Muhammad Ali Khalidi
Mondoweiss / May 23, 2022
In addition to being a courageous journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh also wrote in-depth articles reflecting on the role of the media in the struggle for Palestinian human rights.
As is now widely known, Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed on May 11, 2022, while covering an Israeli military raid on a refugee camp in the occupied Palestinian territories for Al Jazeera. Her TV channel has accused Israel of “assassinating her in cold blood,” and her funeral included thousands of marchers in Jerusalem.
To add injury to injustice, her pallbearers and mourners were attacked by baton-wielding Israeli soldiers, who tried to prevent marchers from waving Palestinian flags.
After initially vigorously denying that she was shot by an Israeli sniper, Israel later agreed to investigate the crime. Abu Akleh was the latest victim of the longest military occupation in the contemporary world, and one of an estimated 50 Palestinian journalists killed since 2000, six of them in the past two years, according to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate.
What is not so well known is that, in addition to being a courageous journalist of great integrity, Abu Akleh also wrote in-depth articles reflecting on the role of the media in the struggle for Palestinian human rights. Tragically, she wrote about a number of issues that are directly relevant to her assassination by the Israeli occupation forces.
An article written in 2016 for the Arabic-language journal of the Institute for Palestine Studies, discussed media coverage of the Palestinian “Popular Rebellion” (Al-Habbah al-Sha’biyyah) of late 2015 and early 2016, which was ignited by Israeli raids on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem.
The article reflects broadly on the complexities of reporting under military occupation. In it, Abu Akleh describes the readiness of the Israeli military to use lethal force against unarmed civilians, she discusses Israeli attacks on the news media, and she analyzes Israeli attempts to deny culpability for crimes committed against Palestinians.
She also comments on the fact that Palestinians killed by the Israeli military are often portrayed as heroes and role models by local Palestinian media, whether or not they want to be seen as such.
In one passage, Abu Akleh observed, with tragic prescience, on the ease with which Israeli soldiers killed unarmed civilians during the “Popular Rebellion” of 2015-2016:
In the most recent rebellion, the media was at least able to undermine the Israeli narrative – if not refute it entirely – when it came to the killing of many young men and women, notably in cases where there were no Israeli casualties. It became clear during the recent rebellion that Israeli soldiers would not hesitate to pull the trigger on Palestinians on the barest suspicion of their intention to carry out an operation.
She also commented on the media’s success in challenging the official Israeli explanation in some civilian deaths, on grounds of self-defense:
The media also succeeded in raising questions about Israel’s killing of suspects, many of whom were minors, when there was no need to do so. Images clearly showed numerous instances in which Palestinians were executed even though they posed no threat to soldiers’ lives.
She was sharply critical of Israeli attacks on Palestinian media outlets that covered violent assaults on civilians and documented the brutality of the Israeli occupation:
It’s not surprising that Israel regards the media as an agitator against the occupation and takes extreme measures against the news media, such as shutting down three radio stations in Hebron and confiscating all their equipment… Dozens of journalists have been injured by Israel with live ammunition and rubber-coated bullets in the course of their reporting. And at least 19 have been arrested in the most recent assault…
Meanwhile, Abu Akleh was attuned to the alienation of Palestinian youth from their political leadership and tried to convey their sense of political impotence:
It’s hard to discuss the recent rebellion without at least mentioning the role of the political leadership and the Palestinian political factions. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say: without mentioning their absence. After years of political impasse and the ongoing division between the two parts of the nation [the West Bank and Gaza Strip], and in light of the inability of the political factions to effect any change on the political scene, a general sense of alienation has arisen between the younger generation and the political leadership.
She also wrote somewhat critically on the Palestinian media’s commemoration of all victims of the Israeli occupation as martyrs and heroes, whether they like it or not:
The local news media generally propagate the image of the martyr as a role model and hero. The families of martyrs are often enlisted to glorify martyrdom, irrespective of their actual feelings. On October 27, 2015, I was covering the funeral of Iyad Jaradat, who was killed in the town of Sa’ir northeast of Hebron, when he was shot with a bullet to the head during confrontations with the Israeli occupation forces. Approaching his mother before the arrival of the body, I wondered what I could possibly ask her. As soon as I asked permission to interview her, relatives who were standing beside her began repeating the stock phrases used in the aftermath of martyrdom. “Tell them that he died for the sake of al-Aqsa mosque, the nation, Palestine, and Jerusalem.” So I asked a different question from the one I had prepared: “Is it any consolation to you that your son died for the sake of al-Aqsa?” She raised a finger to indicate negation and said: “No, nothing can be a consolation.”
That mother’s testimony says it all. Even though Shireen was killed in the line of duty, as she bore to witness to the injustice and brutality of military occupation to the world, nothing can be a consolation for her loss.
The entire translated text of the article was published on the Institute of Palestine Studies’ blog, Palestine Square.
Muhammad Ali Khalidi is Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and has worked on philosophical aspects of the question of Palestine