OCCUPIED WEST BANK — Israel drew international condemnation over its forces’ targeted killing of prominent Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
The 51-year-old Palestinian journalist had been with the news organization since 1997 and had covered numerous notable events in the region, like the Second Intifada between the numerous Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. As such, she was known widely in the Arab world and in Israel itself.
Abu Akleh also held a U.S. citizenship. Members of her mother’s family reportedly reside in New Jersey.
Abu Akleh was with a group of reporters on Wednesday, including Shatha Hanaysha and Ali Al-Sammoudi, when she was shot by Israeli occupation forces who were raiding Jenin, a refugee city in the northern occupied West Bank.
“A deliberate attempt to kill us”
Hanaysha recounted the events to Middle East Eye writers. On arrival, the group of journalists, including cameramen, made themselves visible to Israeli soldiers who were stationed hundreds of meters away.
The journalists were wearing helmets and vests that identified them as press.
“We remained still for around 10 minutes to make sure they knew we were there as journalists,” Hanaysha said. “When no warning shots were fired at us, we moved uphill towards the camp.”
Just then, a gun shot was heard and Al-Sammoudi was hit in the back. He soon got up and moved away from the fire. He urged them to get out of the line of fire, but they couldn’t risk crossing the street they were on.
“‘Al-Sammoudi is hit,’ Shireen shouted, standing right behind me, as we both stood with our backs to a wall to take cover,” Hanaysha said. “Right then, another bullet pierced Shireen’s neck, and she fell to the ground right next to me.”
Video captured at the scene shows Hanaysha next to Abu Akleh, who is face down on the ground and does not appear to be moving. Hanaysha makes several attempts to move her, but the bullets don’t stop.
“‘Stay back, stay back!’ my colleagues shouted, as bullets flew every time I tried to check Shireen’s pulse,” Hanaysha said.
Whoever shot at us aimed to kill. — Shatha Hanaysha, Palestinian journalist
A camp resident managed to get to the two in a car from an alleyway out of range of the Israeli soldiers, pulling both into his vehicle and driving them to a hospital, where Abu Akleh was pronounced dead.
“What happened was a deliberate attempt to kill us,” Hanaysha said. “Whoever shot at us aimed to kill.”
Hanaysha said she looked up to the veteran journalist.
“I remembered myself as a child watching her reporting on the TV during the Second Intifada,” she said. “I was about 7-years-old at the time and ever since then I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up; I wanted to be like Shireen.”
Though Israeli authorities were quick to shift blame on Palestinian resistance fighters, Hanaysha said the area of the killing was relatively open, away from the camp where Palestinian fighters are at a disadvantage.
The reporters also saw no presence of such fighters in the area.
Hanaysha said Palestinian fighters normally use semi-automatic rifles that spray bullets continuously.
“These bullets were different,” she said. “They were sporadic and precise. They were only shot when one of us moved. One bullet at a time.” This led her and another to be believe the bullets came from an Israeli forces’ sniper.
Shortly after news of the murder broke and drew outrage and concerns internationally, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett blamed Palestinians fighters in the besieged refugee camp for Abu Akleh’s death.
The Israeli government and the army released video clips attempting to show Palestinians aiming their fire at Israeli soldiers, but later retracted the fraudulent claims after field reporters from Israel’s B’Tselem showed those clips were taken several hundred meters away, in a dense neighborhood with buildings and facades.
This morning, B’Tselem’s field researcher in Jenin documented the exact locations in which the Palestinian gunman depicted in a video distributed by the Israeli army, fired, as well as the exact location in which Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed. pic.twitter.com/6VbEJJuF7z
— B'Tselem בצלם بتسيلم (@btselem) May 11, 2022
“We were going to film the Israeli army operation and suddenly they shot us without asking us to leave or stop filming,” al-Sammoudi told Al Jazeera.
“The first bullet hit me and the second bullet hit Shireen… there was no Palestinian military resistance at all at the scene,” he added.
Soon after Abu Akleh’s death, Israeli police raided her home, dispersing mourners gathered there, with a Palestinian police chief demanding that a Palestinian flag be taken down and Abu Akleh’s friends and family end the gathering.
On Thursday, a state service for the slain Al Jazeera journalist took place in Ramallah and was attended by thousands of mourning Palestinians. The ceremony took place at the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) presidential compound at noon on Thursday in the West Bank city.
Journalists, colleagues and friends arrived at the Istishari Hospital on Thursday morning, where the service began. Abu Akleh’s burial will take place on Friday at the Old City.
Al Jazeera said Abu Akleh’s body was carried in several protests, with hundreds of Palestinians attending and chanting slogans like “with our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Shireen.”
A Palestinian pathologist conducted an autopsy and said Abu Akleh suffered a cerebral laceration and skull fractures after being shot directly in the head.
Journalists under attack
Abu Akleh’s death is not an isolated incident. Just weeks before, The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) filed a complaint to the International Criminal Court (ICC) alleging that Israel’s systematic targeting of journalists working in Palestine and its failure to properly investigate killings of media workers amount to war crimes.
The complaint was filed on behalf of four Palestinian journalists killed or maimed by Israeli snipers while covering demonstrations in Gaza. All were wearing clearly marked “PRESS” vests at the time they were shot.
The complaint also details the targeting of the media and the bombing of a media building in Gaza City in May 2021 and dozens of others news outlets.
At least 46 journalists have been killed since 2000 and no one has been held to account, the IFJ says, pledging to add Abu Akleh’s murder to the complaint.
Jenin, a besieged site
In recent weeks, the Jenin refugee camp has been the site of increased Israeli aggression, including raids, that has killed dozens of Palestinians and injured hundreds.
