Shireen Abu Akleh, the veteran Al Jazeera reporter who was shot in the head and killed during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank last week, was a household name in the Arab world. In her 25-year career in journalism, she broadcast to international audiences the daily indignities of Palestinian life under military rule. But beyond merely reporting on the precarity of a stateless existence under Israeli occupation, she amplified the voices of Palestinians, allowing them to take part in their own narration.
In life, Abu Akleh was a case study in Palestinian exceptionalism. Her courageous reporting in the face of Israeli militarism, in spite of the myriad risks she faced, was emblematic of a determined, resilient and proud people. Her tenacity spoke to an inextinguishable Palestinian longing to overcome the endless layers of oppression embedded into the structure of Israeli apartheid in order to live and dream, as everyone does, with dignity. She navigated the perils miring life in the occupied territories, from Israeli military checkpoints to settler violence, so that she could showcase the granularity of the Palestinian experience.
Abu Akleh's success as a journalist, despite the conditions under which she reported, mirrored an undying Palestinian aspiration for self-determination, emancipation and equality that transcended both sides of Israel's illegal wall. In this regard, her life is symbolic of the collective national spirit of the Palestinians, whose exceptionalism lies in their remarkable will to resist a reality in which their very existence in their historic homeland is reviled as a demographic threat. Her gravitation toward a career focused on disrupting Israel's monopoly on the narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict is part of a decades-long process of defiance by Palestinian activists, academics, journalists, artists and scholars who have all fought against impossible odds in the struggle to reclaim their national identity and oppose the forces intent on violently erasing both their past and future.
You may distort our aspirations and deny us our rights, Abu Akleh's reporting reminded Israel and the world, but we still exist. In no uncertain terms, her life and career reflected the desire of a people yearning to halt their dispossession and dehumanization.
Beyond merely reporting on the precarity of a stateless existence under Israeli occupation, she amplified the voices of Palestinians, allowing them to take part in their own narration.
- Nizar Mohamad
Yet, in death, too, Abu Akleh is a case study in the exceptional circumstances that color the reality of the Palestinian struggle. Palestinians are forced to resist, without any substantive external assistance, a regional superpower armed with a robust military and security apparatus—supported by billions in annual U.S. military aid—that is devoted to their perpetual subjugation. If that were not enough, they must also confront an entire political and media landscape in the West that systematically delegitimizes their cause, obfuscates their reality, denies them the platform to articulate their perspectives and ideas, and penalizes activism in support of their rights.
In the aftermath of Abu Akleh's death, many headlines served as a swift and sober reminder that Western news outlets are firmly entrenched in Israel's corner, given how they report such events. With an unwavering predictability, the likes of CNN, the BBC, The New York Times and the Associated Press, among so many others, recycled the same passive voice that is singularly employed to avoid assigning responsibility to Israel for its abuses, in this case killing a Palestinian-American journalist. Instead of clear, active language, they delivered vague attributions to "violence" and "clashes"—even for the subsequent assault by Israeli police at her funeral in Jerusalem. Captured in broad daylight and on live television, it unambiguously showed Israeli personnel beating her pallbearers with batons. As they so often do, the media's references to the "West Bank" without any mention of Israel's occupation—with its military raids, forced evictions and home demolitions—removed the context in which her killing occurred.
Moreover, despite the numerous eyewitness accounts of Palestinian journalists who were with Abu Akleh in Jenin, in addition to analysis conducted by Israeli rights group B'Tselem, the investigative platform Bellingcat, and Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye that all attribute her death to an Israeli sniper, Western news agencies have largely parroted Israeli state lines that claimed, initially, that Palestinian militants were responsible for shooting her, and then that the circumstances were simply "unclear." Denial and deflection, hallmarks of Israel's PR playbook, echoed in the press. Palestinian accounts are treated as inherently suspect and disregarded, while those that corroborate their testimonies—even when they come from independent sources within Israel—are sidelined in favor of those that vilify them.
Even after she was murdered by Israeli forces and her coffin was attacked on live television, only a few Western media outlets challenged the claims made by Israeli authorities or paid tribute to Abu Akleh's legacy as a journalist. Her possession of American citizenship proved insufficient to cross the threshold into media framing that humanizes Palestinians and affords to them a basic sense of dignity and compassion. Abu Akleh's death illuminates the deep-rooted and incomparable sense of bias and discrimination in Western public discourse that is uniquely directed at Palestinians and those sympathetic to their cause—what a handful of scholars and journalists have aptly described as "anti-Palestinianism."
The life and death of Shireen Abu Akleh epitomize the Palestinian struggle, not only for the right to self-determination, but for the right to have their humanity upheld.
- Nizar Mohamad
Just days after her killing, this anti-Palestinian bigotry was on full display in Berlin, where authorities went as far as to ban a peaceful vigil honoring her life by citing its potential to stoke antisemitism, despite the fact that the gathering was organized by Jewish groups. It was part of a sweeping ban on pro-Palestinian protests in Berlin in the run-up to Nakba Day, which German police justified by citing the "immediate risk" of antisemitic chants, intimidation and violence. Human Rights Watch criticized it as "an extreme restriction that effectively works as a collective punishment on those who wish to peacefully assemble, based on speculation over potential unlawful acts of a minority." People still took to the streets, and nearly 170 demonstrators were arrested last Sunday in Berlin in a protest mourning Abu Akleh. Some in attendance were reportedly detained by police for wearing a keffiyeh or uttering the words "Free Palestine."
In other Western countries, including Canada and the United States, there is an established record of blatantly stifling pro-Palestine voices in government, within the media and across university campuses. Solidarity with no other oppressed people or just cause—from Uighurs to Ukrainians, the Syrian revolution to the Black Lives Matter movement—risks costing professors, journalists and politicians their careers. Sympathy toward no other group elicits punitive measures or the pariah status associated with antisemitism, whose definition has been weaponized to discredit any legitimate criticism of Israel, and which amounts to professional suicide when leveraged against those who speak out against Israel's human rights abuses and clear violations of international law.
From the vague and perfunctory statements issued by Western politicians—who "strongly condemn" and are "deeply troubled," but will not take meaningful action against Israel—to the media's ubiquitous whitewashing, the aftermath of Abu Akleh's death was characteristic of the distinct plight of the Palestinians. The international community's reluctance to oppose Israel's occupation and creeping annexation of the West Bank, in contrast to its near-unified position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, is a reminder that Palestinians are the unfortunate victims of a global double-standard in political solidarity. The life and death of Shireen Abu Akleh epitomize the Palestinian struggle, not only for the right to self-determination, but for the right to have their humanity upheld.