Shatha Hanaysha, a young Palestinian journalist, recounted the last minutes of the life of Shireen Abu Akleh, her colleague and role model as both a woman and journalist.
“We made ourselves visible to the soldiers,” she said. “We stood still for about 10 minutes to make sure they knew we were there as journalists. There were no warning shots, so we moved toward the Jenin refugee camp.”
An Israeli army raid was underway at the time, covered by the elite Dovdovan unit that had entered the refugee camp to arrest a suspected armed Jihad Islami militant.
“Suddenly we heard the first shot,” Hanaysha continued, “I turned around and saw my Al Quds colleague, Ali Sammoudi, on the ground. A bullet had grazed his back, it wasn’t serious and he managed to get away.”
Then, “another colleague told us to join him behind a small wall, but we were on the other side of the road and it was risky to cross it. Shireen shouted, ‘Samoudi has been shot!’ … Just then, another bullet went through her neck and she fell to the ground right next to me. Whoever shot at us was aiming to kill … It was an Israeli sniper who shot at us. We were not in the midst of crossfire between soldiers and Palestinian fighters, as the Israeli army claims.”
Shatha Hanaysha has no doubts about who was responsible for the killing, on Wednesday morning in Jenin, of Shireen Abu Akleh, the longtime face of the Qatari TV station Al Jazeera in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Neither does Ali Samoudi harbor any doubts; he is sure that it was the Israeli military that fired, despite the fact that the journalists had the word “Press” clearly visible on their bulletproof vests.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Bennett, Defense Minister Gantz and other government representatives immediately attributed the killing of the journalist during an “anti-terrorist operation” in Jenin to “armed Palestinians.” This is the version they gave to allied Arab governments. Israel also released videos taken in the refugee camp showing Palestinians shooting, but it is unclear when or where they were recorded.
“This looks like an overly rapid jump to conclusions. Outside of Israel, such responses will be seen as preludes to a cover-up,” warned Haaretz columnist Amos Harel. “Instead of spreading unfounded accusations,” he added, “the right thing to do … would have been to express regret over the death of Abu Akleh, say that Israel is taking the incident seriously and that it intends to conduct a thorough investigation.”
This didn’t happen, and the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh has the potential to trigger a wide escalation. Her state funeral on Friday, attended by thousands, was marred by an attack by riot police against a group of people carrying her casket, causing them to nearly drop it. This took place on the eve of the 74th anniversary of the Nakba (the Catastrophe) – the exodus of 750,000 Palestinians who were driven out or fled their land before and after the founding of Israel – which is an annual moment of mobilization, anger and grief for millions.
Abu Akleh’s death is already a symbol of the Palestinian cause and an episode in the battle for press freedom under occupation. The Israeli leadership does not understand this. In all likelihood, they think of Shirin Abu Akleh as just another Palestinian journalist. People in Israel don’t watch Al Jazeera, and not just because it’s in Arabic. Palestinian TV and media are considered irrelevant, and the journalists who work there are deemed “unreliable and unprofessional.” This belief is shared by some of the plethora of Western correspondents and reporters who arrive in Jerusalem laden with prejudice. The only Palestinian reporters who get real professional recognition are those employed by the Israeli media.
However, Shireen Abu Akleh was a rigorous and courageous reporter, respected and admired in the Occupied Territories and throughout the Arab world. A Palestinian with a U.S. passport – which is why (as seldom happens) the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday stepped in to call for a rigorous investigation into her death – she lived in East Jerusalem and for more than 20 years reported on the most important and critical moments in the West Bank, thanks to the media power of Al Jazeera, a TV station which, despite competition from the internet, still retains a special status.
On Wednesday, thousands of social media posts recalled her reportages, her news segments amid shooting and fighting, her calm explanations of daily events. Abu Akleh was well-known, but never sought fame at all costs, and had built up her credibility through her work.
“As the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Francesca Albanese told il manifesto Wednesday night, “I can only utter words of firm condemnation and regret at the killing of journalist Abu Akleh, yet another death of a (Palestinian) journalist. The toll has risen to 20 and more than a hundred injured during the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. We need justice and a rigorous and transparent investigation that will bring to justice those responsible for this killing and previous ones.”
The Palestinians would like such an inquiry to be carried out by the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Office, while Israel is proposing one run together with the Palestinian National Authority.