For more than two decades, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh has covered human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories. A generation grew up watching the broadcaster Al Jazeera lay out some of the toughest news stories.
On Wednesday morning local time, she was shot and killed while doing the same, reporting a raid on the West Bank city of Jenin by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
In a statement, Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arab news network, accused Israeli forces of killing her. The Palestinian Health Ministry also blamed the Israeli military.
Israel attributed Abu Akleh’s death to Palestinian gunmen and said she was caught in the crossfire of clashes. However, multiple witnesses said it is more likely she was shot by IDF troops than by Palestinians. If true, Abu Akleh’s assassination fits into a larger pattern of attacks on the press in Palestine and the systemic violence against Palestinians in general.
The language an Israeli spokesman used on Wednesday to describe the work of Palestinian journalists underlined that reality. Israeli military spokesman Ran Kochav said, “They are armed with cameras, if you allow me to say so,” drawing a non-subtle comparison between the work of journalism and that of violence.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced an investigation on Wednesday and released army bodycam footage, which struck a more cautious tone than previous Israeli statements. The Palestinian authorities declined to participate in the investigation and have refused to share the bullet with the Israeli authorities. Now that bullet is in the middle of the two competing investigations — even as tensions simmer on the ground.
On Friday, thousands of mourners gathered in Jerusalem for Abu Akleh’s funeral procession in what may be the… biggest public outpouring there since the death of Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in 2004.
As the coffin was carried from the gates of a hospital in Jerusalem, Israeli police said attacked mourners with batons and stun grenades, violence that nearly caused the porters to drop Abu Akleh’s coffin.
The sheer obscenity of #Israeli troops storming a hospital, beating up the mourners and preventing them from carrying Shireen’s coffin to her final resting place is horrific. Now they surround the hearse after separating it from the mourners, who are themselves under siege.
— Hanan Ashrawi (@DrHananAshrawi) May 13, 2022
If an investigation finds Israeli soldiers responsible, it wouldn’t be the first time the country’s military has targeted the press. According to the Palestinian Journalism Syndicate, Israel has killed more than 50 Palestinian journalists since 2001, and Reporters Without Borders has recorded more than 144 journalists injured in the past four years. “Unfortunately, as far as the event itself is concerned, it is not unique, not different,” said Saleh Hijazi, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East program. “It fits a pattern, a pattern of unlawful killing, and also a pattern of attacks on journalists and human rights defenders.”
What we know about Abu Akleh’s death?
Abu Akleh had become a leading voice in the media when she covered the 2000 uprising, or intifada, that came to define the past two decades of violent inertia between Israel and Palestine. She had continued to document the Israeli occupation and the daily lives of those living in Palestine, and was one of the best-known faces of Palestinian journalism.
“She was the voice of Palestine to the rest of the Arab world and its diaspora,” said Mezna Qato, a historian at the University of Cambridge. “She was the one who forced the Arab world to remember, struggle with and take seriously what it means to break away from the Palestine issue.”
On Wednesday, she reported from Jenin, where the IDF had been run, as it said, “counter-terrorism activities to arrest terrorist suspects.” Israeli forces have carried out more attacks in Jenin after several recent deadly attacks in Israel, which Israel has blamed on militants from the city.
Abu Akleh and four other journalists arrived in Jenin early Wednesday morning. Clashes were reported in the city between IDF and Palestinian gunmen. The journalists gathered several hundred meters away from Israeli forces and watched from a distance as an Israeli attack on a Palestinian house took place. To the crackling of gunfire, the group took cover, but Abu Akleh had already been shot. According to the Associated Press, she was taken to hospital, where she died.
Ali Samoudi, her producer, who was also shot and hospitalized on Wednesday, said: Israeli troops shot her. Two Palestinian witnesses also attributed the killing to Israeli troops and told the Times of Israel that the buildings around the area were filled with soldiers.
During the autopsy, a fragment of the bullet was removed from her head; the director of the Palestinian forensics institute said he could not yet identify who fired it. And if, as Israeli officials told the New York Times, both sides fired M16 rifles on Wednesday, it could end up being difficult to determine who fired it without testing individual rifles.
Samoudi said, anyway, that there were no armed Palestinian fighters nearby and that Abu Akleh was killed “in cold blood”.
