Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing exposes the grave perils of reporting freely in Palestine

The killing of the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli security forces and their targeting of the media in general are a testament to the culture of impunity under which they operate in the occupied territories.

Published : May 30, 2022 06:00 IST

In Nablus, Israeli-occupied West Bank on May 11, people holding pictures of the Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed that day in the West Bank town of Jenin.

In Nablus, Israeli-occupied West Bank on May 11, people holding pictures of the Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed that day in the West Bank town of Jenin. | Photo Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/Reuters

The cold-blooded killing on May 11 of the veteran Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli security forces has once again put the international spotlight on Israel’s brutal policies in the occupied territories and exposed the double standards of Israel and the US, its main ally and patron, on human rights in the region.

Shireen, who also happened to be a US citizen, had been working with the Qatari television network Al Jazeera since 1997 and was a household name in the Arab world for her courageous coverage of events in the occupied territories and the wider region. In one of her broadcasts, she said: “I managed to overcome my fears in difficult times because I have chosen journalism in order to be close to the people. It might be not easy to change the reality but at least I was able to convey the people’s message and voice.”

A heinous crime

Al Jazeera interrupted its regular news broadcasts to announce the demise of its star correspondent. “In a tragic and deliberate crime that violates all international laws and norms, Israeli occupation forces assassinated in cold blood our correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh,” the statement from the network said. The channel went on to describe the killing “as a heinous crime which intends to only prevent the media from conducting their duty”. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the act and called for “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation into her killing”. The US, however, used its influence in the Security Council to tone down the language in the resolution and block an independent investigation into the killing.

Israeli army snipers shot the 51-year-old journalist as she and fellow journalists, wearing vests and helmets clearly identifying them as media personnel, were on their way to cover protests that had erupted in the West Bank town of Jenin. Another reporter, Ali Samoudi, was grievously injured by a shot in the back. Speaking from hospital, he said that the Israeli forces clearly knew that they were targeting media personnel. Samoudi said that they were in an open area and clearly visible when they were shot. “We were going to film the Israeli army operations and suddenly they shot us without asking us to stop filming or to leave,” Samoudi told the media.

The Israeli authorities initially stated that Palestinian resistance forces had shot at the journalists. Samoudi and the other journalists accompanying Shireen, swore that there were no Palestinian protesters in the area. Shatha Hanaysha, a journalist who was standing next to Shireen when she was shot, said that the Israeli security forces did not stop firing even after the journalist fell to the ground. “The Israeli army was adamant on shooting to kill,” she said.

Family and friends of Shireen carrying her coffin fend off security personnel, in Jerusalem on May 13.

Family and friends of Shireen carrying her coffin fend off security personnel, in Jerusalem on May 13. | Photo Credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Video footage that emerged in the third week of May appears to confirm the journalists’ account. In the clip, filmed by a resident of Jenin, Shireen and her colleagues are seen walking towards the location of the Israeli soldiers; there is no sign of firing by Palestinian fighters. The journalists are wearing visible blue press jackets. The firing from the Israeli side starts without any warning whatsoever.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett initially denied any responsibility for the killing. “It appears likely that armed Palestinians, who were firing indiscriminately at the time, were responsible for the unfortunate death of the journalist,” he said. To support the government’s version, the Israeli security forces released doctored videos that purportedly showed Palestinian fighters firing at the media personnel.

Within days the Israeli government had to withdraw its accusations, and Bennett called for a joint investigation with the Palestinian Authority (PA) administration. The PA refused the offer and wants an international team, preferably from the International Criminal Court (ICC), to investigate the matter. The Israeli government now says that an Israeli soldier could have been involved in the killing but claims that guilt can be ascertained only if the PA hands over the bullet that killed Shireen. The bullet recovered from her body is in the safe custody of the PA and is crucial for future investigations into the case.

The Israeli army said that it would not be conducting an internal inquiry into the killing. Although the Israeli government has in the past ordered inquiries into a few specific cases of targeted killings of Palestinian civilians, no Israeli soldier has been punished or named so far for killing Palestinians.

The Israeli government has laid down “the rules of engagement” for its army and given its soldiers a virtual carte blanche to shoot at unarmed civilians. Israeli snipers have shot many Palestinians protesting along the Gaza–Israel border. Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), wrote: “Israel needs impunity to maintain its apartheid regime. It cannot maintain control over a subjugated population without state control. Thus, it is essential for the regime to provide itself with blanket impunity—while performing what looks like investigations, to appease international expectations.”

Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel, only tweeted that he was “very sad” to learn about the death of Shireen and called for “a thorough investigation”. The US had tried to put pressure on the PA to agree to a joint investigation. An Israeli NGO, Yesh Din, said the army’s inaction showed that it no longer even bothered “to give the appearance of investigating the killing” of an internationally renowned journalist.

