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Grief and questions over killing of Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank

For a quarter of a century Palestinians tuning in to Al Jazeera news grew accustomed to reassuring, clipped signoffs from a star correspondent, an Arab woman and veteran journalist who was a household name across the Middle East.

“Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera,” she would say, followed by a dateline that traced the arc of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — from Ramallah to Jericho, Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

An architecture student who joined the fledgling Qatar-funded channel in 1997, the 51-year-old Palestinian-American’s fame grew along with Al Jazeera’s influence in the Arab world. Her signoffs even became part of the soundtrack to the 2002 battle for the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, mocked by Israeli soldiers using megaphones during gunfights with Palestinian militants in the refugee camps, according to her friend and fellow journalist Dalia Hatuqa.

Abu Akleh died in Jenin this week from a gunshot to the head. Her killing has thrown the issues she spent her career exploring — the brutality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the challenges Palestinians face in holding the Israeli army accountable — back under the spotlight.

Israeli soldiers have killed 45 people so far this year, said the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. It says as many as 35 of those who died were civilians, including women and children. The Israeli army disputes those numbers and says it was targeting militants.

The question of who shot Abu Akleh while she was covering skirmishes between the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen has already become a pivotal issue. It has brought international attention to an Israel military operation in the West Bank, which began in response to attacks by Palestinian perpetrators inside Israel. Seventeen Israelis and three foreigners have been killed inside Israel since March in the worst spate of violence in recent years. Four of the assailants came from Jenin.

Israeli border guards and a soldier take aim during a raid at house in the town of Rummanah, near Jenin © Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

Abu Akleh was honoured at a state memorial service in Ramallah on Thursday, replete with a military guard at the presidential headquarters before her funeral on Friday at a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem. Ahead of the funeral, Israeli police assaulted mourners with batons and stun grenades.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israeli soldiers for her death, a view shared by eyewitnesses, Al Jazeera and most Palestinians.

“Shireen’s murder is not the first crime, as dozens of Palestinian journalists have fallen as martyrs,” he said, as crowds wailed and chanted her name at her memorial. “We hold the Israeli occupation authorities completely responsible for her killing, and this crime will not be able to hide the truth.” Since 2000, some 25 journalists, including two foreigners have been killed by Israeli forces, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

After initially suggesting that Abu Akleh may have died as a result of Palestinian gunfire, Israeli officials described her killing as “tragic” and asked for a joint inquiry with the Palestinians and access to the spent round to conduct forensics. The Palestinian Authority has rejected both requests.

The Israeli military has launched its own investigation, but Israel’s defence minister Benny Gantz warned it could take time to “uncover the truth”. He added: “It can be the Palestinian side, and tragically it may be our side.”

For Hagai El-Ad, who has spent years investigating the Israeli army for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, the demands for a joint investigation are disingenuous. Israel has never agreed to joint investigations in the past and has barred UN and International Criminal Court investigators from entering the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

“The bottom line is that in almost all cases, they don’t even open an investigation, or perform a charade of an investigation and then close the case without an indictment,” he said.

El-Ad said that when low-ranking soldiers were prosecuted, the sentences could be light. A sniper who shot an unarmed Palestinian teenager in Gaza in 2014 was sentenced to 30 days community service; another who claimed he had mistaken a live round for a rubber bullet was sentenced to nine months, though this was later doubled by Israel’s Supreme Court; and a third who in 2018 executed a Palestinian assailant who had already been disarmed and subdued by other soldiers served nine months, claiming in his defence he had thought the assailant may have been hiding a suicide bomb.

As crowds surged to the ceremonies for Abu Akleh in Ramallah and Jerusalem, her friends mourned a woman who loved to shop, party and travel and nursed a sweet tooth. “She had a constant smile, loved to dance — covering Israeli atrocities never broke her spirit,” said Hatuqa, who met her when she was 20.

Young women in the region were inspired by Abu Akleh’s composure, she said, mimicking her legendary signoffs in front of mirrors with their hairbrushes as microphones.

Growing up in Nazareth during the second intifada or uprising, Rawan Bisharat, now 39 and working to promote partnership between Palestinians and Israelis at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yafo, remembers how Abu Akleh’s broadcasts from Jenin kick-started her political awakening.

“I was 17 years old, trying to organise my identity as a second-class Arab citizen,” she said, speaking next to a memorial she’d fashioned from posters of Abu Akleh and flowers in the mixed Palestinian-Israeli neighbourhood of Jaffa.

“To me, she was the voice of the second intifada, the voice of the resistance. Until yesterday, when I woke up to the news of her killing, I didn’t know exactly what it meant — but yesterday, every Palestinian, no matter where we were, in Tunisia, Lebanon, Gaza, Jaffa or the US, we were connected by Shireen. And now we feel our sadness together, and have lost something of our childhood together.”


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