An entire nation in sorrow. Renowned Palestinian journalist @ShireenNasri, an icon for all of us who grew up watching her on TV every day, has just been shot dead by Israeli forces. I still can’t believe the news. pic.twitter.com/EGeljWkXwo
— Nadi Abusaada (@NadiSaadeh) May 11, 2022
Israeli army chief Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi told the AP: “At this stage, we cannot determine whose fire harmed her and we regret her death.” However, previous statements by the government more directly blamed the Palestinians. Israeli Army Twitter feed said it was “to investigate the event and investigate the possibility that journalists were hit by the Palestinian gunmen.” That explanation was echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who said that “armed Palestinians fired in an inaccurate, indiscriminate and uncontrolled manner” during the IDF’s operation.
“Our IDF troops returned fire as accurately, carefully and responsibly as possible. Unfortunately, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed during the exchange,” Bennett said. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs shared a video of Palestinian gunmen active in the city on Wednesday to substantiate these claims.
But a researcher from the leading Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem analyzed the footage and reported that the shooter in the video was completely in a separate location in Jenin.
Israeli leaders, including the prime minister and defense minister, generally do not comment on this; that they made such statements about Abu Akleh shows the weight of this murder.
According to Amnesty International, violence in Israel and Palestine has increased significantly in the past two months, with the most deaths occurring since 2008. Amnesty has documented that 34 Palestinians, including six children, have been killed in March and April, and 18 people have been killed. killed in attacks in Israeli cities in recent weeks.
“This is only happening because root causes are not being addressed, namely apartheid, because Israel can enjoy this impunity, mainly because of the role played by the US and other Western allies,” Hijazi said.
Why Israel Can’t Examine Itself
US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides said that he had “a thorough investigation of the circumstances of” [Abu Akleh’s] death and injury of at least one other journalist in Jenin today.” Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ned Price said“Those responsible must be held accountable.”
The Israeli government said it would work with the Palestinian Authority to investigate the murder, but the Palestinian side refused to provide Abu Akleh’s body.
That probably has to do with the fact that the Israeli government does not have a good track record of investigating its own crimes. Israel does not allow international investigations into violations in the country or the occupied territories, and in recent years has chosen not to cooperate or grant access to UN commissions or special rapporteurs. Israel has even designated the main Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq as a terrorist organization, in what experts called retaliation for Al-Haq’s documentation of violations on the ground.
“No one should believe that Israel’s quote-and-non-quote promises are investigating what happened, because the investigation promise is nothing but the first step in Israel’s organized whitewash,” said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the rights group B’Tselem. “Israel is unable and unwilling to conduct such investigations, which opens the door to international legal accountability.”
B’Tselem has halted cooperation with the Israeli government on investigations. Israel tends to stretch the investigations as long as possible and ultimately fails to hold military leaders accountable, El-Ad said. “Israel treats every incident as an extremely exceptional event, and the investigations always shift responsibility to the lowest level of soldiers,” he told me. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone — it’s the military that investigates the military.”
Israel has maintained its commitment to investigations, including an investigation into the death of Abu Akleh.
“To get to the truth, there must be a real investigation, and the Palestinians are currently preventing that,” Prime Minister Bennett said in a statement. “We won’t get to the truth without a serious investigation.”
For Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch, the situation reflects greater structural dynamics. “Their Calls to Investigations” [are] like it’s a few bad apples in an otherwise normal situation, but that’s not the reality. Palestinians live in a situation of serious underlying structural violence,” he told me. “This underlying daily reality of apartheid and the cold violence of structural repression leads to the hot violence of bloodshed and the killing of Palestinians.”
Abu Akleh has already earned a tribute from US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who Abu Akleh had recently met and said she “had extraordinary respect for her”.
It was also important that Abu Akleh was a woman who brought the news to Arabic-speaking audiences around the world. “So many girls wanted to be her. So many aspiring journalists have told me that they would stand in front of a mirror and use a hairbrush and pretend it was a microphone, and in fact pretend to be Shireen,” said Dalia Hatuqa, a journalist and friend of Abu Akleh.
“Now she has been silenced in this extremely violent way that echoes some of her own reports,” Qato told me.