The Controversy Over the Killing of Palestinian-American Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh
Israel riot police attacked mourners during the funeral procession in Jerusalem
After days of conflicting reports, the culprit responsible for killing Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh remains elusive. Abu Akleh was shot in the head and killed on May 11, while covering what the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) called an arrest raid in Jenin.
Much of the confusion surrounding the circumstances of her death stems from contradictory media coverage in Israel, the West Bank and around the world. Al Jazeera, the network Abu Akleh had reported for since 1997, published the headline: “Shireen Abu Akleh: Al Jazeera reporter killed by Israeli forces.” The network said that Abu Akleh had been “assassinated in cold blood,” alleging that she was targeted by the Israeli forces.
“Al Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Akleh is killed while reporting on an Israeli raid,” NPR’s headline read. The New York Times ran with: “Shireen Abu Akleh, Palestinian Journalist, Dies, Aged 51.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that: “Based on the preliminary information that we have, there is significant possibility that the journalist was shot by the armed Palestinians.”
Bennett explained that, during the IDF operation, “armed Palestinians shot in an inaccurate, indiscriminate and uncontrolled manner,” in contrast with IDF troops who “returned fire as accurately, carefully and responsibly as possible.”
Other journalists who were on the scene, such as Ali Al-Samoudi, who was shot in the back and wounded alongside Abu Akleh, reject this explanation. Al-Samoudi said that when the journalists were fired upon, no Palestinian combatants were in the vicinity. Indeed, he stated that “there was no Palestinian resistance at all at the scene.”
Shatha Hanaysha, another journalist who was standing close to Abu Akleh, told Al Jazeera that: “We were four journalists, we were all wearing vests, all wearing helmets,” and said that the Israeli soldiers continued firing even after Abu Akleh had fallen to the ground.
Meanwhile, Israel’s military has portrayed the death as an incident of crossfire during a battle between IDF soldiers and Palestinian combatants. IDF spokesman Ran Kochav told Army Radio that “even if soldiers shot at – or, God forbid, hurt – someone who was not involved, this happened in battle, during a firefight, where this Palestinian is with the shooters. So, this thing can happen.”
Bennett also has taken this stance, saying that “Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in the exchange” of gunfire and accusing the Palestinian Authority of capitalizing on the incident. Indeed, Bennett argued that “the president of the PA made unfounded accusations against Israel before any investigation had been carried out.”
Further controversy emerged after Bennett reproached the Palestinian Authority for refusing to cooperate in a joint investigation of the killing of Abu Akleh. He told reporters that “Israel has called on the PA to conduct a joint forensic analysis based on all the documentation and findings available in order to uncover the truth.”
Palestinian officials say that they do not trust Israel to participate in an investigation about itself. “We also refused to have an international investigation because we trust our capabilities as a security institution,” PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced earlier this week. “We will not hand over any of the evidence to anyone because we know that these people are able to falsify the facts.”
The Palestinian public prosecutor’s office claimed to have done its own preliminary investigation, concluding that Israeli troops were the only ones firing at the time of Abu Akleh’s death. This discovery was said to be drawn from the results of an autopsy, as well as bullet marks on a tree, and interviews with witnesses. Conversely, an initial probe by the IDF proved inconclusive.
At a memorial to Abu Akleh the day after her death, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the PA would not cooperate in a joint investigation and would instead “turn immediately to the International Criminal Court to prosecute the criminals.”
Responding to the allegations, Israel’s Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel said that “anyone who claims the IDF killed the journalist is not doing so on the basis of an investigation or facts, but propaganda.” Indeed, he claimed that Israel’s initial investigation found it was “not possible to tell whether she was killed by Israeli or Palestinian gunfire.”
As Israel’s Channel 12 reported, the bullet recovered from the scene was a 5.56x45mm NATO round, used in both M16 and M14 rifles, possessed by both the IDF and Palestinian combatants. The Palestinian coroners also determined that it was “not possible to tell whether she was killed by Israeli or Palestinian gunfire.” Nevertheless, the Palestinian Authority declined to hand over the bullet which killed Abu Akleh for inspection by Israeli investigators.
