role of reporting, even in the harshest circumstances.

He would not only risk his life while covering the events from the front lines, escaping Israeli bombardment but also time and again shared that his life was under constant threat.

His determination was unwavering and he was committed to documenting the atrocities inflicted upon his city by Israeli aggression.

“Another strike in my neighbourhood, this time I lost some of my neighbours and relatives,” he wrote in a caption for one of his many reels.

This one showcased harrowing visuals of people engulfed in flames, continuously crying out for help.

Nevertheless, he persevered for 108 days amid brutal strikes, in the middle of chaos, misery, and death. His choice to depart carries significant weight, especially as Gaza continues to lose more journalists, and Israeli strikes limit the presence of Palestinian voices reporting from the front lines.

As of Jan 23, at least 83 journalists and media workers have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its attacks on the strip, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s preliminary investigations.

The first 10 weeks of the conflict were the deadliest recorded for journalists, with the most journalists killed in a single year in one location, CPJ added.

According to the government media office in Gaza, more than 100 journalists have been killed as of Dec 23, 2023.

“The number of journalists killed has risen to 100, men and women, since the start of the brutal war on the Gaza Strip, after the martyrdom of journalist Mohammed Abu Hweidy in an Israeli airstrike in the Shujaiya neighbourhood,” the media office said on Telegram.

On one hand, Azaiza’s evacuation is understandable since it has become almost impossible to live in and report from the besieged strip where more than 50 offices are damaged, leaving journalists no safe place to work and communication outages have become a norm.

On the other hand, his decision raises more questions for the international community about the possibility of honest journalistic work and the safety of journalists in conflict zones.