Shireen Abu Akleh: friends and family call for justice on anniversary of killing

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  May 11, 2023 

Israeli forces admit ‘high possibility’ Al-Jazeera reporter was shot by sniper at West Bank refugee camp.

Family members, friends and colleagues of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was almost certainly fatally shot by an Israeli sniper, have renewed calls for justice on the first anniversary of her killing, during a week of memorials and events celebrating her life.

Abu Akleh, a household name in the Arab world who worked for Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, was shot in the head in the slum-like refugee camp on the outskirts of the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on 11 May last year while covering an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) raid. International outrage at the reporter’s death was fueled by scenes of violence at her funeral in Jerusalem, when Israeli police attacked pallbearers, almost causing them to drop the coffin.

The IDF eventually admitted there was a “high possibility” Abu Akleh was killed by a soldier, but maintains the shooting was accidental and a criminal investigation is not warranted.

In the year since, international efforts at accountability have moved painfully slowly. But at a concert honouring the Jerusalemite in Ramallah earlier this week, hundreds of people gathered to remember a remarkable trailblazer and her legacy.

“Years of seeing justice not being served for Palestinians tells me we shouldn’t expect much [from officials]. But if we focus on whatever silver lining there is, I’d never seen anything like the turnout at her funeral … It showed how loved and respected she was,” said Dalia Hatuqa, Abu Akleh’s friend and former colleague.

“Shireen has inspired a whole generation of young women and men who admire her and her work and want to follow in her footsteps.”

Tributes from Abu Akleh’s family and colleagues at Tuesday’s concert spoke of her dedication to showing the world the harsh realities of Israeli occupation, as well as moments of happiness and resilience. A Jerusalem girls’ choir, and young women from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, performed several pieces composed in her memory.

A raft of universities have announced awards and scholarships in Abu Akleh’s name, a street in Ramallah has been renamed after her, and her name will also live on in the form of a media museum scheduled to open in the city in 2025.

For Palestinians, and much of the rest of the world, it is clear who bears responsibility for Abu Akleh’s death. Several journalistic investigations as well as a UN probe have concluded that Israeli forces killed the well-known journalist. Some findings suggest the small group of journalists she was with were deliberately targeted, even though they were wearing helmets and protective vests clearly marked “Press”.

While the Biden administration has largely embraced Israel’s version of events, and resisted launching an independent investigation into the killing of a US citizen, pressure from Congress forced it to agree to an FBI inquiry last November, which for now appears to be the most promising avenue for justice – although Israel has said it will not cooperate. Abu Akleh’s family and Al-Jazeera have also referred the case to the international criminal court (ICC) in The Hague, but proceedings typically take years, and Israel is not a member.

Abu Akleh is far from the only Palestinian journalist killed in recent years whose death has gone unpunished. A new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), released this week to coincide with the anniversary of Abu Akleh’s death, found that Israel has never charged or found any soldier accountable for the killings of at least 20 journalists, 18 of whom were Palestinian, since 2001.

“Israeli officials discount evidence and witness claims, often appearing to clear soldiers for the killings while inquiries are still in progress … When probes do take place, the Israeli military often takes months or years to investigate killings and families of the mostly Palestinian journalists have little recourse inside Israel to pursue justice,” the report said.

In the year that has passed since the reporter’s death, violence in the region has risen substantially. Tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have soared over the past year: more than 116 Palestinians and at least 19 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in 2023 so far, leading to fears of a return to full-scale fighting.

About half of this year’s Palestinian death toll are civilians, according to media tallies. But according to army data analyzed by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, the IDF has near-total impunity from prosecution in cases in which Palestinians and their property were harmed by soldiers.

Between 2017 and 2021, only 21.4% of complaints led to an investigation – and of the 248 investigations, just 11 resulted in an indictment, making the rate 0.87%.

The IDF says it opens initial operational investigations in all cases in the West Bank in which a Palestinian is killed, unless the death occurred in a combat environment. Based on those findings, the military advocate decides whether a criminal investigation is merited.

“I thought when they killed Shireen, if they can kill her, then they can kill any of us,” said Amira, a 20-year-old student at the Ramallah concert. “But we need to continue resisting and we need to have hope.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian