Israel Can’t Destroy the Memory of Shireen Abu Akleh

Two months since the murder of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Israel refuses to admit responsibility for her death. Its brazen denial is part of the apartheid government’s attempt to wipe out the Palestinians’ very existence.

Family and relatives attend the funeral of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh on May 13, 2022, in Jerusalem. (Amir Levy / Getty Images)

No sooner had the first images of the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh begun circulating on the morning of May 11 then the Israeli leadership rushed to accuse anonymous “Palestinian gunmen” of responsibility. Referencing a video filmed in a part of Jenin far from where Abu Akleh had been stationed, military authorities and many leading elected officials repeated the same talking points with rather remarkable consistency. They all claimed that as she reported from the ground, Abu Akleh had become caught up in the crossfire between Israeli army personnel and Palestinian militants. She was tragically killed, it was claimed, after a bullet fired by one of her own, reckless countrymen struck her in the head.

The reality was that these statements were made in order to muddy the waters around what Israeli leadership already knew to have happened — and to cast doubt upon eyewitness testimony from a number of Abu Akleh’s colleagues. Contradicting the official line, those on the ground all attested that there had been no exchange of fire between Palestinian armed groups and Israeli soldiers when Abu Akleh, wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest with “PRESS” printed in bold letters on the chest, was shot. Rather, they detailed a scene of relative quiet in the moments preceding Abu Akleh’s shooting — with only the Israeli snipers two hundred meters away threatening the calm.

The cynical PR campaign initiated by the Israeli state has proven unfortunately — if predictably — effective. This has been so even though their claims were rapidly debunked. Literally only moments after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett came down from the podium, an open-source intelligence investigation conducted by Israeli NGO B’Tselem unearthed video establishing his official account to be a lie. Shortly thereafter, a leak from an internal Israeli inquiry would also corroborate the eyewitnesses’ testimony that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh had come from the rifle of an Israeli soldier (one likely attached to Unit 217, known as “Duvdevan”).

Regardless, the residue of the authorities’ deceits lingers, visible this past month when the editorial board of the paper of record in the United States put out an op-ed posing the question “Who Killed Journalist Shireen Akleh?” Though not as offensive as the Gray Lady’s past interventions into Israel/Palestine, the piece did credentialize the sense of ambiguity the Israeli state has sought to cultivate around the day’s events, pushing the Times’ readership to see Abu Akleh’s murder as yet another unknowable tragedy of the he-said/she-said variety. That the Israeli army has tacitly acknowledged its culpability for the murder through a confession of guilt that doubled as a threat to journalists worldwide — per army spokesman Ran Kochav’s remarks to Israeli radio, Abu Akleh was not an innocent but someone “armed with cameras” — only makes the editorial board’s decisions all the more absurd.

At this stage, the only thing still to be determined is whether anything will be done at the domestic level regarding the appalling scenes witnessed on the occasion of Abu Akleh’s funeral. Held on May 13, news cameras would document Jerusalem city police brutally assaulting mourners as well as the pallbearers carrying the slain journalists’ casket as they attempted to walk the path from Saint Joseph Church to her burial plot in Mount Zion cemetery. The images, broadcast across the globe, were “obscene” enough that even Western diplomats otherwise inclined to simply to turn a blind eye had a hard time looking away. Meaningful repercussions for those involved in this sordid affair, however, appear unlikely to be forthcoming.

For Colonialism’s Survival

The actions of Israeli authorities in the wake of Abu Akleh’s murder lay bare, in many ways, the manner in which they today endeavor to dissolve the Palestinian question. Reduced to its most basic components, theirs is a strategy premised on three tenets: (i) guaranteeing total impunity for those participating in the crimes of the country’s apartheid regime, security actors most especially; (ii) positioning Palestinians — regardless of where they reside, though those in the occupied territories especially — as outside the law and in a condition of permanent jeopardy; and (iii) obstructing any attempt to subject the sovereign to either external or internal systems of justice.

The third of these tenets (and through it, the first two) is threatened most immediately by the prospects of a hearing at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Though Israel is not itself a signatory to the Rome Statute, by virtue of the Palestinian Authority (PA) being one, the court has determined that the Palestinian territories fall under its jurisdiction. On the basis of this determination, the court was actually able to initiate an investigation in March 2021 into crimes potentially committed in the lands of the Palestinian territories since June 13, 2014. And on May 27, Bindmans LLP and Doughty Street Chambers of London added Abu Akleh’s name to a legal complaint previously filed at the court on behalf of journalists targeted by the Israeli army.

Where these cases go remains to be seen. Certain to play a key role, however, will be the United States and Europe. The governments of the relevant countries have long been complicit in Israel’s plots to keep Palestine (and Palestinians) outside the purview of international forums. Having deemed any attempt to seek justice or national emancipation outside of bilateral negotiations as unconducive to peace, they regularly present the victims’ search for protection and recourse from external sources as the disruptive act of the vicitimizer. Indeed, the United Kingdom suspended its support for the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit in 2012 after the PA began the process of acceding to the ICC. The diplomats of other European countries made similar recommendations at that time and later, and Washington has consistently condemned any Palestinian attempt at restarting multilateral mediation.

