U.S. and World Politics

The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh

A flag, a song, a rock, a voice

By Jeffrey St. Clair

Shireen Abu Akleh specialized in covering the funerals of Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). She had reported on dozens for Voice of Palestine and Al Jazeera. But none quite like her own, when thousands of mourners gathered at the St. Joseph’s Hospital to escort her casket through the streets of Jerusalem, two days after she had been shot in the head by an Israeli sniper.

Akleh’s audience found her voice reassuring, even when she was describing scenes of horror. It was familiar and intimate. A voice that spoke to them. A voice that understood their lives. A voice that knew their streets and neighborhoods, markets, and schools. A voice that had experienced the daily indignities and humiliations, acts of courage, and sudden violence peculiar to life in the occupied territories.

How would that voice, a voice that had conveyed empathy and outrage to millions over the decades, have described the surreal scene that unfolded at her own funeral, as Israeli police clad in riot gear, charged into the crowd, swinging clubs, and firing stun guns, ripped away the Palestinian flag draped on her casket and shoved and thrashed the pallbearers so viciously that her casket almost toppled to the ground.

The cortege had been warned by the Israeli police not to sing Palestinian songs, not chant Palestinian slogans. “If you don’t stop these chants and nationalistic songs, we will have to disperse you using force and we won’t let the funeral take place,” a police officer shouted at the crowd on a bullhorn, shortly before the riot cops attacked.

The police justified their crackdown by claiming someone threw a rock. Shireen would have appreciated the irony. She knew the symbolic power of a stone in Palestine. She’d spent much of her career covering the Second Intifada. A rock was a sign of the resistance; it was also an excuse for the IDF to open fire on crowds of protesters, including children. A flag, a song, a voice, a rock. Why did these simple things, nearly as old as the Hebron Hills themselves, unnerve them so? Shireen could have told us.

Shireen Abu Akleh had been a problem for the IDF and the Israeli state her entire career. She was a problem because of who she was and who she wasn’t. For starters, Akleh was a Palestinian, born in Bethlehem, but she was also an American citizen, who had lived for years in New Jersey with her mother’s relatives. She was an Arab, but also a Christian, whose funeral was held in the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Virgin and whose body was buried next to her parents in the old Anglican cemetery on Mount Zion. She grew up under Occupation, but her reporting wasn’t biased. She described what she saw and what she heard. She knew how to find witnesses and get the story of out of them. There was a deep knowledge and clarity to her reporting that made it all the more damning to the Israeli state.

But Akleh couldn’t be written off as a propagandist. This was a problem for Israel. Her reporting went behind objective description. She didn’t accept what she saw at face value. Akleh strove to get to the how and the why. She wanted to understand the mindset of the IDF soldier who brutalizes Palestinian children and the psychology of the cabinet ministers who condone such atrocities. She wanted to know what motivated 13-year-old boys to hurl rocks at Israeli soldiers aiming automatic weapons at them and how families felt when they saw their olive groves uprooted and their homes bulldozed. Her voice was a kind of stone.

I got a call from Shireen 15 years ago or so. The late Uri Avnery had given her a copy of our book, The Politics of Antisemitism and she wanted to talk to me about my chapter on the IDF’s attack on the USS Liberty in 1968. What I remember most about our conversation was that unlike many interviewers from what one might call the “progressive media” she didn’t take the facts as I presented them for granted. Of course, the story of that raid does seem almost inconceivable, the more so because of how little the story is known in the U.S. How could this be, she asked. How could such an act be tolerated by politicians, why was it ignored by the media? I never saw her story on the Liberty, if she even prepared one. Perhaps she only wanted to satisfy her own curiosity about that awful episode. That would have been like her. When she was gunned down by an Israeli sniper, Shireen had been studying Hebrew. She thought it would help her understand the nuances of Israeli thinking and how they constructed their own versions of the occupation and its treatment of Palestinians. Like all great journalists, the more Shireen learned, the more she wanted to know.

On the morning of May 11th, Shireen Abu Akleh was in Jenin, covering another IDF raid on the West Bank city, as she had done so many times before. There are two Jenins: Jenin the city of 45,000 Palestinians and Jenin the refugee camp, home to more than 10,000 Palestinian refugees. Both the city and the camp have been favorite targets of the IDF since the beginning of the Second Intifada. In 2002, the IDF invaded Jenin Camp, massacred dozens of residents, jailed hundreds, and placed the camp under military occupation for two weeks. Since then, the IDF has conducted regular raids on the camp with near impunity. In the last month, these raids have accelerated, coming almost daily. The IDF claims they’re after terrorists. At least 28 people have been killed.

