After Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing: Israel’s propaganda machine ramps up

James Zogby

The Nation  /  May 15, 2022

The Israeli response to the murder of the beloved journalist has been woefully predictable—a combination of denying, lying, and obfuscating.

The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh has left me furious. Furious that a wonderful journalist has been taken from the world. Furious because of the predictable way Israel has responded to this tragedy. And furious at the United States for its failure to take a principled stand in ensuring that the truth is known about Shireen’s death and there’s accountability for it.

Much has already been written about Shireen. She’s an American citizen and a journalist who for the past 25 years has been reporting from Palestinian lands. She wasn’t just a journalist, though. She was a storyteller who, like other greats in her profession, was able to get “under the skin” of an event to lay bare its human drama. Where Palestinian officials failed, she succeeded.

Shireen endeavored to bring to life the stories of individuals and families bearing up under the indignity, pain, and injustice of Israel’s occupation. Because of that, she posed a greater danger to the Israelis than any gunman ever could. She threatened their dehumanizing narrative that reduced Palestinians to faceless objects.

In this context, it was revealing that the Israeli military spokesperson described Shireen and her colleague, Ali al-Samudi, who was shot in the back, as being “armed with cameras, if you will permit me to say that.” That is what good journalists do—they arm themselves with cameras and laptops. They witness events as they happen and tell stories so that readers and viewers can understand the human drama that is unfolding. It appears that Israel finds this profoundly—even existentially—threatening. Why else would they have killed dozens of Palestinian journalists in the past two decades?

The Israeli response to Shireen’s killing has been predictable. Their hasbara (propaganda) machinery went into overdrive, doing what they have always done—a combination of denying, lying, and obfuscating about what may have happened.

Even before the military could begin investigating the killing, the early Israeli response was that they were “looking into the possibility that journalists were injured, possibly by Palestinian gunfire.” Another spokesperson added, “I don’t think we killed her…. if we indeed killed her, we’ll take responsibility, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.” While this effort at deflection was taking place, the Israelis took yet another tack, claiming that they had offered to conduct a joint investigation with the Palestinians—while even the Israeli press was noting that no such offer had been made. After reading press reports of this “joint investigation,” the Palestinians rejected the “offer,” saying “no one approached us and no one offered anything…. Whoever wants a joint investigation knows who to turn to.” This led an Israeli minister to suggest that the Palestinian refusal was “perhaps to cover up the truth.”

To create further confusion, the Israelis offered a video that they claimed showed the direction from which the bullets may have been fired by Palestinians. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem debunked this claim by using satellite maps to show that it was impossible for Palestinian gunmen to have fired at and hit Shireen and Ali; given where the gunmen were located, it would have required them to have shot through walls and around corners.

To answer why the Israelis engage in such a relentless effort to obfuscate, we need only look at an article that appeared in the Israeli press the day after Shireen’s killing. The article was written by the Israeli general who had been in charge of the division that was responsible for killing 12-year-old Muhammad Al-Durrah in 2000. That killing was captured on camera, and the image of a little boy being shielded by his father amid a hail of bullets became iconic. In the article, the general confesses that he erred in immediately accepting responsibility and notes that in the days and years that followed other “explanations” were posited—including positing that it was a hoax staged by the Palestinians to besmirch the good name of the Israeli military. The lesson he appears to have learned was to not admit to anything up front. Instead, wait until you have talking points that can muddy the waters for the Israeli public and Israel’s supporters abroad.

This is the approach suggested by the famous Marx Brothers line, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”—and it’s been used by the Israelis from the very beginning: “Palestinians weren’t expelled from their homes in 1948. Arab armies called on them to leave,” the Israeli narrative went, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. It might be a lie, but if it’s plausible enough to convince or confuse the Israeli public and Israel’s supporters in the international community, then use it.

Finally, there’s the frustratingly predictable US response to Shireen’s killing that was on display at the State Department briefing the day of the killing. State Department spokesperson Ned Price began on a sympathetic note, saying, “[W]e are absolutely heartbroken to learn of the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.… We send our deepest condolences…and strongly condemn her killing as we do the killing of journalists around the world…. We call for and immediate and thorough and full investigation and full accountability. Investigating attacks on independent media and prosecuting those responsible are of paramount importance.”

That resolve, however, faded under intense questioning by the journalists present at the press session. While insisting that the investigation be full and thorough and that there be accountability, Price resorted to the usual deflections. When reporters pointed to instances where Israel either exonerated itself or only offered a slap on the wrist to its forces who had been found guilty of atrocities, Price would only reaffirm that the United States had full confidence in Israel’s ability to investigate itself.

The US refusal to hold Israel to the same standard it insists upon for other countries is upsetting. More so in this case because Shireen is a journalist and a US citizen. In the more than four decades that I’ve been bringing cases of US citizens who’ve been killed by Israel, arrested without charge, tortured, had properties confiscated, or been denied entry to the country, the US response has been the same: expressions of concern, quietly discussing the matter with the Israelis, and then doing nothing, as the issue is forgotten.

The result is that Israel operates with a sense of impunity, and Palestinians are left defenseless. In the case of Palestinian Americans, the message sent is that, to the Israelis and to our own government, our US citizenship offers no special protection.

And so, I’m furious.

James Zogby is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and was a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2017