It was like any other day for Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera’s veteran correspondent in the occupied West Bank, and our friend and colleague. Early in the morning of May 11, she sent an e-mail to her coworkers letting them know she was going to report in the field. “[Israeli] occupation forces storm Jenin and besiege a house in the Jabriyat neighborhood,” she wrote. “On the way there—I will bring you news as soon as the picture becomes clearer.” But she never had a chance.
According to eyewitnesses, her colleagues at the scene, and the Palestinian health ministry, Shireen was shot and killed by Israeli forces not long after she arrived. Her producer was also shot and wounded. They were wearing helmets and blue flak jackets with the word “Press” clearly emblazoned across the front and back and were nowhere near any gunfire or armed Palestinians. Shireen was 51, and, though she was Palestinian, she was also a US citizen.
News of Shireen’s death reverberated around the world, with calls for justice and accountability circulating alongside the video of her colleagues trying to attend to her while shots rang out around them. Palestinians, who had watched her tell their stories from their living rooms for more than two decades, responded with an outpouring of grief. Thousands of Palestinians lined the streets of occupied East Jerusalem to follow her funeral procession until it reached Mount Zion Cemetery, where Shireen was buried next to her parents. It was one of the largest funerals in recent memory, as Palestinians found themselves united in mourning, resilience, and gratitude for Shireen.
But even on this day, Israeli police compounded matters by beating mourners and pallbearers, tearing Palestinian flags away from them and her casket, nearly causing it to fall to the ground. The police violence elicited rare criticism of Israel from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said he was “deeply troubled” by it.
Though our career paths were similar, neither of us can claim the same status that Shireen enjoyed. Once, she and I (Dalia) were in Maryland shopping together when a young woman approached and asked Shireen to take a photo. Always kind and down to earth, Shireen immediately obliged. I stood back and laughed as she posed for a selfie with her fan. Humble to the core, Shireen never let how well-known and respected she was go to her head.
She was a role model for girls throughout the Middle East and especially for aspiring journalists. Several of Shireen’s younger colleagues have spoken about how, when they were children, they would pretend their hairbrushes were microphones and practice reporting in front of the mirror, just as Shireen did on TV.
We greatly admired Shireen for her ability to remain calm and collected under pressure—which was unrelenting. Whether covering a funeral, or protests, as Israeli soldiers lobbed tear gas and sound grenades, Shireen would duck ever so slightly, as everyone around her ran. But she also felt fear, as we all do when reporting in dangerous situations, and she was careful to keep herself and her team safe.
Shireen was devoted to covering not just armed conflicts but also the daily indignities and injustices of Israel’s half-century-old occupation of the Palestinian territories. She documented the invasions of Palestinian cities and towns, arrests, home demolitions, and shootings at military checkpoints. She bore witness to Israel’s military rule, which the United Nations as well as all major human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have called apartheid, systematically privileging Jewish Israelis and discriminating against Palestinians.
After Shireen’s killing, the Israeli military suggested she was shot by Palestinians, circulating a video showing men firing into the air. But journalists and human rights organizations quickly debunked that story, proving Israel’s claims were false. Later, by way of justifying the possibility that Israel did kill Shireen, a military spokesperson made the revealing and alarming assertion that she and her colleagues were “armed with cameras.”
Indeed, what happened to Shireen was not an isolated incident. It’s part of a pattern of Israeli attacks against journalists, particularly Palestinians, and other civilians. We’ve lost track of the number of times that journalists have been tear-gassed or shot at with rubber-coated steel bullets or live ammunition.
Shireen is also just one of several US citizens who have been killed in recent years by Israeli soldiers, who have faced no serious consequences for their actions. Before her death, the most recent was Omar Assad, a 78-year Palestinian-American who was pulled from his car at a checkpoint in his West Bank village late at night in January, bound, gagged, left in the cold in obvious distress, and later found dead. With two Americans killed by Israeli soldiers in the span of four months, it forces the question: What will it take for the US government to hold Israel to even a modicum of accountability?
There needs to be an independent investigation by an international body into Shireen’s death. Otherwise, it will be the latest example of the impunity that Israel enjoys, including when journalists are targeted. Nothing came of Israel’s probes into the deaths of Ahmed Abu Hussein and Yasser Mortaja, two journalists who were killed by Israeli snipers while covering protests in Gaza in 2018. Nothing came of Israel’s investigation into its bombing of buildings housing media in Gaza, including the attack that destroyed the 11-story Burj al-Jalaa building, which held Al Jazeera and Associated Press offices in May 2021. Given these and countless other killings of journalists and other civilians by the Israeli military that were whitewashed by Israel’s government, Israel cannot be trusted to investigate itself again.
It’s hard to overstate just how much Shireen meant to Palestinians and people throughout the Middle East and beyond, or how much she meant to us as friends. We will miss her infectious laugh, her loving and playful nature, and her inspiring work. There’s nothing that we or anyone else can do to bring her back, but we can honor her life and legacy by demanding justice for her and accountability for the soldier and system that killed her.