The Media Today

The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh

May 13, 2022
Two Palestinian girls walk past a mural of Al -Jazeera journalist, Sherine Abu Aqla in Gaza City. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Al -Jazeera Journalist Sherine Abu Aqla was killed on May 11, 2022 by the Israeli forces while covering an Israeli raid in the city of Jenin in the West Bank. (Photo by Mahmoud Issa / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Early on Wednesday morning, Shireen Abu Akleh, a renowned journalist with Al Jazeera’s Arabic service, was shot in the head and killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in Jenin, a city in the occupied West Bank where Israeli forces said they were searching for suspects in recent killings of Israeli and foreign nationals. The Palestinian health ministry was quick to report that the Israeli army killed Abu Akleh, and journalists who witnessed the killing subsequently corroborated that account. Abu Akleh’s colleague Ali al-Samoudi, who was shot in the back but survived, said that there were no Palestinian fighters on the scene, which was “dead quiet”—if it hadn’t been, he said, the journalists wouldn’t have been there—and that Israeli soldiers fired on them “directly and deliberately”; Shatha Hanaysha, of the Palestinian Quds News Network, was also present and concurred, suggesting that whoever shot Abu Akleh evidently targeted an exposed part of her head since she was wearing a helmet at the time. Video footage showed that the journalists were all also wearing vests clearly marked with the word press, and that the surrounding area did indeed appear to be quiet. In a statement, Al Jazeera concluded that Israeli forces “assassinated” Abu Akleh “in cold blood.”

To begin with, at least, the official Israeli narrative couldn’t have been more different. Shortly after Abu Akleh was killed, the country’s military suggested that Palestinian gunmen were likely to blame, citing intense fighting nearby. Naftali Bennett, the prime minister, echoed that position, with his office pointing to footage, previously shown on Al Jazeera, showing gunmen in Jenin claiming to have hit an Israeli soldier; no soldier was hit, officials said, but Abu Akleh was. That assessment quickly started to unravel, however, with a researcher on the ground from B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group, reporting that the footage in question was not filmed in the vicinity of Abu Akleh’s killing; Al Jazeera’s news verification and monitoring unit later confirmed the locational discrepancy, as did NBC News. As Wednesday went on, various Israeli officials began to backpedal to a more ambiguous position. “Even if soldiers shot at—or, God forbid, hurt—someone who was not involved, this happened in battle, during a firefight, where this Palestinian is with the shooters, so this thing can happen,” a military spokesperson said. The journalists present were “filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians. They’re armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so.”

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By Wednesday evening, Benny Gantz, the defense minister, had acknowledged the possibility that Israeli soldiers may indeed have killed Abu Akleh, and said that an investigation was ongoing; a source told the Washington Post that officials were looking into three shooting incidents—focusing on one in particular, though its details run contradictory to eyewitness accounts—and that investigators had confiscated soldiers’ guns as a prelude to ballistics testing. Israeli officials also said that they had offered to jointly investigate the killing with counterparts from the Palestinian Authority, but the latter rejected this, saying that Israel cannot be trusted to investigate itself and that the PA intends to take the case to the International Criminal Court. Palestinian officials similarly rebuffed an Israeli request to examine the bullet that killed Abu Akleh under Palestinian and US supervision. Israeli officials characterized this as an effort to withhold potentially exculpatory evidence. Michael Sfard, a legal adviser to Yesh Din, a group that investigates abuses in the West Bank, told the New York Times that the Israel military should possess other evidence from the scene, including drone footage.

Despite the multiple witness accounts and Al Jazeera’s definitive statements, no little Western media coverage of Abu Akleh’s killing centered ambiguity, and was sharply scrutinized on such terms by numerous journalists and observers. An initial Times headline stating simply that Abu Akleh had “died at 51” came in for particular criticism (the headline was subsequently changed), as did various outlets’ use of euphemistic language, including the word “clashes,” a common feature of Western journalism on violence in Israel and Palestine. Critics also pointed to what they saw as double standards: around the respect accorded Palestinian witnesses, for example, and between the coverage of Abu Akleh’s killing and those of Western journalists by Russian forces in Ukraine. (Abu Akleh was a dual Palestinian and US citizen.) Yesterday, another unfortunately worded Times headline referred to “dueling” investigations in the case.

Some Western outlets, including the Post, at least included in their coverage the fact that Israeli forces have killed journalists, many of them Palestinian, before. Palestine’s information ministry puts the number at forty-five since 2000. (The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate estimates that the number is higher, though a database maintained by the Committee to Protect Journalists has a much lower figure over a longer time period.) In 2008, an Israeli tank killed Fadel Shaana, a twenty-three-year-old cameraman with Reuters; an Israeli investigation later exonerated the soldiers involved, partially on the grounds that Shaana’s camera could have been an antitank missile. In 2018, Israeli snipers shot and killed Ahmed Abu Hussein and Yasser Murtaja, both of whom were covering protests at the border between Israel and Gaza and wearing press vests. In the four years since then, according to a tally compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Israeli soldiers and police have fired either live rounds, rubber bullets, stun grenades, or tear gas at 144 Palestinian journalists, or beaten them with batons. A year ago this weekend, Israeli forces bombed a building that housed offices belonging to both Al Jazeera and the Associated Press; officials said that Hamas was using the building but, per the AP, did not provide evidence to substantiate that claim. Two weeks ago, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, along with the International Federation of Journalists and the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, filed a war-crimes case at the ICC alleging that Israel has systematically targeted journalists in Palestine and failed to properly investigate its own abuses.

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And then Abu Akleh was killed. As the news filtered through, tributes poured in from around the world and across Palestine, where she was revered by colleagues and news consumers alike. In Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based, neighboring towers lit up, respectively, with projections of her image and that of a Palestinian flag. In Gaza, her name was carved on a beach, shielded from lapping waves by a bank of sand. In the West Bank, thousands of people gathered yesterday for a memorial procession, as Abu Akleh’s body was transported to a hospital. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, described Abu Akleh as a “martyr for truth,” and awarded her the Star of Jerusalem, or Quds Star, an honor traditionally reserved for political dignitaries. One of her colleagues told the Post that the public outpouring of grief was comparable to that which followed the death of Yasser Arafat, the former Authority leader.

As I wrote these words, Abu Akleh’s funeral was about to start. Ahead of time, Israeli police closed roads adjacent to the hospital where her body was being kept and, according to Al Jazeera, attempted to stop people from putting up posters of Abu Akleh; then, as mourners transferred her coffin from the hospital to a waiting hearse, Israeli forces beat them with batons, so much so that the coffin nearly dropped. When the hearse arrived near the church in East Jerusalem, another mourner lifted a Palestinian flag into the air. Israeli police moved in to tear it down. “They refuse to let Shireen be free,” the lawyer Diana Buttu said, “even in death.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.