The Israeli Execution of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh
Israel, which shoots hundreds of Palestinians a year, routinely includes reporters and photographers on its target lists.
Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera reporter with more than two decades of experience covering armed conflicts, knew the protocol. She and other reporters remained last Wednesday in the open, clearly visible to Israeli snipers about 650 feet away in a building. Her flak jacket and helmet were emblazoned with the word “PRESS.”
There were three shots fired in her direction. The second bullet hit the Al Jazeera producer Ali al-Samoudi in the back. The third shot, al-Samoudi remembered, hit Abu Akleh in the face below the rim of her helmet.
There were a few seconds when the Israeli sniper saw profiled in his scope Abu Akleh, one of the most recognizable faces in the Middle East. The 5.56 mm bullet from the M-16, designed to spin end over end upon impact, would have obliterated most of Abu Akleh’s head. The accuracy of the M-16, especially the M16A4s equipped with the Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG), a prismatic telescopic sight, is very high. In the fighting in Fallujah so many dead insurgents were found with head wounds that observers at first thought they had been executed. The bullet that killed Abu Akleh was deftly placed between the very slim opening separating her helmet and the collar of her flak jacket.
I have been in combat, including in clashes between Israeli and Palestinian forces. Snipers are dreaded on a battlefield because each kill is calculated. The execution of Abu Akleh was not an accident. She was singled out for elimination. Whether this killing was ordered by commanding officers, or whether it was the whim of an Israeli sniper, I cannot answer. Israelis shoot so many Palestinians with impunity my guess is the sniper knew he or she could kill Abu Akleh and never face any consequences.
The shooting, Al Jazeera said in a statement, was “a blatant murder, violating international laws and norms.” Abu Akleh, the network added, was “assassinated in cold blood.”
Abu Akleh, who was 51 and a Palestinian-American, was a familiar and trusted presence on television screens throughout the region, revered for her courage and integrity and beloved for her careful and sensitive reporting on the intricacies of daily life under the occupation. Her reporting from the occupied territories routinely punctured Israeli narratives and exposed Israeli abuses and crimes, making her the bête noire of the Israeli government. She was a heroine for young Palestinian women, as Dalia Hatuqa, a Palestinian-American journalist and friend of Abu Akleh’s, related to The New York Times.
“I know of a lot of girls who grew up basically standing in front of a mirror and holding their hair brushes and pretending to be Shireen,” Hatuqa told the paper. “That’s how lasting and important her presence was.”
“I chose journalism to be close to the people,” Abu Akleh said in a clip shared by Al Jazeera after she was killed. “It might not be easy to change the reality, but at least I was able to bring their voice to the world.”
In a 2017 interview with the Palestinian television channel An-Najah NBC, she was asked if she was worried about being shot.
“Of course, I get scared,” she said. “In a specific moment you forget that fear. We don’t throw ourselves to death. We go and we try to find where we can stand and how to protect the team with me before I think about how I am going to go up on the screen and what I am going to say.”
Her funeral attracted thousands of mourners, the largest in Jerusalem since the death in 2002 of the Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini. Israeli police in full riot gear disrupted the procession, confiscating and ripping down Palestinian flags. The police fired stun grenades and pushed, clubbed and beat mourners and pallbearers, causing them to lose their grip on the coffin. Thousands chanted: “We sacrifice our soul and blood for you, Shireen.” It was another example of the daily humiliation meted out to Palestinians by their Israeli occupiers. It was also a moving tribute to a reporter who understood that the role of journalism is to give a voice to those the powerful seek to silence.
I covered the Israeli occupation for seven years, two years with The Dallas Morning News and five with The New York Times, where I was the paper’s Middle East Bureau Chief. One of the chief objectives of the Israeli army was to prevent our reporting from the occupied territories. If we were able get past Israeli checkpoints, not always possible, to document murderous assaults by Israeli soldiers on unarmed Palestinians then Israel’s well-oiled propaganda machine was rolled out to obscure our reporting. Israeli officials swiftly issued counter narratives. The Israeli Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Defense Minister and Israeli Defense Force (IDF) spokesperson, for example, immediately blamed the killing of Abu Akleh on Palestinian gunmen until video footage examined by B’Tselem Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories exposed the falsehood.
When Israel is caught lying, as it was with the murder of Abu Akleh, it immediately promises an investigation. The narrative shifts from one of blaming the Palestinians to the outcome of an inquiry. Impartial investigations into the hundreds of killings by soldiers and Jewish settlers of Palestinians are rarely carried out. Perpetrators are almost never brought to trial or held accountable. The pattern of Israeli obfuscation is pathetically predictable. So is the collusion of much of the corporate media along with Republican and Democratic politicians. US politicians decried the murder of Abu Akleh and dutifully repeated the old mantra, calling for a “thorough investigation” by the army that carried out the crime.
The dramatic footage captured in September 2000 at the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip by France 2 TV of a father trying to shield his 12-year-old son Muhammad al-Durrah from the Israeli gunfire that killed him resulted in a typical propaganda campaign by Israel. Israeli officials spent years lying about the killing of the boy, first blaming the Palestinians for the shooting, and later suggesting that the scene was faked, and Muhammad was still alive.
One thing is certain, the Israeli military knows which one of its snipers killed Abu Akleh, although the name of the soldier will probably never be made public. Nor will, I expect, the sniper be reprimanded.
“With all due respect to us, let’s say that Israel’s credibility is not very high in such cases,” Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai said of an Israeli investigation into the killing. “We know this. It is based on the past.”
