Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran al-Jazeera journalist, was a fixture on Palestinian and Arab TV screens for more than two decades. Intrepid, sympathetic, intelligent and trustworthy, she had reported on developments in the occupied territories since the late 1990s. She was shot dead by the Israeli military in the early morning of 11 May. There was shock, grief and outrage throughout Palestine and the Middle East. Israel has killed more than forty-five journalists since 2000, but the case of Abu Akleh has taken the practice to an entirely new level.
The facts of the matter are not in doubt. On her last morning, Abu Akleh, along with several colleagues, all clearly identifiable as members of the press, went to the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank to report on Israel’s latest armed raid. There was no crossfire, and no fighting in or near the area where the reporters set up to do their job. From a distance of approximately 150 metres, an Israeli military sniper fired a single bullet at the exposed area between Abu Akleh’s flack jacket and helmet. A second reporter, Ali al-Samudi, was wounded by a single bullet to the back, as was – in what is now standard Israeli military procedure – a Palestinian resident who tried to come to their rescue.
Whether the sniper was acting on his own initiative or following orders, and whether those responsible were aware of Abu Akleh’s identity, remains unclear, though snipers as a rule shoot after receiving authorisation. She had been a thorn in the military’s side for years, and had expressed concern she might be targeted.
Israel at first claimed that Abu Akleh – a US citizen – had been killed by one of ‘dozens’ of Palestinian gunmen ‘firing wildly’, and circulated, as ‘evidence’, a video clip of Palestinians letting off rounds. But geolocation reviews of this and other footage confirmed that, unlike the Israeli sniper who killed her, the nearest Palestinian gunmen lacked not only a line of sight but weapons accurate enough to hit three individuals with three bullets. More to the point, Abu Akleh’s surviving colleagues were emphatic that they had been fired on by Israeli soldiers, whom they could clearly see, without warning or provocation.
Israel called for a joint investigation with the Palestinian Authority, while demanding sole custody of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh. Yet Israeli investigations – routinely announced, rarely conducted, and never transparent or impartial – have been dismissed by human rights organisations the world over as exercises to protect the impunity of perpetrators and thwart accountability. Its options narrowing, Israel allowed that, pending further investigation, it was now uncertain who killed Abu Akleh, but confident it could not have been a deliberate act by its army of occupation.
The same day, in a version of a scene that has played out with disturbing regularity in the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967, Israeli forces stormed into the Abu Akleh family home in Jerusalem where mourners had gathered, physically assaulting a number of them and tearing down Palestinian flags.
Abu Akleh’s funeral procession on 13 May was the largest in East Jerusalem since the burial of the political leader Faisal Husseini at the Haram al-Sharif in 2001, at the height of the second intifada. From the moment her coffin left St Joseph’s Hospital on its way to the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Old City, police attacked the cortège, firing teargas and stun grenades at the huge assembly of mourners, beating the pallbearers, and going berserk at the sight of every Palestinian flag – including one forcibly removed from the hearse. With extraordinary fortitude, her coffin was somehow kept aloft by those who had come to ensure she would be buried with the same dignity her reporting had extended to them. The shocking images were transmitted around the world. In her death as in her broadcasting, Abu Akleh continued to reveal the realities of the Israeli occupation.
When the procession, brutalised but unbowed, at last arrived at the cathedral, Israeli police demanded to know the faith of individual mourners, refusing Muslims entry in an effort to abort what had become an unmistakably national commemoration. While Israel once more sought to divide those it dominates, the leaders of Jerusalem’s various Christian churches, often fiercely protective of their differences, all rang their bells together as Abu Akleh’s coffin left the cathedral to be buried beside her parents in Mount Zion Cemetery. True to form, the Israeli police that evening cynically claimed they had acted only ‘so that the funeral could proceed in accordance with the wishes of the family’.
There will be no justice for Shireen Abu Akleh under the prevailing circumstances. With the active support of the United States, and no less active acquiescence of Europe, Israel is right to believe it can go on killing without consequence. It will remain free to target all Palestinians, including journalists and medical workers, including those who hold US or European citizenship. Just as Israeli ‘investigations’ are designed to pre-empt accountability, statements by Western leaders and officials – even those that acknowledge she was killed rather than ‘died’, and was killed by a sniper rather than ‘clashes’ – are designed to substitute for rather than ensure a meaningful response. Washington, London and Brussels may not have Abu Akleh’s blood on their hands, but they have helped place a target on the back of the next journalist to be murdered by Israel’s army of colonial occupation.