The tragedy comes after a series of five attacks by Palestinian assailants against Israeli citizens over the past two months, during which 19 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed. Bennett explained that the initial IDF incursion into Jenin was “part of a series of counterterrorism efforts meant to put an end to the wave of terrorism and restore security to Israeli citizens,” since Jenin is regarded as the source of numerous recent incursions by Palestinian residents of the West Bank into Israel.
In the same period, 30 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank, largely as a result of IDF arrest raids. A United Nations report showed that last year saw the highest number of Palestinian casualties from Israel-Palestinian hostilities since 2014, and the highest degree of violent settler conflict since 2017.
Tensions further escalated on May 13, during the funeral of Abu Akleh in Jenin, when Israeli riot police attacked mourners and pallbearers, as the coffin almost fell to the ground. The Israel Police claimed that an agreement had been struck with the journalist’s family for the coffin to be carried in a hearse, with the violence breaking out when mourners refused to let the hearse through and insisted upon carrying the coffin on foot.
However, Abu Akleh’s brother, Antoun Abu Akleh, told the AFP news agency that “there was no agreement” between the family and police officials over funeral arrangements. “We gave them the number of participants and the path of the funeral, and this is what happened,” he said.
Video footage from the funeral shows riot police armed with batons beating back the crowd, and even hitting the men carrying the coffin. Projectiles including plastic water bottles, and rocks were thrown by the crowd, while stun grenades and smoke grenades were used by the police. Moreover, contrary to the September 2021 ruling of the Jerusalem Magistrate Court, which decreed that flying the Palestinian flag in Israel is not a criminal offense, police were seen tearing Palestinian flags from the coffin.
Israeli lawmaker Ahmad Tibi told CNN: “When Omer Barlev was appointed as Israel’s Public Security Minister, he issued a directive limiting confiscation of Palestinian flags from demonstrators to cases where there is an immediate risk of disturbance of the peace. But what the police are doing directly opposes the minister’s orders … What we see is flag-phobia of the Palestinian flag.”
The director of the Saint Joseph Hospital in east Jerusalem told reporters during a news conference held two days after the funeral that Israel Police officers assaulted the funeral procession for Abu Akleh including inside the hospital campus. “They stormed the hospital, attacked the casket and pallbearers, fired rubber bullets and scared patients and visitors,” Jamil Kousa said.
Security footage from inside the hospital showed the baton-wielding officers wearing protective vests and helmets entering the hospital prior to the funeral procession and hitting patients, staff and visitors.
The police have launched an internal prone of how the officers handled the fuenral.
In the aftermath of the violence at Jenin, Barlev and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai ordered an inquiry into police misconduct.
The behavior of the Israel Police has been the source of substantial international criticism. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the brutal police conduct at the funeral, lamenting: “We are deeply troubled by the images of Israeli police intruding into the funeral procession of Palestinian American Shireen Abu Akleh.” Similarly, White House press secretary Jen Psaki referred to the clash in Jenin as “deeply disturbing” and an “intrusion into what should have been a peaceful procession.”
Some commentators have speculated that the violent display by the police served to undermine Israel’s initial public relations credibility over its alleged responsibility for the killing.
The High Representative of the European Union released a statement saying the body is “appalled” by the lack of police sensitivity. The statement said that, “The EU condemns the disproportionate use of force and the disrespectful behavior by the Israeli police against the participants of the mourning procession,” and called for an independent investigation into the situation surrounding Shireen Abu Akleh’s death.
Similarly, UN human rights experts echoed the call for “a prompt, transparent, thorough and independent investigation into her death.” They continued to imply their suspicion of Israeli responsibility, citing the statistic that: “More than 40 Palestinian journalists had reportedly been killed since 2000, with hundreds injured or targeted for violence.” A press statement from UN Security Council President Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, emphasized the requirement of an independent inquiry and the “need to ensure accountability.”
Aron Rosenthal is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.