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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Shireen Abu Akleh’s Killing is Part of a Wider Pattern of Impunity

Shireen Abu Akleh
Palestinian cameraman Mujahed al-Saadi (C-L) of Palestine Today TV weeps as he escorts with other journalists the body of veteran Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead as she covered a raid on the West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp, on May 11, 2022. JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP

Nour Odeh

Journalism in Palestine and the Arabic-speaking world suffered a great loss on 11 May. Shireen Abu Akleh, the household name and journalistic icon of Palestine news was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while covering an incursion into the Jenin refugee camp. In a split second, Shireen’s life was cut short, as she was alerting other colleagues to the fact that her producer, Ali Samoudi, had been injured. Under fire themselves, her colleagues watched in desperate helplessness and filmed the damning evidence of her murder. For several agonizing minutes, none of them could reach her. Anyone attempting to contact Shireen or transport her to a local hospital was met with gunfire.

Abu Akleh’s cold blooded murder created a worldwide storm of shock and condemnation. World leaders, including US President Joe Biden, have demanded that the deadly shooting of Abu Akleh, a US citizen, be investigated. Meanwhile, the Palestinian attorney general launched an investigation into the killing, with Abu Akleh’s family permitting Palestinian authorities to conduct the necessary forensic examination. The Palestinian government also dismissed calls by Israel for a joint investigation; a move welcomed by the larger Palestinian public who viewed Israel’s request as adding insult to injury. Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Saleh Hijazi, explained to Aljazeera, “The record of Israeli investigations show that there is no will nor ability to investigate violations of crimes when it comes to Palestinians.”

For its part, the Israeli government went on the offensive, charging first that Palestinian gunmen were responsible for Shireen’s killing, even distributing a video of Palestinian fighters shooting into an alley. The Israeli Prime Minister and other senior officials took the lead in pushing this narrative, which was shortly debunked. Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, published a video and map refuting the Israeli government’s claim and proving that in fact, the Israeli scenario was an impossible one. Other independent organizations, including Bellingcat, followed suit.

Embarrassed and exposed, Israel began to backtrack, eventually acknowledging that an Israeli soldier was responsible for the journalist’s murder and even naming the firearm used in the shooting. Yet despite all the mounting evidence, the Israeli military declared eight days after the assassination that it would not start a criminal inquiry for fear of causing friction and controversy among the army and Israeli settlers. A fresh video of the incident surfaced as the statement was made, which surprised no Palestinian. It proved that the scene was peaceful prior to the targeting of journalists at the scene and that no Palestinian fighters were present.

Notwithstanding the outrage and concern over Shireen Abu Akleh’s loss and the subsequent brutalization of Palestinian mourners during her funeral in Jerusalem, including the attack on pallbearers, Palestinians were neither surprised nor horrified. This is a pattern of Israeli aggression that they are all too familiar with. It reflects their everyday existence under occupation, just as impunity reflects Israel’s illegitimate and harsh control over Palestinian existence.

Palestinian journalists were equally unsurprised. They are familiar with this Israeli pattern of behavior.

In 2018, Israeli snipers shot and killed Yasser Murtaja, a Palestinian journalist covering the Great March of Return in Gaza. First, Israel rejected claims its soldiers targeted Murtaja, with the Minister of Defense at the time going as far as accusing the journalist of being a “Hamas operative” to justify his killing.

Israel also accused Ahmad Abu Hussein, another journalist killed by Israeli sniper fire covering the same events, of acting as a “human shield” for Hamas. These claims and deflections were debunked, including by an independent commission of inquiry into the Great March of Return formed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which “found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot journalists intentionally, despite seeing that they were clearly marked as such.”

Even in cases where journalists literally filmed their own targeting and death, as 24-year-old Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana’a did in 2008 in Gaza, Israel found that the decision to target the journalist with a flechette-laden tank shell was “reasonable.” The incident resulted in the death and injury of several other civilians, including other journalists.

This prevalent culture of impunity also extends to international journalists killed by Israel.

In 2003, Israeli troops shot and killed British journalist James Miller with a single shot to the neck while he was working in Gaza. Miller’s family rejected the findings of an Israeli military investigation that exonerated troops of responsibility for the killing and hired a private investigator to pursue justice. They took the evidence and findings to London’s St Pancras Coroner’s Court, which ruled in 2006 that “Miller was indeed murdered.” Still, the Israeli army insisted that its investigation, which cleared a soldier identified only as Lieutenant H, was satisfactory.

Over the past twenty-two years, Israel has killed at least 46 Palestinian and international journalists. It has consistently refused to accept responsibility for any of these killings or hold anyone accountable. Justice for these journalists is not delayed. It is systematically and consistently denied.

As Shireen Abu Akleh’s family and Palestinian journalists grieve, many find solace in assurances that the route to justice and responsibility would not be as onerous this time.

The Palestinian leadership has promised to refer the case to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which is investigating the situation in Palestine. Although the current Prosecutor has been criticized for dragging his feet on the ICC investigation into the situation in Palestine, many hope that the facts of this criminal offense, along with international outcry, would finally push him into action.

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