Akleh was on the scene

Akleh had been in many of these chaotic scenes, both as a journalist and a resident. They are likely to erupt almost anywhere in Palestine, at any moment. As in most occupations, journalists enjoy no protective status there. In fact, they are likely to become unofficial targets of the occupying power. The Occupied Territories are one of the most dangerous places in the world for a journalist. For anyone, really. At least 45 journalists have been killed by the IDF since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000 and 144 Palestinian journalists have been wounded by Israeli forces since 2018 alone. In April, the International Federation of Journalists filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Israeli forces of targeting of journalists. The complaint cited four cases of journalists the IDF had systematically targeted: Ahmed Abu Hussein, Yaser Murtaja, Muath Amarneh, and Nedal Eshtayeh. Shireen had reported on this very case. She knew the risks better than anyone.

“Of course, I get scared,” Akleh told an interviewer from An-Najah NBC in 2017. “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.”

Shireen was not an embedded reporter. She didn’t report from the sidelines if there are any sidelines in Jenin. That day she was with a small group of other journalists as the IDF began its assault on Jenin camp. She was wearing a helmet and a bright blue vest with “PRESS” emblazoned on the front and back. She was armed, in the words of an IDF spokesman, “with cameras.”

The journalists were about 100 yards behind the IDF, as they entered the camp, when they came under gunfire. One of the journalists who was closest to Shireen was Shatha Hanaysha, a reporter for Ultra Palestine and Middle East Eye.

As they came under fire, the group of journalists ducked behind a wall. A few seconds later, Shireen yelled: “Ali’s been hit. Ali’s been hit!” She was referring to Ali al-Samoudi, her producer at Al Jazeera, who’d been shot in the back by an Israeli sniper.

Targeted by IDF

Hanaysha and Alkeh now found themselves pinned down together, a spray of bullets coming at them from above. Hanaysha ducked from the fire, covering her head. When she looked up, she saw Shireen go down. At first, she thought she’d just fallen, but Shireen didn’t get up. Hanaysha said she wanted to go to her, but the gunfire was too intense, hitting the tree she was hiding behind. Blood pooled around Shireen’s head. When they were finally able to retrieve her body, they saw she’d been shot near the ear, just below her helmet. She was taken to Ibn Sina Hospital in Jenin, where she was pronounced dead.

As news of Shireen’s murder broke, the Israeli government was quick to declaim any responsibility. Instead, in a familiar tactic, the leadership of the Israeli government blamed the Palestinians themselves for Shireen’s death. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted: “According to the data we have at the moment, there is a good chance that armed Palestinians, who fired wildly, are the ones who led to the unfortunate death of the journalist.” Bennett’s Minister of Communications, Yoaz Hendel reiterated this claim in an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom.

Shatha Hanaysha disputed these claims. “The shooting didn’t come from the Palestinian side,” Hanaysha told the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The street we were on was busy with moving cars. There weren’t any clashes, not even burning tires, which was the reason we had kept going—in order to get closer to the action and cover what was happening.” Even the IDF admitted that no Israeli soldiers were even injured in the operation. And an examination by Haaretz of the site where Shireen was shot revealed that there were several buildings between her and the location of the Palestinians the IDF had engaged with.

But the assertions of Palestinian complicity had a tactical purpose: to distort the media coverage of the shootings. And it worked. The BBC and the New York Times both described the circumstance of Shireen’s killing as unclear. They referred to “clashes” between Palestinian “gunmen” and the IDF.

The U.S. State Department largely followed suit. Sounding like a recent graduate of the Susan Collins School of Elocution, Anthony Blinken expressed his “concern” and demurely called for an “investigation” into the “circumstances” of Shireen’s killing. It was the very least he could say. After all, Shireen was an American citizen and a Christian! She was killed by an Army that receives 20 percent of its funding from the U.S. Though none of that should matter and it won’t in the end. Because nothing will be done. No consequences will be suffered by the army and government that has committed the atrocity. There’s no Palestinian lobby. No one to hold the U.S. government to account for its passive complicity in crimes against its own citizens. All politicians and journalists in the U.S. know that even the most muted criticism of Israel is now condemned as anti-Semitism, and few want to spend the effort to wipe that kind of career-killing slime off of their resumes. So here again Blinken is following the same template used after Rachel Corrie was intentionally run over by an IDF bulldozer and after Omar Assad was gagged, bound, roughed up and left to die by the IDF only a few weeks ago: shake a tremulous finger, wink, and wait for it all to blow over.

By the time of Shireen’s funeral, however, the IDF’s initial story had fallen apart and even Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was forced to admit that it was “more probable” that an IDF sniper was responsible.

One reason to attack a funeral is to distract from a more heinous crime you’ve just committed. Another reason is that you just can’t help yourself. This is what you’ve been programmed to do. In other words, the attack on Shireen’s funeral is part of the same crime as her murder, as the raid on Jenin and the Occupation itself.

There’s no greater honor for a journalist than to have the police state you’ve written about your entire career—the same police state which murdered you while you were doing your job—descend en masse at your funeral, savagely beat your mourners, and try to defile your corpse. Shireen’s journalism has been fully vindicated.

CP+, May 15, 2022