I did not know Shireen Abu Akleh, but I mourn her as a friend. For millions of us, she was our heartfelt window into the Palestinian cause for 25 years. In the mindset of Israel’s security apparatus this is why Shireen had to die — because she bore witness to a truth they could not bear to hear.
Israeli security forces marked Shireen’s violent and untimely death with a “dignity and respect” that only they know how to show — by attacking mourners at her funeral. Grieving Palestinians had sought to carry the coffin to the church on their shoulders, but these murderous Israeli soldiers would not allow even this modest gesture of respect. Without any conceivable form of provocation, they attacked the pallbearers, causing the coffin to fall — a final gratuitous act of humiliation that served only to showcase to the world the petty, hate-filled reality of the occupation.
This had nothing to do with maintaining civil order. Citizens simply desired to be allowed to peacefully and respectfully mourn Shireen. Indignity was piled upon indignity. And what of the sanctity of the holy city of Jerusalem, so often defiled recently by Israeli violence? Is this how Israel signals to the world that it desires peace?
On the day she was killed, Shireen and her media colleagues covering events in the Jenin refugee camp were clearly identified as “Press.” She had accreditation from the Israeli authorities. Israeli security officials knew very well who she was. This was no “stray bullet.” Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming evidence of eye witnesses and video footage from the scene, from the moment an Israeli soldier fired the fatal shot the occupiers’ propaganda apparatus has been churning out a stream of shameless lies about how Shireen died. Her killing and the obfuscations that followed were attacks on media freedoms — attacks on the truth.
To a generation of Arabs who grew up with the Palestinian tragedy throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Shireen embodied their struggle for justice. Journalists who reported her death wept live on air.
As a Christian Palestinian-American with a calm and dignified demeanor amid savage daily conflicts, Shireen enlightened us about the horrors of occupation and apartheid. Since joining Al-Jazeera in 1997, she humanized the Palestinian cause and shone a light on the indiscriminate arrests of young people, the brutal treatment of rural families by militant settlers, the constant expansion of illegal settlements.
For us journalists, Shireen was an example and an inspiration. She was always committed to the highest professional standards, meticulously presenting the facts and avoiding rumors, but her killing came as no surprise. She herself had talked about the persistent “feeling that death was at times just around the corner,” although this never deterred her from performing her role with the utmost professionalism.
Israel’s occupation continues to destabilize the region, and to give Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies a pretext to bear arms and unsettle Arab states.
The Israel regime hates journalists 10 times as much as it loathes ordinary Palestinians. Holding a press card in the occupied territories is a sure way of being singled out for harsh treatment, harassment at checkpoints, and even physical attack. The media and truth are Israel’s enemy, and it deals with the problem by literally shooting the messenger. As a credible, beloved and respected journalist, Shireen constituted a major threat to a regime built on lies, propaganda and fake news.
The International Federation of Journalists says Israeli forces have killed at least 46 Palestinian journalists since 2000, with many more detained or imprisoned. Worldwide, about 900 journalists were killed over the past decade, and Shireen was one of 12 Al-Jazeera staff killed in the line of duty.
For the Israeli occupiers, as with other regimes that rely on violence to enforce their authority, killing journalists is the most effective and permanent means of silencing them. One prominent journalist told me how safe he felt working for Al-Jazeera in Palestine because of Qatar’s excellent behind-the-scenes relations with Israel, but TV channels of all nationalities are now apparently fair game.
Shireen’s death has reawakened international attention and sympathy toward the mother of all just causes. Her killing dominated front pages and news broadcasts. She was a US citizen, the State Department said her death was “an affront to media freedom,” and there was comparably impassioned language from the White House and Congress.
But words must give way to action. Journalists put themselves in the line of fire for humanity’s benefit. The deliberate killing of journalists should be therefore be regarded as a crime against humanity, with UN-enshrined investigations into the circumstances of their deaths. Who for a minute believes we will hear the truth about Shireen’s murder from an Israeli tribunal?
Israel’s occupation continues to destabilize the region, and to give Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies a pretext to bear arms and unsettle Arab states. The Palestinian issue must therefore be dragged back to the top of the global agenda and major players must be compelled to work conscientiously toward a just settlement. With Arab citizens forced from their homes in Hebron, Jerusalem and other parts of the occupied West Bank, each year more and more land is stolen, while innocent children are killed or forced to grow up in a climate of manifest injustice.
Before dozens more innocent civilians, activists and journalists like Shireen have to die, we owe it to them to end this climate of impunity and oppression, to enable accountability, justice and truth to prevail.
Shireen’s appalling, unjust, untimely death has awakened a slumbering world. Not only must we work tirelessly for a just peace, but the inhuman institutions of occupation — constructed upon lies, injustice and savagery —must be shattered once and for all.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.