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Pathbreakers of Arab America: Shereen Abu Akleh

posted on: Nov 1, 2023

Photo — Al-Jazeera

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

This is the twentieth in Arab America’s series on American pathbreakers of Arab descent. The series includes personalities from entertainment, business, sports, science, academia, journalism, and politics, among other areas. Our twentieth pathbreaker is Shereen Abu-Akleh, a Palestinian American born in East Jerusalem on the occupied West Bank on April 3, 1971. She was an outstanding journalist, reporting all over the Arab World but focused on Palestine for Al-Jazeera. Abu Akleh died on May 11, 2022, in Jenin on the West Bank at age 51 from a bullet wound fired by an Israeli Defense Force soldier while she was reporting.

Abu Akleh, wanting to be close to the Palestinian people, focused her journalism on bringing their voices to the world

Shereen Abu Akleh’s parents, Louli and Nasri Abu Akleh, were Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem, who belonged to the Melkite Catholic Church. Because her parents died young, she spent part of her youth in the U.S. with members of her mother’s family in New Jersey, her route to U.S. citizenship. Back in Palestine, she attended secondary school at Rosary Sisters High School, followed by the University of Science and Technology in Beit Hanina, Jordan. Preferring a more people-oriented career, Abu Akleh transferred to Yarmouk University, also in Jordan, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. She then returned to Palestine to pursue her journalism career.

Abu Akleh noted early on in her career, that she “chose journalism to be close to people. It might not be easy to change the reality but at least I could bring their voice to the world.” (Wikipedia) She worked in journalism with several organizations, regional and international. In 1997, she began working as a journalist for Al-Jazeera, one of its first field correspondents on its Arabic language channel. Shereen became well-known in the region as an Al-Jazeera reporter. Her reporting included stories on the second Intifada, 2,000-2005, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Shereen at work with her cameraman — Photo — Al-Jazeera

Abu Akleh was known across the Arab World for her excellent reporting, including her distinct signoffs. Her enthusiastic reporting inspired young Palestinians and other Arabs to become journalists. Upon her death, respected newspapers in the U.S. and Israel referred to her as a “household name” among Palestinians and “a veteran journalist among Arab media’s most prominent figures.” Because of political disagreements between Qatar, which backed Al-Jazeera financially, and Egypt, Al-Jazeera reporters were banned from reporting in Egypt. However, in July 2021, with improved relations between the two countries, Shereen was the first Al-Jazeera journalist in some time to broadcast live from Cairo.

Abu Akleh often reported on Israeli politics, including conflicts involving the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on the West Bank. In time, she came to believe she was being targeted by the IDF and armed Israeli settlers. Shereen noted that the IDF repeatedly accused her of photographing security areas. Such accusations were cumulative and much later bore on the end of her career and her life.

An official account by the Palestinian Health Ministry reported the death of Abu Akleh on May 11, 2022. On that day, Shereen had been reporting on an IDF raid in Jenin Refugee Camp on the West Bank when, according to witnesses and Al-Jazeera, she was shot and killed by the IDF. Al-Jazeera accused Israel of deliberately targeting the victim. The raid, the IDF purported, was targeted at capturing “terror suspects.” Al-Jazeera said that Abu Akleh was shot in the head by the IDF, and transported to Ibn Sina Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. She was 51 years old.

IDF, initially shrugging off accountability in the murder of Abu Akleh, later admits ‘high probability’ its soldier killed her

Arab America, reporting on September 14, 2022, wrote: Only last week did the Israeli military admit it was ‘highly probable’ an IDF soldier mistakenly killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Over and over, Israeli officials swore that none of the soldiers intended to harm the journalist. They ruled out any criminal investigation or charges against its troops. That is a criminal act in itself. Saying Abu Akleh’s killing was an accident does not let the IDF off the hook. That she was misidentified is preposterous. Or that there were Palestinian gunmen in the area who might have fired on her is an outright lie.

Mourners carry coffin holding Abu Akleh, on which is laid a Palestinian flag and a flak jacket marked ‘Press’ — Photo Al-Jazeera

Abu Akleh was one of forty-five journalists killed by Israeli soldiers since 2000. The Israeli Defense Force reported that it was conducting its own inquiry. Arab America earlier reported that the IDF’s probe was not a criminal one. Israel insisted the murder took place during an arrest raid and, thus, the Army did not consider it a criminal act. Democratic U.S. House members demanded an FBI investigation.

Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to join the IDF in the probe. It said that Israel could not fairly examine the actions of its own members. The PA had initially rejected an Israeli request to turn over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh. News source Haaretz reported, “The Israeli army admitted on Monday that it is ‘highly probable’ Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by an Israeli soldier.”

Israel’s official probe found that an Israeli soldier “likely mistakenly” shot Abu Akleh. The offending soldier was apparently under fire while peering through his telescopic scope. He then misidentified Abu Akleh as “an armed Palestinian gunman.” IDF officials also said it could not rule out “the possibility that Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian gunfire.” But it also admitted that it was more likely an Israeli soldier was responsible.

The Israeli Army’s Chief of Staff, Aviv Kochavi, called Abu Akleh’s death “an unfortunate incident.” He further noted that the incident occurred “during operational activity to thwart Palestinian terror.” Adding insult to injury, the Israeli Military Advocate General’s Office indicated it would not open an investigation into any soldiers involved in the incident. That Office averred, “There is no suspicion that a criminal offense was committed.”

Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset made clear their opposition to the facile Army defense of the killing. Deputy Knesset Speaker and head of the Joint List party, Ahmad Tibi, called for an external investigation. He asserted the Army has no right to “grant automatic immunity to those who shot.”

To rule out a criminal investigation of Abu Akleh’s murder is criminal in itself. The Post noted that long after numerous “investigations by international news and human rights organizations found that an Israeli soldier probably fired the shot that killed a highly regarded Palestinian American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, last spring, an Israeli military investigation has reached the same conclusion — but also ruled out any criminal investigation or charges against its troops. That judgment leaves critical questions unanswered.”

Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen Abu Akleh’s niece, accepts the U.S. National Press Club’s President’s award for journalism on behalf of her late aunt on August 31, 2022 — Photo U.S. Press Club

Saying Abu Akleh’s killing was an accident does not let the IDF off the hook. That she was misidentified is preposterous. Or that there were Palestinian gunmen in the area is a lie. The Israeli defense apparatus has released little to no investigative details. Furthermore, no evidence from a single Israeli soldier has been released. The withholding of evidence by the military makes their decision to close the case a travesty.

The Post opinion averred that closing the case “should not be the last word on the incident in the West Bank city of Jenin…” It ends its opinion by proposing “A truly independent investigation,” one which should include the American FBI. There was never any chance of that happening…

During this Autumn, as we now face another tragedy affecting literally millions of innocent Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, Abu Akleh’s murder proved to be only an omen of what might come. And so it has.

–“Shereen Abu Akleh,” Wikipedia Bios of Arab Americans, 2023
–“Israeli military admits ‘highly probable’ IDF soldier mistakenly killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh,” Haaretz, 9/05/2022
–“‘We will bring justice’: US press club honors Shireen Abu Akleh,” Al-Jazeera, 9/01/2022
–“In U.S. journalist’s death, Israel leaves questions unanswered,” Washington Post Opinion, 9/8/2022
–“Israel Shrugs off Accountability in Murder of Palestinian American Journalist—Shireen Abu Akleh,” Arab America, 9/14/2022

John Mason, Ph.D., focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

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