Who killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh?
In her 25 years as a journalist for Al-Jazeera, Shireen Abu Akleh covered many clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. So when she went to the occupied West Bank city of Jenin in the early morning of May 11 to cover an Israeli army operation in a refugee camp, she took all the requisite precautions. She wore a helmet and blue body armour marked ‘press’ in large letters. She stood near the entrance to the refugee camp with a group of other journalists, and her presence was immediately noticed. She was so well known among Arabic-speaking audiences that a crowd gathered to watch her work.
In the course of their reporting, however, the journalists came under fire. Abu Akleh, an American citizen, was killed by a bullet to the head. Another journalist, Ali Samoudi, who was also wearing a flak jacket marked ‘press’, was shot in the back and survived.
More than three weeks have passed since Abu Akleh was killed. Yet, despite a surge of international outrage and calls by, among others, the US State Department, Israeli human rights organizations, scholars and members of civil society for a thorough investigation of her death and of the allegations that she was killed because she was a journalist, no formal, impartial outside inquiry has been started. The world still knows very little about who is responsible for her death. Abu Akleh’s family, her colleagues and all who care about freedom of the press as a pillar of democracy deserve far more.
The early response to the killing has been alarming. Two days after her death, the results of two preliminary investigations were announced. The Palestinian Authority charged that Abu Akleh, 51, had been targeted by Israeli soldiers. The Israeli military, for its part, said there is always a risk of non-combatants being hit during an armed clash and said that the fatal shot might have come from indiscriminate Palestinian gunfire or an Israeli sniper. On the day Abu Akleh was shot, a spokesperson for the Israeli military implied that journalists were legitimate targets. The Times of Israel reports that the spokesperson told Army Radio that Abu Akleh was “filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians. They’re armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so.”
With that comment, Israel seemed to have questioned the very presence of journalists in the West Bank and dismissed the crucial role that brave, independent reporters such as Abu Akleh and others have served in bearing witness to the violence that, in recent weeks, has escalated.
But Israelis should care more about what happened to Abu Akleh. Democracies require a free press as a prerequisite for informed self-governance. Israel needs to ensure the safety of journalists in the country and in areas that it occupies, to ensure the safety of its own democracy.
The tensions were on clear display two days after the shooting, when Israeli police officers attacked some of the hundreds of mourners at Abu Akleh’s funeral procession in East Jerusalem, causing the pallbearers to nearly drop her coffin. Numerous videos showed officers attacking mourners with batons and stun grenades. The Israeli police appeared to want to prevent the funeral from turning into a nationalist rally and said the officers had acted against a “mob” that had taken the coffin and was seeking to march on foot, in violation of a previously approved plan.
Attention has now shifted to the forensics of the investigation, and the two sides are at loggerheads. The Palestinian Authority says it has the bullet that killed Abu Akleh. The Israeli government says it may have the rifle that fired it. An examination of markings on the bullet and the rifling of the gun could determine whether an Israeli fired the fatal round.
On May 26, after a two-week investigation, the Palestinian Authority accused Israeli soldiers of intentionally killing Abu Akleh. The inquiry concluded that a high-velocity 5.56 mm bullet fired by an Israeli soldier “stationed in the middle of the street” had struck her while she was trying to escape from Israeli fire. Israel rejected any suggestion that the killing was deliberate, calling the allegation a “blatant lie.”
The US State Department has called for an investigation. “It is important to us. It is important to the world that that investigation be thorough, that it be comprehensive, that it be transparent and, importantly, that investigations end with full accountability and those responsible for her death being held responsible,” Ned Price, a Department spokesperson, said last month. In the House of Representatives, 57 Democrats signed a letter to the secretary of state and the head of the FBI demanding they conduct their own investigation, urging them “to uphold the values that our nation was founded on, including human rights, equality for all and freedom of speech.” The letter added: “We have a duty to protect Americans reporting abroad.”
CNN and other news organizations have begun their own investigations. After reviewing video footage, witnesses’ accounts and audio forensic analysis of the gunshots, CNN reported that the evidence suggested that “Abu Akleh was shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces.” The witnesses and videos, it said, provided new evidence “that there was no active combat nor any Palestinian militants near Abu Akleh in the moments leading up to her death.”
Israel reacted sharply. In an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos on May 25, Israeli President Isaac Herzog rejected the report, saying it was based on “fake facts”.
That only makes it more important to get a full accurate accounting, and the best possible means of establishing those facts would be an independent investigation conducted by a group with American, Israeli and Palestinian participation.
On May 20, Israel’s ambassador to the United States said in a statement that Israel has, “from the outset, called for an impartial joint Israeli-Palestinian investigation with the US in an observer role.”
Independence in this probe would be, certainly, a tall order. The Palestinians, convinced that Israel would try to whitewash the killing, declared from the outset that they would not cooperate with any Israeli investigation. In Israel, which has faced decades of one-sided condemnations by the United Nations and other international agencies, there is a deep mistrust of any outside investigation. And Israel’s political right does not look kindly on investigating troops.
Although the questions around Abu Akleh’s death may be difficult to answer, that is no excuse for ignoring them. Reporters are aware of the dangers inherent in covering armed conflict, and they know that armies are not keen to have their violent missions exposed to public scrutiny. But the work of journalists is essential to public accountability for the actions of any country’s military. Journalists cannot do their jobs if they are targeted with impunity by any side in a conflict. Even if she was not singled out, Israel still needs to grapple with how this happened and what can be done to avoid similar tragedies.
Knowing what really happened at the Jenin refugee camp is significant far beyond the West Bank; those facts would help reinforce the message, to governments and to troops, that non-combatants in a conflict zone — including clearly identified journalists, medical workers and civilians — must be protected.
Abu Akleh’s prominence as a journalist and her American passport have served to focus broad attention on her death. But scores of other journalists lose their lives without public notice. According to a database maintained by the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, 511 journalists were killed from 1992 to 2022 in crossfire or on dangerous assignments, 347 of them in wars. Journalists are dying in Ukraine, some presumably killed deliberately.
The Palestinian Authority, Israel and the United States would do well to agree on an independent investigator to determine who shot Abu Akleh and establish whether she was a target because of her work as a journalist. She served as a model of courageous, honest reporting for many aspiring journalists, including many women.
The best tribute to her life and work would be to make sure that her death does not vanish in the fog of hatred and recrimination but serves to guarantee the safety of all journalists who seek to pierce that fog.
-New York Times