In fact, Abu Akleh was on site to report on such a raid when she was killed. Israeli forces had stormed the camp and surrounded the house of Abdallah al-Hosari, whom they killed on March 1, to arrest his brother.
Israeli forces have shot and killed young Palestinians almost daily in past weeks, including 16-year-old Thaer Khalil Mohammad Maslat in the occupied West Bank city of Al-Bireh on the same day as Abu Akleh’s killing.
Recent attacks in Israel carried out by young Palestinians, some from the Jenin area, in retaliation to Israel’s illegal occupation, have been used as justifications for the increased attacks.
The Jenin refugee camp has been the site of increased Israeli aggression, including raids, that has killed dozens of Palestinians and injured hundreds. In fact, Abu Akleh was on site to report on such a raid when she was killed.
“Palestinians, whether in Jenin or elsewhere, fight back because they are denied basic human rights, have no political horizon, live in extreme poverty, have no true leadership and feel abandoned by the so-called international community,” writes Palestinian historian and political analyst Ramzy Baroud.
Baroud writes the focus on Jenin is meant to placate fears and anger of the Israeli population.
“Israel wants to give the impression that the new phenomenon of Palestinian retaliatory attacks is confined to a single place, one that is adjacent to the Israeli border and can be easily ‘dealt with,’” Baroud writes.
The UNRWA says Jenin has been the scene of significant suffering for decades. Established in 1953 after the original camp in the area was destroyed in a snowstorm, the camp city was also severely affected by the second intifada, in which the Israeli military destroyed hundreds of Palestinian homes and displaced more than a quarter of the camp’s population.
Jenin experiences the highest rates of unemployment and poverty among the 19 West Bank refugee camps.
Little promise of accountability
Calls for an investigation into the slaying came from all corners of the world, including from Israel, whose initial explanation for the murder was discredited.
The Palestinian Authority, in condemning the killing, also rejected such a probe by Israel.
“Let me ask, when does the criminal have the right to take part in the investigation against his victim?” a PA spokesperson said.
American officials such as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, and U.S. Department of State spokesman Ned Price called for an immediate investigation, and “full accountability.”
But when asked whether the U.S. would support an international investigation, Price said, “Israel has the wherewithal to conduct a thorough investigation.”
The U.S., which supplies direct monetary support to Israel’s occupying forces, has blocked or condemned international probes into Israeli war crimes in the past, including efforts by ICC investigators.
As an example, the Biden administration justified the destruction of Associated Press and Al Jazeera press offices by Israel in Gaza last year by saying Hamas was present at the building, a claim yet to be proven.
In the U.S. mainstream press, where headlines were otherwise quick to distance Israel’s troops’ role in the murder, a MSNBC anchor spoke on concerns about such an investigation by Israel.
Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper while reporting on an Israeli military raid of a refugee camp.
"Dies at 51". Unbelievable, NYT. pic.twitter.com/H8kxCqFubi
— beth miller (@bethavemiller) May 11, 2022
“We hear — as we did yet again today — American officials condemn and call for investigation into Israeli abuses,” tweeted Ayman Mohyeldin. “But as history has shown, there is rarely, if ever, any justice for the killing of Palestinians, whether they are American or not.”
On his program, in speaking of Abu Akleh, whom he had previously worked with in occupied territories, Mohyeldin spoke of the recent death of a U.S. journalist in Ukraine
“No one would expect the Russians to fairly carry out an investigation of the American journalist that was killed there, and if history is any indication, no one should expect Israel to carryout this investigation impartial,” he said, ending the segment with a photo of Abu Akleh outside MSNBC’s New York office on a recent trip.
We hear – as we did yet again today – American officials condemn and call for investigation into Israeli abuses. But as history has shown, there is rarely, if ever, any justice for the killing of Palestinians, whether they are American or not. pic.twitter.com/TvpcF7WDzL
— Ayman (@AymanM) May 12, 2022
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited an initial Israeli investigation showing Abu Akleh was about 150 meters (328 feet) away from Israeli forces when she was shot and killed and that they had fired bullets during the raid.
Still, the brutal tragedy of Abu Akleh’s murder brought out widespread condemnation.
The Al Jazeera Media Network, based in Qatar, called the incident a “blatant murder” that violates “international laws and norms” and said Abu Akleh’s death was a “heinous crime, through which it is intended to prevent the media from fulfilling its message.”
“We hold the Israeli government and the occupation forces responsible for the killing of the late colleague Shireen,” the statement said.
An Al Jazeera video showed shocked and grieving colleagues of Abu Akleh, who was described as an “icon of Palestinian coverage.”
Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered by a government that receives unconditional funding by our country with zero accountability. — U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit)
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) said the U.S. can not allow “the same people committing those war crimes to do the investigation.”
“Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered by a government that receives unconditional funding by our country with zero accountability,” she tweeted.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said impunity for Israel in its human rights violations “must end.”
Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard said that the killing was “a bloody reminder of the deadly system in which Israel locks Palestinians.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Secretary General Christophe Deloire said the killing of Abu Akleh “constitutes a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions that mandate the protection of civilians, and of U.N. Security Council resolution 2222 on the protection of journalists.”
The Palestinian Authority said it will share findings of its investigation with the U.S, Qatar and the ICC, adding that it will be concluded “soon” and will include an autopsy report.
“We Palestinians are not human beings to the Israelis. Is Shireen human enough for you?” tweeted Palestinian American activist and University of Detroit Mercy law professor Amer Zahr.
Zahr also leads the New Generation for Palestine advocacy group. The organization, along with other local partners, had planned a rally to commemorate 74 years of the Nakba, the historic expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland. The event will also call for justice in the killing of Abu Akleh.