In so doing, the West has given its blessing to the following perverse dichotomy: if found guilty by army oversight bodies, an Israeli soldier like the one who killed Abu Akleh can expect, in the very worst-case scenario, to serve a few days of community service, as those convicted of firing on an unarmed teenager in Gaza were. If brought before Israeli military courts for whatever spurious reason, meanwhile, a Palestinian of the occupied territories, minors included, can expect a long detention without charge, near certain convictions once tried, a lengthy imprisonment, and a high likelihood of experiencing torture.

Targeting Those Who Might Speak

The murder of Shireen Abu Akleh was not a singular event but the latest in a long line of Israeli crimes carried out against Palestinian and international journalists. It was almost exactly one year before Abu Akleh’s shooting, recall, that the Israeli military targeted and destroyed the offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera in Gaza via a missile attack. The workers of both news organizations gratefully managed to escape in time though lost all their equipment and archives.

Since 1967, Israel has killed at least eighty-six Palestinian journalists, including thirty-five since 2001, according to the Palestinian Journalists’ Union and Reporters Without Borders. Security forces have also relentlessly harassed, brutalized, and intimidated Palestinian reporters for decades running. Recognized by their uniforms (bulletproof vests and helmets), journalists are among the first to be shot at with rubber-coated bullets, sprayed with “skunk” — the putrid water used by the army on demonstrators — or beaten with truncheons. It is common as well for Palestinian journalists to be denied access or to have their equipment arbitrarily confiscated or damaged. Nor do foreign correspondents get off scot-free: they, too, are seeing access curtailed and the ability to do their job limited by the threat of visa withdrawal.

Life for Palestinian activists, intellectuals, researchers, trade unionists, or artists who dare to speak out in the public arena is much the same. Add in the fact that they, like their counterparts in media, must navigate a Palestinian Authority that is nearly a match to Israel when it comes to repressing those who push for halting Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and renewing Palestine’s elected bodies, and the impossibility of their situation comes into even starker relief.

The Nakba Continues

Historically, the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) refers to the period between 1947 and 1949, a time when 750,000 Palestinians were forced into exile and 418 Palestinian villages — having either been allocated to Israel within the original partition plans drawn up by the United Nations or conquered by her armies — were emptied of their populations. A least 380 of these, one should note, were partially or completely destroyed without any fighting in order to prevent the return of their original residents.

In truth, the purposeful erasure of Palestine and Palestinians evinced during the Nakba was never confined to a particular moment in time. No, the Nakba endures, constituting the Palestinian experience as much as the Israeli one. The very topography of that which was Palestine continues to be transformed with each passing day, her hills flattened, waters drained, quarries mined, so that Israeli capital may accumulate, Israeli settlements be built, and Israeli farms be irrigated. Just as in the 1940s, Palestine’s homes and villages are destroyed, her lands appropriated, and her laws manipulated so to allow the reign of one state — and one state only — between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Indeed, only a few days before Abu Akleh’s death, the Israeli Supreme Court approved a plan to expel a thousand Palestinians living in Masafer Yatta, an area bordering Hebron in the southern West Bank, from the only homes they had ever known, creating another wave of the internally displaced so that Israel might pursue what it deems its manifest destiny.

An ethnocracy in nature and an apartheid regime in form, the Israeli state project requires the domination and erasure of the Palestinians in its midst. Was it not these imperatives that drove Israeli police to attack the funeral procession of Shireen Abu Akleh? Did not the Palestinian flag in which her casket was draped offer a reminder of that which was and that which will always be, an unveiling of the fiction under which Israel seeks to live?

Palestine Cannot Be Erased

In the Israeli countryside, prickly pear trees dot the landscape. Many passersby see plants only remarkable for their beauty. Those who have been around long enough, however, know that these trees bear witness to the past and point the way to the future.

Years and years ago, the trees in question had been used by Palestinian farmers to delimit their property. Standing today among plantations built on the land of the dispossessed and financed by the Jewish National Fund, their indelible presence whispers of a fundamental truth: beneath and among that which Israel has claimed as its birthright are a people who refuse to be swept into the dustbin of history, no matter what they suffer.

It is difficult to imagine we will ever learn all the details of what happened on May 11. Did the soldier who shot Shireen Abu Akleh act alone — aware, of course, that there would be no consequences for his actions — or was he actually ordered to target this particular unarmed Palestinian civilian?  Regardless, one can be certain that this heinous crime, whoever may ultimately be responsible for it, has brought an end neither to Abu Akleh nor to what she should stood for. Like the pear trees that fill Israel’s horizons, she will endure, and with her, her people.

On the day of Abu Akleh’s funeral, tens of thousands took to the streets of Jerusalem to walk to her final resting place the woman who had narrated contemporary Palestinian history as much as anyone else. Such crowds had not been seen in the holy city since the death of the “Prince of Jerusalem,” Faisal Husseini; they mobilized despite every man, woman, and child knowing they might face the sting of police batons, if not worse.

For the members of the international community who looked on in wonder and horror at the bravery of these people and the woman they came to mourn and honor, there is only one choice. For there to ever be actual peace in the Holy Land, the era of Israeli impunity must be brought to an end and the Palestinian right to justice, voice, and emancipation be fully enshrined.