How the Western media missed the story of Shireen Abu Akleh’s death

Shireen Abu Akleh (Social Media)

Mohammed al-Kurd

The Nation  /  May 25, 2022

From the fact of Abu Akleh’s murder to the true, liberatory meaning of her funeral, the media proved yet again that it’s not equipped to cover Palestine.

Western newsrooms generally love martyrs—men or women whom they can market to their readers as perfect victims. Shireen Abu Akleh, though not one to turn the other cheek, certainly fit that profile: a 51-year-old Palestinian Christian woman with an American passport who was killed while wearing a clearly marked press vest. Even so, because of who killed her, Abu Akleh’s very public death and “perfect victimhood” was up for debate.

When Israeli snipers shot and killed Abu Akleh, a veteran Al Jazeera journalist covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank on May 11, leading Western newspapers behaved as they usually do. They parroted Israeli state narratives and fabricated confusion about a murder that was clear as day. But in the world of high-definition videos and eyewitness reports, why attempt to block the sun with a finger?

In a statement that has since been removed, The New York Times deceived its readers by claiming that Al Jazeera said the slain journalist died amid “clashes between Israeli military forces and Palestinian gunmen,” despite Al Jazeera’s direct reports that Israeli gunfire killed Abu Akleh. The Associated Press and Forbes altered a quote by the Palestinian Ministry of Health so that it no longer named Israeli forces as the culprit; they later redacted it. The eyewitness reports of journalists on the scene–-one of whom was also shot by Israeli gunfire—were rarely cited.

Two days later, Israeli forces attacked Abu Akleh’s funeral. They had demanded that only a small number of mourners—and only Christians, at that—attend the funeral and that anti-colonial chants be banned, likely fearing that parading Palestinian national symbols around Jerusalem would threaten the Israeli regime’s perceived “sovereignty” over the occupied city. It was another episode of the ongoing war on anti-colonial expression, be it political anger or communal grief. Abu Akleh’s family rejected the restrictions, and so the beatings began.

CCTV footage released by Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Sheikh Jarrah shows Israeli forces storming the medical center and beating Palestinians inside, including patients and hospital staff. Some officers smashed the back window of the hearse and stole the Palestinian flag covering the coffin. They then attacked the pallbearers so rabidly that the casket almost fell to the ground.

As this happened, the BBC, CBS News, and others reported “clashes” and “tussling” at Abu Akleh’s Jerusalem funeral—despite the overwhelming visual evidence of Israeli occupation forces raiding the hospital and assaulting the mourners in broad daylight.

For those of us watching, the disconnect between rhetoric and reality was jarring. And yet, we have seen this time and time again. A 2014 headline from The New York Times read, “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup.” What was it referencing? An Israeli airstrike that blew eight Palestinian café-goers to shreds. So, whose missile? Whose gunfire? And why can’t these so-called truth-tellers tell the truth?

When it comes to Palestine, the sacred laws of journalism are bendable. Optional even. Passive voice is king. Omitting facts is standard. Fabrication is permissible. Journalists become stenographers, and reporters become state secretaries. The courageous industry that proudly boasts of speaking “truth to power” is actually just a bullhorn for the powerful—if, that is, the villain is Israeli.

What makes this journalistic malpractice all the more insulting in the case of Shireen Abu-Akleh is that she was herself a journalist—one who influenced generations of aspiring young reporters. She spent more than two decades of her life reporting from the front lines—risking the terror of the Zionist military—and was literally martyred for it. “Armed with [her] camera,” as an Israeli military spokesperson put it, she was a threat to the deteriorating reputation of the regime. Her legacy of truth-telling brings to shame those hesitant to tell the truth, or complicit in obscuring it.

That legacy also underscores what has already been lost by her death: the stories that will go untold, the narratives that will be obscured, the outrages that will reach fewer ears without her voice to carry them. Consider: Abu-Akleh wasn’t the first Palestinian to be persecuted in death—a 1976 Al-Ittihad headline reads, “Three New Flowers in the Bouquet of Martyrs: Mass Arrests and Assaults on Funerals”—nor will she be the last. In fact, on May 16, three days after her burial, Israeli forces brutally beat those carrying 23-year-old Walid Sharif’s casket inside the cemetery where he was laid to rest.

Israeli forces had injured Sharif inside Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the third Friday of Ramadan, and he later succumbed to his wounds. Despite the ridiculous restrictions and extremely late burial time imposed on his funeral, thousands of Palestinians attended it. Fifty-two of them were injured, and 37 were hospitalized. A relative of the martyr, Nader Sharif, was hit by an Israeli rubber-coated bullet which caused him to lose his eye and suffer severe skull injuries.

Israeli forces also arrested dozens of Palestinians, many of whom were children. Omar Abu Khdair, the man now famous in Jerusalem for not dropping Abu Akleh’s coffin despite being repeatedly hit in the head by Israeli officers, was among the arrestees at Sharif’s burial. He is still under arrest. When the confrontations faded, Palestinians were left to clean the tear gas canisters and rubber-coated bullets from their beloveds’ tombstones.

