The killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, explained

Protest over Al-Jazeera Journalist killing in Israel
Demonstrators take part in a protest to denounce the killing of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh. | Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

Shireen Abu Akleh covered occupied Palestine for two decades. She was killed doing her job.

For over two decades, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh covered human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territory. A generation grew up watching the Al Jazeera broadcaster break down some of the most difficult pieces of news to cover.

On Wednesday morning local time, she was shot and killed while doing the same, reporting on a raid of 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, calling it “a blatant murder” and “heinous crime, which intends to only prevent the media from conducting their duty.” The Palestinian Health Ministry also blamed the Israeli military.

Israel attributed Abu Akleh’s death to Palestinian gunmen, saying she was caught in the crossfire of clashes. Multiple witnesses, however, said that it is more likely she was shot by IDF forces than Palestinian. If that bears out, Abu Akleh’s killing will fit into a larger pattern of attacks on the press in Palestine and in the systemic violence against Palestinians more broadly.

The language that an Israeli spokesperson used Wednesday to describe the work of Palestinian journalists underscored that reality. Israeli military spokesperson Ran Kochav said, “They’re armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so,” and in so doing drew a not-subtle comparison between the work of journalism and that of violence.

Israel’s defense minister Benny Gantz announced an investigation and released body-cam footage from the army, striking a more cautious tone than earlier Israeli statements. Palestinian authorities declined to participate in the investigation.

If an investigation ultimately does find Israeli soldiers responsible, it wouldn’t be the first time the country has targeted the press. Israel has killed more than 50 Palestinian journalists since 2001, according to the Palestinian Journalism Syndicate, and more than 144 have been injured in just the last four years. “In terms of the event itself, unfortunately, it is not unique, not different,” says Saleh Hijazi, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East program. “It fits a pattern, a pattern of unlawful killing, and also a pattern of targeting journalists and human rights defenders.”

What we know about Abu Akleh’s death

Abu Akleh had become a leading media voice when she reported on the 2001 uprising, or intifada, that came to define the last two decades of violent inertia between Israel and Palestine. She’d continued documenting the Israeli occupation and the daily lives of those living in Palestine, and was one of the most well-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, to contend with, and to take seriously what it means to disengage from the question of Palestine.”

On Wednesday, she was reporting from Jenin, where the IDF had been conducting, as it put it, “counterterrorism activity to apprehend terrorist suspects.” Israeli forces have been conducting more raids in Jenin after several recent deadly attacks in Israel, which Israel has attributed to militants from the city.

Abu Akleh and four or so other journalists arrived in Jenin early Wednesday morning. Clashes between IDF and Palestinian gunmen were reported in the city. Gathered several hundred feet away from Israeli forces, the journalists were watching from afar an Israeli raid on a Palestinian home. At the crackling of gunshots, the group took cover, but Abu Akleh appeared to already be shot. According to the Washington Post, she was brought to the hospital, where she died.

Ali Samoudi, her producer, who was also shot and is currently in the hospital, said Israeli forces shot her. Two Palestinian witnesses also attributed the killing to Israeli forces, telling the Times of Israel that the buildings around the area were filled with soldiers.

A fragment of the bullet was removed from her head during the autopsy; the director of the Palestinian forensic institute said he was not yet able to identify who fired it.

Samoudi said there were no armed Palestinian fighters nearby and that Abu Akleh was killed “in cold blood.”

Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi told the AP, “at this stage, we cannot determine by whose fire she was harmed and we regret her death.” Earlier statements from the government, however, more directly blamed Palestinians. The Israeli military’s Twitter feed said it was “investigating the event and looking into the possibility that journalists were hit by the Palestinian gunmen.” That explanation was echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who said “armed Palestinians shot in an inaccurate, indiscriminate and uncontrolled manner” during the IDF’s operation.

“Our forces from the IDF returned fire as accurately, carefully and responsibly as possible. Sadly, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in the exchange,” Bennett said. The Israeli foreign ministry shared a video of Palestinian gunmen active in the city Wednesday to back up these claims.

But a researcher with the preeminent Israeli human rights organization B’tselem analyzed the footage and reported that the gunman in the video was in a separate location in Jenin entirely.

Israeli leaders, including the prime minister and the secretary of defense, do not usually make pronouncements about such things; that they issued statements along these lines about Abu Akleh shows the weight of this killing.

The last two months have seen a significant uptick in violence and deaths in Israel and Palestine, with the most people having died since 2008, according to Amnesty International Amnesty has documented 34 Palestinians killed, including six children, in March and April, and 18 people have been killed in Israeli cities in attacks in recent weeks.

“You only have this happen, because there is no addressing of root causes, which is apartheid, because Israel is able to enjoy this impunity, mainly because of the role that the US and other Western allies play,” Hijazi said.

Why Israel can’t investigate itself

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides said that he encouraged “a thorough investigation into the circumstances of [Abu Akleh’s] death and the injury of at least one other journalist today in Jenin.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “those responsible must be held accountable.”

The Israeli government said that it would jointly investigate the killing with the Palestinian authority, but the Palestinian side declined to provide Abu Akleh’s body.

That likely has something to do with the Israeli government not having a good track record of investigating its own crimes. Israel doesn’t allow international investigations of violations in the country or the occupied territories, and in recent years has chosen not to cooperate or provide access to UN commissions or special rapporteurs. Israel has even designated the premier Palestinian rights organization Al-Haq as a terrorist organization, in what experts called retribution for Al-Haq’s documentation of violations on the ground.

“No one should believe the Israeli promises to quote-unquote investigate what has happened because the promise of investigations are 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 responsibility.”

B’tselem has stopped cooperating with the Israeli government on investigations. Israel tends to stretch out the investigations as long as possible and in the end fails to hold military leaders to account, according to El-Ad. “Israel treats every incident as an extraordinarily exceptional occurrence, and the investigations always push the responsibility down to the lowest level of soldiers,” he told me. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone — it’s the army that’s investigating the army.”

Israel has maintained that it is committed to investigations, including one devoted to Abu Akleh’s death.

“To uncover the truth, there must be a real investigation, and the Palestinians are currently preventing that,” Prime Minister Bennett said in a statement. “Without a serious investigation, we will not reach the truth.”

For Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch, the situation reflects the larger structural dynamic. “Their calls for investigations as if it’s a few bad apples in a situation that’s otherwise normal but that’s not the reality. Palestinians live in a situation of grave 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 merited tributes from US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who had met Abu Akleh recently and said she had “extraordinary respect for her.”

It was important, too, that Abu Akleh was a woman delivering the news to Arabic-speaking audiences worldwide. “So many girls wanted to be her. So many aspiring journalists have told me they would stand in front of a mirror and use a hairbrush and pretend it were a microphone, and basically pretend to be Shireen,” said Dalia Hatuqa, a journalist and friend of Abu Akleh.

“Now she’s been silenced in this utterly violent way that echoes some of her own reporting,” Qato told me.