Shireen Abu Aqleh was a lifeline for Palestinians – and her killing has shaken us to the core

Mourners light candles at a vigil for Shireen Abu Aqleh in Bethlehem (Mussa Issa Qawasma - Reuters)

Arwa Mahdawi

The Guardian  /  May 17, 2022

The Al-Jazeera journalist was a courageous voice and a symbol of Palestine at a time when many question our right to exist.

Schrödinger’s cat is old hat. Let me introduce a new thought experiment: Schrödinger’s Palestinian. As a Palestinian, you are told constantly that you may think you exist, but, really, you don’t. I am Palestinian (I used to say half-Palestinian, through my father, but now I refuse to slice myself in half) and have been told this several times.

My favourite example was when a colleague heard about my heritage and informed me that, “semantically speaking”, there was no such thing as a Palestinian and no such thing as Palestine. Well, there is no arguing with semantics, is there? I disappeared into a puff of air right then and there.

Palestinians don’t exist – except, of course, when we are militants or gunmen or terrorists or Hamas. There is no disputing our existence then – no disputing our terrorizing nature or our savagery. There is no disputing our existence when we are targets for condemnation. We exist when we are being criticized; we cease to exist when it comes to human rights. There is no peace in Israel/Palestine because Palestinians are terrorists who don’t want peace, one pervasive narrative goes. But there is also no peace because Palestinians are imaginary and Palestine is made up. We exist, but we don’t. It’s complicated!

Why am saying all this? Because it is difficult to understand just how devastating the killing of the journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh was – the way it shook Palestinians to the core – without understanding what it is like to be Palestinian.

Being Palestinian means having the validity of your existence litigated every single day. It means constantly being gaslit, erased, talked over, smeared. For diaspora Palestinians like me, it means getting used to being looked at with suspicion simply for answering the question: ‘Where are you from?’ When my family moved to New York when I was a kid, for example, a person on our building’s board heard my dad was Palestinian and “jokingly” told him not to hold any terrorist meetings in the apartment. (As if! You always hold monthly militant meetings on the roof.) When I went to law school in London, I was subjected to “joke” after “joke” about suicide bombers. Anti-Palestinian bigotry is so normalized and widespread that, when strangers ask me where I am from, I am often wary (and scared) of mentioning Palestine.

Shireen Abu Aqleh had no such qualms; she was courage personified. The much-loved Al Jazeera correspondent was a fixture on TV screens for more than three decades, signing off her broadcasts with the refrain: “I am Shireen Abu Aqleh, Jerusalem, occupied Palestine.” No mincing of words, no apologies for existing; just the truth.

Abu Aqleh was far more than a journalist, far more than a household name. Even “icon” doesn’t capture her. She was a documentarian of displacement, a voice for Palestinians, a symbol of Palestine. She was a constant reminder that Palestinians are not an abstract philosophical concept whose existence is up for debate, but human beings deserving of dignity. For diaspora Palestinians, she was a lifeline. And now she is gone.

Abu Aqleh isn’t just dead; she has been desecrated. Her memory was dishonoured by fellow journalists who reported her death with the passive voice, diluted her death with references to “clashes” and gave more credence to constantly shifting narratives from the Israeli government than eyewitness accounts. Her killing last week, during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, was diminished by western politicians offering meaningless platitudes rather than demanding real accountability. Her funeral was disturbed by Israeli police who beat mourners and tried to snatch the flag from her hearse. It wasn’t enough for the voice of Palestine to be dead; the imagery of Palestine had to disappear, too.

And this, by the way, is far from unusual. I remember Israeli soldiers coming to my dad’s village when I was a child and violently confiscating the Palestinian flag flying there. Were they allowed to do this? Schrodinger’s Palestinian! They were and they weren’t. One of the funniest corrections I have ever seen is from the Washington Post in 2021: “An earlier version of this article said that Israel bans the Palestinian flag. It has banned the flag in certain situations in the past, but today the flag can be confiscated and the flying of it penalized under Israeli public safety ordinances.”

The best way I can honour Abu Aqleh’s memory is to ask you to consider this: if the violence that happened at a beloved Palestinian’s funeral took place when the Israeli government knew the world was watching, what do you think happens to ordinary Palestinians the rest of the time? The violence documented at Abu Aqleh’s funeral wasn’t an aberration; it was just another day under occupation.

Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist