Israel's response to the murder of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh a month ago has been a textbook example of hasbara, the Israeli effort to dehumanize Palestinians through propaganda. This propaganda is excruciating to behold knowing who Shireen was and what she meant to Palestine.
I first met Shireen more than 20 years ago when she was in the early days of her career with Al Jazeera and when I first arrived in Palestine from Canada. Although Shireen was at the start of her career, she already had made her mark by putting a human face to the victims of Israel's brutal military occupation.
Shireen was a rare journalist. She did not focus on presidential or prime ministerial statements; she wasn't part of any press pack or pool; she was not looking to report on secret documents. Shireen was more interested in how Israel, Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers impacted Palestinian lives. It was this—her ability to convey the daily reality of Israel's brutality—that made her loved by one and all across Palestine and beyond.
Over time, it became apparent that Shireen not only elicited the love of Palestinians, but she also shaped, through her tireless reporting, the way that many among the more than 400 million Arabic speakers around the world saw and understood Palestine. The timbre of Shireen's voice exuded compassion and love for the land and the people whose experiences she chronicled so powerfully. I will never forget how she covered Israel's attacks on the West Bank and, in particular, in Jenin during the Second Intifada. She reported from the rubble of the Jenin refugee camp following Israel's deliberate destruction of it in 2002. Her empathy was unmatched, as was her integrity.
Attempts to foist responsibility for her murder on any other party blur Israel's international legal responsibility as the occupying power in the West Bank.
- Diana Buttu
As a newbie to Palestine, I found myself in awe of Shireen's nerves of steel in the face of Israeli soldiers and their crimes. Yet Shireen was not, in the end, made of steel. On May 11, an Israeli sniper put her neck in his crosshairs, killing her and wounding her producer while both were reporting from Jenin during yet another Israeli military raid. Both had made their presence known to the army and were identified clearly with blue vests that read "PRESS" and blue helmets.
The gaslighting that immediately went into high gear was typical Israeli hasbara. This propaganda unfolds in three stages.
Stage one is to deflect. Israel routinely blames Palestinians for their own deaths, or casts doubt about its own culpability. Shireen's killing was no different. Though numerous eyewitnesses have attested to how an Israeli sniper shot Shireen and her colleague, Ali al-Samudi, Israeli officials have desperately tried to show that Israel is not responsible. On the day Shireen was killed, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett repeated claims by the Israeli army that she was shot by "Palestinian gunmen," assertions that were rapidly and widely debunked. Israeli officials have shifted their story again and again, yet consistently have aimed to absolve Israel of any responsibility. But Israel is responsible. CNN, the open-source investigative outlet Bellingcat and human rights groups like B'Tselem have all effectively disproved Israel's spurious claims.
Still, it is unnecessary to go down the rabbit hole Israel has created. Simply put, if the Israeli army had not been in Jenin conducting a military raid on a refugee camp, Shireen would not have been in Jenin—and Shireen would still be alive. Shireen was covering Israeli crimes, and without those crimes she would not have been there. Attempts to foist responsibility for her murder on any other party blur Israel's international legal responsibility as the occupying power in the West Bank.
When Israel's attempts to deflect fail, Israel moves to stage two of its hasbara campaign: conduct a whitewashed investigation. As part of this effort, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz demanded that Palestinians turn over the bullet that killed Shireen—akin to asking the criminal to investigate his own crime—and later rejected the Palestinian Authority's own investigation, which concluded that an Israeli soldier shot Shireen in a "deliberate murder," as "a blatant lie."
Israel has a long track record of claiming to investigate itself. In 2021, B'Tselem published a report concluding that such investigations are part of "Israel's whitewashing mechanism, and their main purpose remains to silence external criticism, so that Israel can continue to implement its policy unchanged."
Palestinians have long understood the three stages of Israeli hasbara, which are integral to Israel's attempts to render Palestinian lives disposable.
- Diana Buttu
Stage three of Israeli hasbara is to proffer a meek apology, if pressed to the point where Israel sees a propaganda advantage in such a move. In Shireen's case, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, himself a former journalist, tweeted about her "tragic death" but also rejected both the Palestinian Authority's "biased investigation" and what he called CNN's "so-called 'investigation.'"
At most, stage three typically generates a slap on the wrist for the killers and never reaches into the chain of command. Only in a rare instance is serious jail time meted out to guilty soldiers. Just a month ago, Israel's highest court dismissed an appeal by the family of four Palestinian children who were killed by an Israeli airstrike while playing soccer on a Gaza beach during the war in 2014. In its ruling, the Supreme Court referred to their deaths as a "tragic mistake."
Palestinians have long understood these three stages of Israeli hasbara, which are integral to Israel's attempts to render Palestinian lives disposable. Just this year alone, Israel has killed 48 Palestinians, according to the U.N.'s human rights chief, including a partially blind widow and mother of six who was shot and killed for walking in a "suspicious" manner in her West Bank village. While it's heartening to see calls from 57 Democrats in the House of Representatives, and now two U.S. senators, for an investigation into the killing of Shireen, who was also an American citizen, an investigation does not suffice. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's belated and weak call for an "independent" investigation—but not an investigation by the United States or the International Criminal Court—suggests that the Biden administration will want to invite Israel to participate in the investigation, ridiculous on its face as the victim of any murder surely will loudly attest. We already know that Israel is responsible.
It is time to hold Israel accountable, not just for Shireen's killing but for the decades of brutal denial of Palestinian freedom and rights. While many are focused on an investigation, it is the system of impunity that must be addressed. As Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance and military aid—an estimated $150 billion to date—the United States is complicit in Shireen's killing. Failing to establish full accountability will only further encourage the sense of impunity that Israeli leaders and soldiers have been led to feel they possess. It is long past time to make clear that Israel's decades of evading serious, and often any, consequences for its criminal acts have come to a conclusive end, and to see past its hasbara attempts that only serve to dehumanize Palestinians.