When unarmed civilians are killed, Israel’s strategy has always been to deny culpability and then cast doubts on Palestinian eyewitness accounts, and keep on insisting that there are always two versions to any story. The Western media, as usual, was quick to repeat the Israeli talking points, including describing the killing as an unfortunate accident and generally giving the Israeli government the benefit of the doubt.

Without remorse

That the Israeli government felt no remorse after this latest incident was evident from its actions after her death. When her body was brought to her house in Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities tried to storm it because Palestinian flags were displayed there and patriotic slogans were raised. The police had demanded that the family should only mourn in private and without any public display of grief.

The actions of the security forces during the funeral were even more despicable. The police baton-charged the huge mass of people that had come from all over Israel and the occupied territories and shot at them with rubber bullets and stun grenades. The pall-bearers nearly dropped her coffin in the chaos that ensued. The main objection of the police was to the waving of Palestinian flags and to the fact that her coffin was wrapped in a Palestinian flag. In the apartheid state of Israel, Palestinians are not even allowed to mourn publicly for their heroes.

Since mid April, the occupied territories have witnessed huge protests against the Israeli government’s efforts to prevent worshippers from gathering at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan and its move to expedite the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. Israeli security forces have killed more than 60 Palestinians so far this year alone.

Shireen had rushed to Jenin after Israeli forces had embarked on another large-scale military operation in the city. The operations had killed and injured Palestinian civilians. Jenin has a special place in the history of Palestinian resistance. On April 9, 2002, Israeli special forces launched a surprise raid on a Palestinian refugee camp in the city, killing 47 Palestinians, including women and children. In the firefight, 23 Israeli soldiers were also killed. Shireen covered the horrific events in Jenin 20 years ago. A resident of the town recounted how she got personally involved in searching for missing members of an affected family amid the chaos and terror unleashed by the Israeli army. Since 2002 Jenin has remained defiant.

Every year, Palestinians commemorate the Battle of Jenin. This year the Israeli army further tightened security in Jenin. In February, it targeted 25 activists in the city and raided many homes. A week before the anniversary of the Jenin massacre, the security forces killed three Palestinians. The Israeli authorities claimed that three men were “involved in terrorist activities against the security forces”.

For the last couple of months, Jenin, along with most of the occupied territories, has been in ferment, angered by the high-handed ways of the Israeli security forces. Israel and the occupied territories have witnessed a series of shootings and stabbings since the third week of March; 14 Israelis have died in the violence. The Israeli authorities said that two residents of Jenin were involved in two separate incidents of killing.

Following the spurt in violence, the Israeli Prime Minister gave the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) “full freedom” to subdue the resistance and imposed economic sanctions on Jenin. The army blockaded all roads connecting Jenin to the rest of the occupied West Bank. At the same time, it increased its deadly raids inside Jenin and killings of residents. Shireen and other Palestinian journalists had gone to Jenin to cover this onslaught of the Israeli security forces.

Journalists as victims

She joins the long list of Palestinian journalists who have been killed by Israeli security forces in the last seven decades. Her killing happened just days after the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS), and the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians filed a formal complaint with the ICC alleging “systematic targeting of Palestinian journalists”. The complaint specifically mentions Ahmed Abu Hussein and Yasser Mortaja, two journalists who were killed in Israeli army sniper fire when they were covering the “Great March of Return” protests along the Gaza–Israel border in 2018. Israeli snipers shot and maimed the Palestinian journalists Muath Amarneh and Nedal Eshtayeh in 2019 and 2015 respectively.

The complaint to the ICC also highlights the demolition of an 11-storey building in Gaza by the Israeli army in May last year. The building housed the offices of the US-owned Associated Press and Al Jazeera. The IFJ said that it had filed the complaint “in the light of continuing impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of the attack”.

The PJS estimates that more than 86 Palestinian journalists have been killed since 1967 after Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. Fifty of them have been killed since 2000, when the first Palestinian intifada “uprising” started.

The UN Human Rights Council said in a 2019 report that it had “reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot journalists intentionally, despite seeing clearly that they were marked as such” during the 2018 protests along the border with Gaza. The PJS has described the latest killing as “clear assassination perpetrated by the Israeli occupation army” and called for “a clear move to protect fellow journalists from the continued incitement and killing practised by the Israeli occupation and all components of the occupation”.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry announced that it would “formally” ask the ICC to investigate Shireen’s killing. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told the media: “We have documented [the crime] and submitted a file about it to the ICC prosecutor alongside other Israeli violations.”. The PA has been providing information to the ICC about Israeli atrocities for the last 13 years but has received little support from the court. Mustafa Barghouti, a former Palestinian Foreign Minister, pointed out that in contrast the ICC had sent 42 investigators to Ukraine in the past three months. Barghouti said: “What we need is real pressure on the Israeli establishment, a serious effort to establish sanctions and punitive acts against Israel, not to allow it to continue to be above international law.”

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