Although routine and relentless, this harrowing desecration does not often receive international media attention—and did not in this case. Nor did others. On the day Abu Akleh was murdered, Israeli forces killed 18-year-old Thaer Yazour in Al-Bireh city near Ramallah and used 16-year-old Ahed Mereb as a human shield in Jenin. On that same day, they also shot 23-year-old Rami Srour after falsely accusing him of attempting to stab a soldier in Jerusalem’s Old City. Srour is no longer under arrest but lies in critical condition at a local ICU.

Of course, stories of desecration and death are not the only ones that bubble from the ground in Palestine—and go unreported by the mainstream Western media. There are other stories—of resistance and joy, strength and camaraderie—that even the most sensitive international media rarely get right. These kinds of narratives also went untold in the aftermath of Abu Akleh’s death, even though they were among the most salient. While activists and media watchdogs in the US and West were rightfully outraged by the media’s failure to objectively report Israeli abuses at Abu Akleh’s funeral, back in Palestine, away from those newspapers, the Arabic conversations and essays were highlighting a very different storyline: Shireen Abu Akleh—even if only for a fleeting moment—liberated Jerusalem.

In a Facebook post from last year, Abu Akleh wrote an almost prophetic sentence: “Some absence brings forth a greater presence.” Indeed, her absence united the Palestinian people across class, religion, gender, and political affiliation.

Her Jerusalem funeral was, in fact, the fourth one organized to mourn her death. The others took place in Jenin (where Israeli snipers killed her), Nablus, and Ramallah. Palestinians gave Abu Akleh what her Al Jazeera colleague Rania Zabane called the “longest funeral in recent Palestinian history…40 [kilometers] of love.” Nothing less than that could have suited a giant who dedicated decades of her life to reporting the truth.

As a Palestinian woman marched behind Shireen’s casket in Jenin, she testified to filming journalists, “[Shireen] was in the rubble looking for martyrs…in Jenin [refugee] camp during the [2002 Israeli] invasion.… She used to help me look for my children.”

In Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands participated in the funeral. Palestinians from all walks of life tessellated into an ocean of mourners, marched, chanted, and prayed. Holders of green ID cards (who have the least freedom of movement) jumped over the Wall and snuck from the West Bank into Jerusalem. Busloads came from within 48-territories. Strangers offered each other embraces and condolences. They marched from Saint Joseph’s Hospital to the Catholic church and through Jaffa Gate to the cemetery where she was buried at last. Dozens of Palestinian flags flew all around the holy city. It was a scene like no other. And despite the bruises and batons, the land spoke Arabic.

This kind of gathering has been off limits to Palestinians in recent years. Since three Israelis kidnapped, killed, and burned 16-year-old Mohammad Abu-Khdair in 2014, Jerusalem began to resemble itself less and less. Because of heavy scrutiny and persecution by Israeli police and Mustaribeen (undercover Israeli agents who pose as Arabs), Palestinians’ political or social gatherings have become nearly nonexistent. During last year’s Unity Uprising, bare-chested youth confronted heavily armed soldiers for their right to sit, eat, sing, and protest at Damascus Gate—once the beating heart of Jerusalem, now plagued with surveillance cameras, military watchtowers, and police ready to brutalize people. And this past Ramadan, Palestinians fought to preserve the status of Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, not only one of Islam’s holiest sites but also a hub for social, political, and educational Palestinian activities. Shireen Abu-Akleh’s funeral—at the Jaffa Gate—marks a reclamation of public space.

The chanting crowds forced the start of a new chapter of the battle over Jerusalem. An area that for decades saw rapid colonial expansion and shrinking of the Palestinian presence was suddenly teeming with reminders of the Palestinian people’s right to land, space, and existence in Jerusalem. They would not be erased. Everyone was there: the stay-at-homes, the engineers, the stone-throwers, the self-described apolitical passersby, the paramedics, the journalists, the elderly bus drivers, and the clergy.

For a fleeting moment, the bruises didn’t hurt, the jail time didn’t matter, and the tear gas wasn’t so bad. For a fleeting moment, Shireen Abu Akleh liberated Jerusalem, and Jerusalem, in turn, gave her a funeral fit for a martyr.

To truly honor Abu Akleh, her murder should—must—be a moment that revolutionizes how reporters and Western newsrooms cover Palestine, an invitation for them to resist corporate media’s redlining of internationally recognized facts. The situation in Palestine—the settler-colonialism that defines every moment of every day—is not a vague, ancient mystery. It is a stark asymmetry of power with very pronounced historical roots. In covering this reality, I am not asking foreign journalists to do Palestinians any favors. I’m simply asking them to do their jobs: tell the truth.

Mohammed al-Kurd is the Palestine correspondent for The Nation; he writes primarily about dispossession in Jerusalem and colonization in Palestine; his debut book is a volume of poetry, Rifqa (Haymarket Books)