Even before Shireen Abu Akleh’s blood had dried, her death was exploited. Abu Akleh, 51, was a veteran reporter who had worked for Al-Jazeera for over 20 years. She was an iconic figure in Palestinian media, trusted by Al Jazeera’s tens of millions of viewers in the region and throughout the world. On May 11, clearly identified as a member of the press, and wearing a defensive vest, she was killed while covering a firefight between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and armed Palestinians during Israeli counter-terrorist activity in Jenin, in the West Bank. Another Palestinian journalist, producer Ali Samoodi, was wounded and is expected to make a full recovery.
Reports of how she died are conflicting, and I remain unconvinced by official statements, press accounts and the social media from both sides. Initially, Israel tried to deflect any accusations of responsibility and claimed that Abu Akleh had been caught in crossfire or wild fire by Palestinian gunmen; but then Israeli officials backtracked and said that she may also have been hit by errant fire. Palestinian eyewitnesses insist that the killing was “sporadic and precise,” the work of Israeli snipers. Videos released by the two sides are contradictory.
Rayyan Ali, a forensic pathologist at Al Najah University in Nablus where the autopsy was conducted, told Al-Monitor that “it is not possible to make any statement about who bears responsibility,” because details of the weapon and ammunition used have not been fully examined by experts.
I do not believe that either a Palestinian or an Israeli investigation would be credible. Only an independent investigation conducted by a third party could provide credible answers. We will not have them unless that happens, and it probably won’t. What we do know for sure is bad enough: A journalist was shot in the head while bravely doing her job. A courageous woman was doing her best to provide us all with the truth as she understood it, and we don’t know who killed her. Democracy everywhere was hit, but we may never know how or why.
But the value of the life of a journalist doesn’t matter very much in a post-truth world. And so the politicians, pundits and activists lined up according to their usual and predictable positions, ready to make political, ideological and rhetorical gains off the death of a woman.
Hamas and the Palestinian Authority competed over who could use her death to greater advantage in their incessant jostle for power. A Hamas statement called Abu Akleh’s death “a premeditated murder.” The Palestinian Authority turned a funeral into a nationalist festival, draping her coffin with the Palestinian flag, calling her a martyr, and playing the national anthem as her body was carried to the presidential headquarters in Ramallah. “We hold Israel fully responsible for the crime of execution,” Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, declared, vowing to “sue the criminals responsible in the International Criminal Court.”
Abbas angrily resisted Israel’s call for a joint inquiry. He knows that the threat of the International Criminal Court is an empty one, and he also knows that he can count on the court of world public opinion to blame Israel. Israel isn’t pressing too hard for an investigation, either, because Abbas’ refusal allows Israel to continue to protest that it is truly seeking an answer.
The political points-game played out in the United States, too, as politicians courted their constituencies. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted that Abu Akleh “was killed by the Israeli military, after making her presence as a journalist clearly known.” Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib proclaimed, “Whether you’re Palestinian, American, or not, being killed with US funding must stop,” referencing US military aid to Israel, which totals $3.8 billion annually.
Some of the press, ostensibly responsible for reporting the truth, decided their versions of the truth without waiting for the results of any investigation. In a statement, Al-Jazeera said Abu Akleh was “assassinated in cold blood” and called on the international community to hold Israeli forces responsible. Jonathan Cook, writing in the Middle East Eye, noted that, during 20 years of reporting on the conflict, he “learned first-hand that Israel’s version of events around the deaths of Palestinians or foreigners can never be trusted.” The International Federation of Journalists strongly condemned “this latest targeted killing of a Palestinian media worker.”
Some Israeli officials, including the IDF Chief of Staff, expressed sorrow at Abu Akleh’s death. But IDF spokesperson Ran Kochav told Army Radio that “this happened in battle, during a firefight, where this Palestinian is with the shooters. So this thing can happen.” Abu Akleh and other journalists, he continued, are “filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians. They’re armed with cameras.” Apparently, at least in his eyes, journalists filming violence are armed combatants.
Israeli apologists in the media were quick to claim that the Palestinians were hoping to use the incident to besmirch Israel’s character. With stunningly irrelevant use of whataboutism, The Jerusalem Post noted that Abu Akleh was killed after a wave of terror attacks against Israeli civilians, listing their names and grisly details of their deaths and stating that Israelis and, indeed, the entire State of Israel, were the ones being targeted.
Abroad, in places as far apart as Ottawa, New York and Los Angeles, left-wing Jewish activists debated the angles of the bullet that pierced Abu Akleh’s head. One called the bullet that killed her “a kill shot.”
But most such activists quickly pivoted away from Abu Akleh and returned to their comfort zone: discussions of “the broader picture” of the ills of Zionism, the power imbalance between the occupied and the occupiers, and the justified struggle of the victims of tyranny against the colonizers who would deny them their basic freedoms.
Palestinians loved Abu Akleh. For over 20 years, she told their stories. She was a role model to Arab girls and women. She was deeply respected by foreign and Israeli journalists alike. It is not surprising, therefore, that thousands attended her funeral in East Jerusalem. But there were those who used her death as an opportunity for a nationalist display, and appropriated her funeral using her coffin as a rallying point for protest against Israel. Foreign diplomat Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, who sought to mediate between police and mourners on the scene, told The Times of Israel that Palestinian activists insisted on carrying her to the Old City and prevented the hearse from approaching the hospital. As the crowds surged and Israeli riot police beat them, her brother begged the crowd to let the hearse through. “For God’s sake, let us put her in the car and finish the day,” he said. While some sobbed, others shouted, “With blood, with spirit, we’ll redeem Shireen” and “from Jerusalem to Jenin, Palestine will be free.”
Jerusalem’s police chief gave an order to his officers to prevent the waving of Palestinian flags and to confiscate any Palestinian flags that they saw at the funeral. This included, as videos and eye-witness reports show us, the pallbearers, who almost dropped the coffin.
As an Israeli, I am ashamed that we have become so cold-blooded and callous that we are unable to empathize with the loss that so many Palestinians felt so personally. Waving a flag—including waving the Palestinian flag in Jerusalem—is neither a criminal nor an inherently terrorist act, but we are so imprisoned by our own rhetoric about “united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty” that we cannot even tolerate the Palestinian flag as an expression of collective grief.
And, since we are apparently unable to empathize, could we not at least be bound by our own Jewish tradition, which sanctifies funerals and burials and tells us that the mitzvah (commandment) of burying the dead is among the most important we can perform? Instead, as her coffin almost toppled and the police beat the protesters, Abu Akleh’s funeral turned into a display of disrespect for her as a journalist, a woman, and a human being.
Yes, of course there is a horrific background to Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, which occurred in the context of occupation, injustice, terrorism and national conflict. But I wish that before we take out our wider contextual lenses, we could focus on the reality of a needless death.
I wish that pundits could be sad instead of gleeful that they have once again been proven right (at least in their own eyes). I wish that politicians would stop trying to prove that they are the saviors and that the other side is evil. I wish that before everyone begins to shout out their particular truths, we would all shut up for a moment, sit quietly and experience the uncertainty and pain of the loss of life.
Certainty, accusations, recriminations and ideological rhetoric will not reveal the truth of Shireen Abu Akleh’s death. Worse, they will do absolutely nothing to change reality in our region for the better—not for journalists, first responders and all the others who try to do their important work; not for the innocents caught in all sorts of crossfires; and not for any of us.