Israel has a long history of blocking investigations into the plethora of war crimes it commits in Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, and the West Bank. It refuses to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) into possible war crimes in the occupied territories. It does not cooperate with the U.N. Human Rights Council and prohibits the United Nations Special Rapporteur (UNSR) for Human Rights from entering the country. Israel revoked the work permit for Omar Shakir, the Director of Human Rights Watch (Israel and Palestine), in 2018 and expelled him. In May 2018, Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy published a report calling on the European Union (EU) and European states to halt their direct and indirect financial support and funding to Palestinian and international human rights organizations that “have ties to terror and promote boycotts against Israel.”
Israel relies on campaigns of terror, with random and indiscriminate killings, to beat back Palestinian resistance. Israeli strategists describe the tactic as “mowing the grass,” part of an endless war of attrition. Israeli terror keeps Palestinians perpetually off-balance, fearful, and living at a subsistence level. This state terrorism also contributes to Israel’s main goal, a slow-motion ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land.
The 2014 bombing and shelling of Gaza, which lasted 51 days, killed more than 2,250 Palestinians, including 551 children. Israel’s use of its military against an occupied population that does not have mechanized units, an air force, navy, missiles, heavy artillery, and command and control, not to mention a US commitment to provide $38 billion dollars in defense-aid to Israel over the next decade, is not justifiable under international law. Israel is not exercising the right to defend itself. It is carrying out mass murder. It is a war crime. The attacks are designed to degrade civilian infrastructure, destroying power plants, water and sewage treatment facilities, residential high-rises, government buildings, roads, bridges, public facilities, agricultural lands, schools and mosques.
Israel used state terror to crush the International Solidarity Movement that saw activists come to the occupied territories from around the world, often using their bodies to block Israel from demolishing Palestinian homes, as well as filming and recording human rights abuses.
As the author and journalist Jonathan Cook writes:
But Abu Akleh’s US passport was no more able to save her from Israeli retribution than that of Rachel Corrie, murdered in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer driver as she tried to protect Palestinian homes in Gaza. Similarly, Tom Hurndall’s British passport did not stop him from being shot in the head as he tried to protect Palestinian children in Gaza from Israeli gunfire. Nor did filmmaker James Miller’s British passport prevent an Israeli soldier from executing him in 2003 in Gaza, as he documented Israel’s assault on the tiny, overcrowded enclave.
All were seen as having taken a side by acting as witnesses and by refusing to remain quiet as Palestinians suffered – and for that reason, they and those who thought like them had to be taught a lesson.
It worked. Soon, the contingent of foreign volunteers – those who had come to Palestine to record Israel’s atrocities and serve, when necessary, as human shields to protect Palestinians from a trigger-happy Israeli army – were gone. Israel denounced the International Solidarity Movement for supporting terrorism, and given the clear threat to their lives, the pool of volunteers gradually dried up.
Israel has a deep hostility to the press, especially Al Jazeera which has large viewership throughout the Arab world. Al Jazeera reporters are routinely denied press credentials, harassed, and blocked from reporting. Israeli warplanes in May 2021 destroyed the al-Jalaa building in Gaza that housed dozens of international news agencies, including the Gaza offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press.
At least 144 Palestinian journalists have been wounded by Israeli forces in the occupied territories since 2018 and three, including Abu Akleh, have been killed in the same period, according to Reporters Without Borders. Palestinian reporters Ahmed Abu Hussein and Yasser Mortaja, also clearly identified as press, were shot dead by Israeli snipers in Gaza in 2018. At least 45 Palestinian journalists have been killed by Israeli soldiers since 2000, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Information.
“Abu Akleh was most likely shot precisely because she was a high-profile Al Jazeera reporter, known for her fearless reporting of Israeli crimes,” Cook writes. “Both the army and its soldiers bear grudges, and they have lethal weapons with which to settle scores.”
Israel does little to hide its callous disregard for the lives of Palestinians, international activists, and journalists.
“Suppose that Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli army fire,” Avi Benyahu, a former IDF spokesperson stated. “There’s no need to apologize for that.”
Reporters and photographers, in Israel’s eyes, are responsible for their own deaths.
“When ‘terrorists’ fire at our soldiers in Jenin, the soldiers must retaliate in full force even in the presence of journalists in from Al Jazeera in the area—who usually stand in the army’s way and impede their work,” said Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir.
Israeli forces have killed at least 380 Palestinians, including 90 children, during the past year, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). This includes at least 260 Palestinians killed in Gaza during Israel’s latest assault in May 2021. The pace of Israeli killings of Palestinians has been steadily increasing in the wake of armed Palestinians murdering 18 people in cities across Israel since the end of March. In March, Israeli forces killed 12 Palestinians, including three children. In April, Israeli forces killed at least 22 Palestinians, including three children. Abu Akleh was covering an Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp where army units said they were hunting for Palestinian attackers.
The killing of Abu Akleh would have been treated very differently if she was killed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. There would have been no equivocations about who carried out the murder. Her death would have been denounced as a war crime. No one would have acquiesced to let the Russian military carry out the investigation.
The world is divided into worthy and unworthy victims, those who deserve our compassion and support and those who do not. Ukrainians are white and largely Christian. We see the struggle against the Russian occupier as a battle for freedom and democracy. We provide $40 billion in weapons and humanitarian aid. We impose punishing sanctions on Moscow. We make the Ukrainian cause our own.
The 55-year-long fight for Palestinian freedom is no less just, no less worthy of our support. But Palestinians are occupied by our Israeli ally. They are not white. Most are not Christian, although Abu Akleh was Christian. They are not deemed worthy. They suffer and die alone. The war crimes carried out by Israel go unheeded and unpunished. The Palestinians doggedly refuse to give up. This makes them as heroic, maybe more heroic, than Ukrainian fighters. We are on the wrong side of history in Israel. Abu Akleh’s blood is on our hands.
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