The world was shocked by the death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh—who was shot in cold blood while covering an Israeli raid. The tragedy spotlights Israel’s strategy of deliberate targeting of journalists working in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Researched by: Sara Varghese & Elisha Benny
First, a bit of history
Here’s a brief timeline of the most relevant parts of the complicated history between Israel and Palestine:
In 1947, the United Nations voted to create two separate states: Israel and Palestine—while Jerusalem would become an international city. Jewish leaders accepted the proposal, but the Arabs rejected it.
But in the war that ensued—a year later in 1948 when the British just upped and left—the proposal went out the window. Palestinians were forced out of their homes—an event now referred to as the Nakba or The Catastrophe—as Jewish and Arab forces fought over the land.
Once the dust settled, Israel controlled most of the territory while Jordan grabbed the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza. Jerusalem was split into two—East and West—between Jordanian and Israeli forces respectively.
In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel took control of the West Bank, the Golan Heights in Syria, Gaza, the Egyptian Sinai peninsula—and most importantly, East Jerusalem.
As of today, parts of the West Bank and Gaza are supposed to be self-governed by Palestinians. The reality is that Israel maintains direct control of the majority of the West Bank—while the rest of it is ruled by the elected Palestinian Authority.
And Gaza is essentially controlled by Hamas—a militant jihadist group that has been designated as a terrorist group by the US, UK and others.
Most recent conflicts have been between Hamas and Israeli forces—typically ending in high Palestinian casualties and a stalemate.
In 2021, a bloody 11-day conflict—triggered by Israeli raids on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem—led to the death of 232 Palestinians and 12 Israelis (explained here)
Ok, there’s another war now?
Not yet, but there has been a significant escalation in violence over the past month:
The two recent attacks targeted Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak—and were carried out by Palestinians from the Israel-occupied West Bank. Though no one has claimed responsibility.
Meanwhile, there have been frequent Israeli raids in the West Bank—including shootings and arrests.
These include a raid on the Al-Aqsa mosque—with rubber bullets and stun grenades—which left 30 injured.
The rhetoric has been escalating on both sides, as well. Israel threatened to assassinate a prominent Hamas leader in Gaza. Hamas, in turn, warned of “a new catastrophic chapter in the Zionist regime’s history.”
The bigger picture: With Arab states like UAE and Saudi Arabia cosying up to Israel, Palestine has been pushed to the political margins. For example, there were very few consequences for Israel after its bloody airstrikes on Gaza last year. Add to that a weak Palestinian leadership—which is creating popular frustration:
“These are individual attacks, a pattern that appeared in 2015. They come as a result of the absence of a popular powerful struggle that the Palestinian leadership is supposed to lead … the alternative at this point is individual attacks that will continue, and will increase at a faster pace than before.”
There are worries that these may grow into a broader uprising—and trigger a fresh conflict between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.
So how did this journalist die?
The killing: Abu Akleh and four other journalists were in the West Bank city of Jenin—covering a raid on a refugee camp by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). She was suddenly shot in the head—even though she was wearing a protective vest and helmet clearly identifying her as a member of the press. Another Al Jazeera journalist, Ali Samoudi, was shot in the back. Also this: Abu Akleh and other journalists made themselves known to Israeli forces in the area before the killing.
Point to note: Shatha Hanaysha, the journalist who was right next to Abu Akleh says:
“We were a group wearing press gear, and Shireen was even wearing the helmet. So it is obvious that the one who shot her meant to hit an exposed part of her body. This is an assassination.”
The Israeli version: is that she was caught in the crossfire during a confrontation between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops. The military spokesman said:
“Massive fire was shot toward Israeli forces by tens of armed Palestinian gunmen… [who] also hurled explosive devices toward the soldiers, endangering their lives. The soldiers responded with fire toward the sources of the fire and explosive devices. Hits were identified.”
And the military claims that it is not clear who is to blame:
“Palestinians fired extensively at our forces, firing wildly and indiscriminately in every direction. Unlike the Palestinians, IDF soldiers carry out professional and selective firing…at this stage it is not possible to determine from which shot she was hit.”
A view echoed by minister of defense, Benny Gantz: “It can be Palestinians who shot her. Tragically, it may be on our side. We are investigating it.”
Blaming the Palestinians: However, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office released a video of Palestinian gunmen shooting in an alley. In the background, there’s a voice saying in Arabic: “They’ve hit one—they’ve hit a soldier. He’s lying on the ground.” See it below:
Bennett then offered this leap of logic: “No IDF soldier was injured [in this raid], which increases the possibility that Palestinian terrorists were the ones who shot the journalist”—since the “soldier” spotted on the ground must have been Abu Akleh.
But, but, but: An Israeli rights group soon revealed that the video was taken in an entirely different location. And those gunmen could not have killed Abu Akleh. You can see the distance between the two locations in the video below:
The eyewitness version: Journalists on the scene are adamant that there is no way Abu Akleh could have been caught in crossfire. Samoudi—who was shot in the back—says: “There were no armed Palestinians or resistance or even civilians in the area… We walked toward the soldiers for about 20 metres. Then all of a sudden the first bullet was fired.”
Hanaysha—who tried to help Abu Akleh—is equally adamant: Israeli soldiers “did not stop firing even after she collapsed. I couldn’t even extend my arm to pull her because of the shots. The army was adamant on shooting to kill.” You can see the effort it took to pull her body to safety below (trigger warning: Although Akleh’s face has been blurred, this is difficult to watch):
Point to note: Both the Palestinian authorities and Al Jazeera squarely blame Israel for Abu Akleh’s death.
Quote to note: The Israeli military spokesperson said of the journalists,“They’re armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so.”
The postscript: Following Abu Akleh’s death, Israeli police officers entered her family home in Jerusalem—to ask them to turn off a sound system playing music.
So what happens now?
Israelis offered to conduct a joint investigation with the Palestinians—who rejected the offer, and have declined to give Tel Aviv access to Abu Akleh’s body. They plan to refer the case to the International Criminal Court instead. One key reason:
“Israel doesn’t allow international investigations of violations in the country or the occupied territories, and in recent years has chosen not to cooperate or provide access to UN commissions or special rapporteurs…
‘No one should believe the Israeli promises to quote-unquote investigate what has happened because the promise of investigations are nothing but the first step in Israel’s organized whitewash,’ said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the rights group B’Tselem. ‘Israel is unable and unwilling to conduct such investigations which opens the door to international legal responsibility.’”
More importantly this: Israel has a nasty record of targeting journalists in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. At least 144 Palestinian journalists have been wounded by Israeli forces since 2018—with live fire, rubber bullets, stun grenades, teargas and beatings with batons. And more than 50 have been killed since 2001. Just last month, international and Palestinian journalist groups filed a formal complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Israel of war crimes.
The bottomline: Here’s how an Amnesty International official views Abu Akleh’s killing: “In terms of the event itself, unfortunately, it is not unique, not different. It fits a pattern, a pattern of unlawful killing, and also a pattern of targeting journalists and human rights defenders.” Also, this was Shireen Abu Akleh, RIP:
Read Al Jazeera and Arab News for more on the escalating violence in Palestine. CNN has an excellent profile of Abu Akleh—and why her courageous frontline reporting mattered. New York Times, The Guardian and CNN have the details on her killing—and the aftermath. Vox offers more background—especially on Israel’s track record of investigating its own crimes. Haaretz looks at what the initial probe revealed. Also read: Al Jazeera’s tribute to its legendary reporter—or watch a video version here.
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