Al Jazeera film investigates killing of Shireen Abu Akleh

The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a 40-minute documentary by Al Jazeera English’s Fault Lines, is alternately heartbreaking and enraging.

Heartbreaking because it portrays the heavy grief carried by Abu Akleh’s longtime colleagues with the Doha-based network who witnessed her shooting death at the hands of an Israeli sharpshooter in May.

Enraging because it demonstrates the complicity of the Biden administration in Israel’s cover-up of her death, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price and the White House’s John Kirby refusing to acknowledge the evidence that Abu Akleh was deliberately killed.

No second is wasted in this short documentary that begins with clips of Abu Akleh’s field reportage in the occupied West Bank, exposing the reality of life for Palestinians living under Israel’s brutal military occupation.

A significant portion of the documentary recounts the minutes before and after Abu Akleh was struck by a single bullet to her head.

Abu Akleh’s colleagues who survived the attack – producer Ali Samoudi was moderately injured – describe a typical morning of work, albeit in the abnormal context of Israel’s military occupation.

They were in Jenin to cover an Israeli raid. The journalists put on protective gear identifying themselves as members of the press. Once they established that there were no confrontations between the soldiers and Palestinians, and that the situation was calm, they started walking slowly towards a group of Israeli military vehicles.

Seconds later, they came under fire from the direction of the Israeli position.

Majdi Bannoura, who had filmed with Abu Akleh frequently since they were both hired by Al Jazeera in 1997, began recording.

His footage shows Abu Akleh hiding behind a tree and captures her final words: “Ali has been wounded,” referring to her colleague Ali Samoudi who was shot in the shoulder. The footage then shows her lying motionless on the ground as a man frantically shouts her name and calls for an ambulance.

Anton Abu Akleh recounts receiving a news alert stating that his sister was injured while reporting in Jenin. He called and texted her to see if she was ok but got no answer. He learned of her death like the rest of the world when it was reported as breaking news on Al Jazeera.

“They feared her”

It wouldn’t be the only terrible shock the family had to endure.

Days later, mourners carrying Abu Akleh’s casket were brutally attacked by Israeli police who wanted to break the massive display of collective solidarity and grief by Palestinians in Jerusalem’s streets.

“It was clear that they feared her,” Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen’s niece, explains. “They feared the crowd, they feared the impact she’s had and I don’t think they anticipated this kind of reaction from the Palestinians.”

While Israeli police were brutalizing Palestinians in the streets, its propagandists were busy cooking up lies and spin to establish a narrative in its favor.

Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, reflects on Israel’s initial claim, immediately debunked by his organization, that Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinians.

It doesn’t matter if Israel’s propaganda and lies are of high or low quality. The point is to plant doubt about the credibility of Palestinian claims, he says.

The scrutiny on Abu Akleh’s killing was atypical. The ongoing media probes, alongside the vocal demands for accountability made by Abu Akleh’s family, and her status as a US citizen, kept her case on the radar. The unusual attention also forced Israel to change its narrative as investigations brought additional facts to light.

“You can just imagine how many other cases there are where there wasn’t that much international attention, there wasn’t footage, there weren’t witnesses,” El-Ad says.

The most comprehensive investigation to date is one undertaken by the London-based research group Forensic Architecture and Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group based in Ramallah. It is included in a submission made by Al Jazeera to the International Criminal Court requesting an probe into Abu Akleh’s killing.

Their reconstruction determined that the journalists would have been clearly identifiable as such by the Israeli soldiers who fired at them.

It also found that the shots fired by the Israeli sharpshooter “were kill shots,” a researcher with Al-Haq explains. “So the marksman was determined and deliberately targeting the journalists in that incident.”

US cover-up

It’s an unequivocal conclusion contrasting starkly with that of the US Security Coordinator, which stated that Abu Akleh was likely killed by an Israeli soldier, though not intentionally, without explaining how it reached that determination.

The US Security Coordinator’s report – which relies on Israel’s self-investigation and for which no key witnesses were interviewed – has been used by the Biden administration as a shield to deflect calls for real accountability.

“It’s not just not adequate, it’s outrageous,” El-Ad says about the Biden administration’s deference to Israel.

The absence of accountability, and the US government’s implicit endorsement of Abu Akleh’s killing, has had a chilling effect on Palestinian journalists.

Meanwhile, more and more Palestinians are killed by the Israeli military, which receives a minimum of $3.8 billion in assistance from the US each year.

“Every day since Shireen died we are hearing about somebody getting killed, shot by the Israelis, for no reason, no justification given, no accountability,” Anton Abu Akleh says.

The need to expose this unjust reality was the driving force behind Abu Akleh’s work. And it’s why she was targeted, her colleagues say.

As Ali Samoudi makes clear: “We pose a danger to them because we expose them.”

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As a major Christian holy day draws near, we would do well to recall that Shireen Abu Akleh was a Palestinian Christian. Following her public assassination, Israeli police waded in with truncheons and fists in a vile attack on her Christian funeral procession. I raise this confessional distinction only to remind those who still harbor doubts as to the nature of our struggle. Zionists don't attack Palestinians because they're Muslims. Nor is it because they're Christians- nor atheists, nor of some other belief or communal affiliation. They beat and torture and shoot Palestinians because they're not Jews. Until this point is driven home, it's impossible to grasp the genocidal nature of the Zionist project and the Israeli state.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.