Today marks one year since I awoke in the middle of the night to a text telling me that my beloved cousin the trailblazing Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh had been killed by an Israeli soldier while reporting on an Israeli military invasion of a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.
We have now had our first Christmas without Shireen, her first birthday, the first family trip. Instead of hearing her laugh and seeing the joy on her face, we measure time in terms of how long it’s been since we last heard her say our names, or that we told her we loved her, or that we hung up the phone confident we would speak again soon. We think of how old she would be if she were still here with us and feel the ache of all the plans and dreams she had that were stolen in an instant. At each of those moments, we are painfully aware that the Israeli soldier who killed her gets to return home each day. And while we measure time in these new ways, Israel continues to deny, dissemble, and dismiss its responsibility for killing Shireen.
We are also painfully aware that, despite relentless calls from my family, a year has gone by without any meaningful action by the Biden administration to hold Israel accountable for Shireen’s death.
Recently, President Biden spoke eloquently about the importance of protecting journalists, but though he saluted a number of worthy reporters, he did not mention Shireen. This is despite the fact she was an American citizen killed during his presidency by an allied government—which also receives the largest amount of annual foreign military funding of any country—or that she was killed while reporting in full protective press gear
Biden and the Israeli state are united in their desire to wish away the reality of Shireen’s death—a reality that, as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) revealed in a just-released report, is part of an obvious pattern of impunity by Israel. The CPJ found that, over the last 22 years the Israeli military has killed 20 journalists—18 of them Palestinian. Not a single Israeli soldier has been held accountable. Espousing principles of the importance of a free press is meaningless if it’s not followed with an end to impunity for killing journalists.
This past year has also seen a series of significant events in the Middle East on which Shireen was not here to report: the World Cup in Qatar; the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey; the recent death of Palestinian political prisoner Khader Adnan on the 87th day of his hunger strike; and yet another series of brutal attacks on Gaza. And, of course, the election of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, and the massive protests against the Israeli government’s efforts to curtail the authority of its supreme court.
The protests in Tel Aviv have shown that Israelis have the ability to take to the streets and demand justice. They just choose to remain silent when it comes to Palestinians. Israelis didn’t take to the streets over the past decades when the court these protests aim to protect has essentially green-lighted every repressive measure, from destroying homes to extrajudicial killings, while routinely upholding laws discriminating against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.
Similarly, there were no demonstrations by Israelis when their army killed Shireen, or when the police attacked her funeral, or when the Israeli government absolved itself of any responsibility for her killing. Yet now thousands are loudly defending an institution that has never spelled justice for Palestinians and refuses to ever substantively hold its soldiers accountable for their actions.
Essential to these ongoing practices, and articulated even more plainly by the current government, is the notion that all Palestinians can be demonized and their lives disregarded. Since Shireen’s death, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army, along with a sharp increase in attacks by armed Israeli settlers backed by the army. Every day, new Palestinian families are heartbroken and forced to begin stumbling through their own year of painful firsts.
Losing Shireen so young and in such a violent way has been devastating. Aside from my personal loss and the unfillable void she left in the lives of so many, nothing has been as painful as watching her brother, sister-in-law, nieces, and nephew trying to surmount their pain and adjust to a world without her while having to advocate constantly for justice in the face of unconscionable setbacks.
Israel has attempted to silence Shireen twice already: once, when a soldier shot her, and a second time when the Israeli police attacked mourners and pallbearers carrying her casket at her funeral. A third attempt to mute her voice is happening now, thanks to the continued inaction on the part of the Biden administration. Not taking concrete, meaningful steps to hold Israel accountable for her killing is tantamount to endorsing it. The unabated impunity Israel has enjoyed has brought us here and there is no excuse now not to end it.