The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh

Journalists around the world face increasing threats.
Israeli riot police scuffle with mourners carrying the casket of Shireen Abu Akleh during a procession in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 13, 2022 (CNS photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters).

Local Christian leaders didn’t mince words following the killing of veteran reporter Shireen Abu Akleh in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on May 11 and the chaos at her funeral in Jerusalem two days later. Echoing pointed statements from Al Jazeera (Abu Akleh’s employer) and the Palestinian National Authority blaming Israeli Defense Forces for her death, bishops and patriarchs from various denominations decried the “violent intrusion of the Israeli Police into a funeral procession of the slain journalist” as a “severe violation of international norms and regulations, including the fundamental human right of freedom of religion.” This was in bracing contrast to the remarks from now-former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who described the events only as “deeply disturbing.” President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issued little more than vague calls for “investigations.”

What seems clear from videos, eyewitness accounts, and other evidence is that the shooting was no accident. Abu Akleh, who held dual Palestinian and American citizenship and had worked in the region for decades, was reporting on an early-morning incursion by Israeli Defense Forces into a Palestinian refugee camp in the city of Jenin. Her combat helmet and flak jacket—both clearly marked “Press”—did not protect her from a bullet that entered the back of her skull with lethal precision. Her producer, Ali Samoudi, was also wounded in the back. The shots almost certainly came from the IDF, according to independent analyses by different watchdog groups, including Netherlands-based Bellingcat and B’Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group. A third review, conducted by the Associated Press, bolsters their hypotheses.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, have denied and dissembled.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, have denied and dissembled. On the day Abu Akleh was killed, military spokesman Ran Kochav quipped that Palestinian journalists in the West Bank were “armed with cameras,” thus suggesting Abu Akleh was herself to blame. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett theorized that Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinians shooting in an “inaccurate, indiscriminate, and uncontrolled manner.” Responding to growing global criticism, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israeli Police Chief Kobi Shabtai soon launched inquiries into the army’s role in Abu Akleh’s death and into police brutality at her funeral, where Israeli officers stormed the procession of mourners bearing her coffin and attacked patients and personnel inside nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital. The probable result of these inquiries is hard to know. According to Yesh Din, another Israeli human-rights organization, just 3 percent of Israeli investigations into acts of violence against Palestinians by its own soldiers result in indictment and prosecution.

More facts concerning Abu Akleh’s killing will eventually emerge. Perhaps they will confirm accusations by Al Jazeera, Reporters Without Borders, and other international organizations that Israel systematically targets those who dare to report on alleged human-rights abuses against Palestinians. Whatever we learn, Abu Akleh’s death is indicative of the dangers faced by journalists as governments increasingly clamp down on press freedoms. And it’s not just in combat zones or countries ruled by oppressive regimes: around 85 percent of the world’s population lives someplace where press freedom has declined over the past five years, according to the Economist. Notwithstanding dishonest and irrational attacks on the media from right-wing politicians and pundits, the United States is not quite there yet. But that is no excuse for complacency, and vigilance is needed. President Biden has emphasized his goal of restoring the health of global democracy, which is impossible without the existence of a free and independent press. The administration could demonstrate its belief in this principle by demanding more from Israel about its role in the death of a reporter who was just doing her job.

Published in the June 2022 issue: 

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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