The World

An American Journalist Was Killed in the West Bank

Why hasn’t the U.S. acted?

A photo of Shireen Abu Akleh is seen on top of grass and in front of a flag.
A portrait of slain Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh is pictured during a demonstration to support Palestinians staged in front of the Israeli Embassy in Athens, Greece, on May 16. Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images

When Dalia Hatuqa was a little girl, she would see Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on TV all the time, reporting for Al-Jazeera. Abu Akleh, an “empathetic but serious” talking head on camera, was an important figure for Hatuqa, who grew up in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. “I think maybe almost every single Arab person from the Middle East grew up watching her for decades,” she says. “For most Arabs, Palestine is not some place that’s accessible … Shereen brought Palestine to everybody’s home.”

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Last month, Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in the West Bank while reporting on an Israeli raid of a refugee camp. In the days and weeks following Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, three big media teams investigated the way she was killed: Bellingcat, the open-source investigative journalism website, used photos, video, and statements from eyewitnesses, and said that evidence suggested “targeting rather than a spray of bullets aimed at another object or person.” CNN released an investigation too, using videos and photos as well as help from weapons experts, and concluding Abu Akleh was killed in a “targeted attack by Israeli forces.” More recently, the AP independently said the same. The Israel Defense Forces recently claimed that while it is possible an Israeli soldier fired the bullet that killed Abu Akleh “no IDF soldier deliberately fired at a journalist.”

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On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Dalia Hatuqa—now a multimedia journalist specializing in Israeli-Palestinian affairs as well as regional Middle East issues—about the death of Shireen Abu Akleh. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: I want to lay out a little bit how Shireen Abu Akleh was killed, and some key events that followed her the morning of May 11. Shireen was with a producer from Al-Jazeera. They were covering a raid in the Palestinian city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank. What was happening there?

Dalia Hatuqa: She was on assignment, covering this raid on a refugee camp. Shireen was wearing a vest that said “Press” on it. She was wearing a helmet. And then the shot came through the back of her head. She didn’t stand a chance: She didn’t have time to take cover or to duck.

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The bullet struck the uncovered portion between the helmet and the vest in the back of her neck, which is such a small area.

From a journalistic point of view, the way I see it is that only an experienced shooter could have made a shot like that. And when this happened, Israeli authorities said that Palestinian fighters were responsible for her death: They circulated this video of Palestinian men shooting down an alleyway.

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Was that anywhere near where Abu Akleh was?

It wasn’t. Researchers from the renowned Israeli human rights group B’Tselem found the spot where this clip was filmed: It was 300 meters away, with no line of sight to the place where Shireen was killed. So unless Palestinian bullets can turn corners and climb stairs, the video Israeli authorities circulated had nothing to do with the killing. After B’Tselem said this, the Israelis retracted. And then it kind of developed into this thing about, we can’t do a probe unless we have the bullet that struck her, which the Palestinian Authority has, because it removed the fragment of the bullet from her head and did its own probe. But now the Israelis are saying they can’t do a probe because they don’t have the bullet.

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I think it’s important to highlight that it wasn’t just the Israeli military saying it was Palestinians who shot her. The Israeli prime minister suggested that she was killed by armed Palestinians.

For those of us who have covered the Palestinian territories for a long time, This isn’t new. Every time a Palestinian is killed—or, in this case, a Palestinian American—it brings more heat on the Israeli authorities, who immediately try to blame it on Palestinians and then switch the story.

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I want to talk about what happened immediately after Abu Akleh’s death, because two days later in Jerusalem, mourners were carrying her coffin, walking it by foot to her funeral, and they were beaten by Israeli riot police. I’m wondering if you can start off by explaining why it was so important that the coffin was being carried.

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So her casket was in St. Joseph’s Hospital in East Jerusalem, and it was to be taken to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Annunciation, in the Old City. It was very important for people to carry her coffin, and those people got attacked by Israeli police. They fired tear gas and stun grenades at the huge assembly of mourners. The guys carrying her were getting beaten up, but they wouldn’t let the casket go. It just showed the amount of emotion and love and respect that they had for her. You could see from the footage that the Israeli police was going berserk at the sight of every Palestinian flag, and so they even forcibly removed one from the hearse. The images from that incident weren’t just shocking to us. They were shocking to people around the world. I’ve never seen anybody beat up pallbearers at someone’s funeral. It made people feel like they tried to stop her in in her life and then tried to disrespect her in her death as well.

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It’s interesting to compare the reaction here to the reaction to the death of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist who was killed in Pakistan about 20 years ago. In that case, the U.S. sent the FBI to investigate. I wonder if that could be a possibility here too.

Yeah, why wouldn’t that be? Americans regularly train in Israel, and the amount of money that’s being pumped into Israel by America is astounding. So why not give this American citizen the justice that she deserves and hold someone accountable for her killing? I think everybody deserves justice accountability, irrespective of their nationality.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for an independent investigation into Shireen’s killing. Had you been advocating for that kind of action?

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I’ve been speaking with Shireen’s family quite a lot. I know Blinken talked to them and promised that he would do whatever he can to ensure that investigation happens. But honestly, nothing’s happened. It’s been a month. It’s not that hard: There’s footage, eyewitnesses, all kinds of stuff. This isn’t a mystery. Yet, even after Shireen’s death, the Americans said the relationship with Israel is ironclad.

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There was this AFP report saying that since the year 2000, close to when the intifada started, no Israeli soldier has been held accountable for the death of any journalist killed there. They’ve gotten away with it and they’re going to get away with it this time around too.

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In the past 30 years, the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates, at least 19 journalists have been killed in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I’m wondering if I can ask you as a journalist to talk about the news coverage of Sharon’s death, because it seems to me that over the past month, and now there’s less momentum. Some Palestinian journalists have basically accused the Western media of having a blind spot when it comes to Palestinian pain. Do you agree with that?

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Of course they have a blind spot. I mean, did you know that recently there was a Palestinian man in his 20s who was killed? Almost every single day, on average, there’s a Palestinian man or kid or woman who gets killed and it does not make any news. And when Israelis are killed, we hear about it instantly. I don’t want anybody to be killed. There needs to be a solution. But Palestinian lives don’t matter to a lot of the Western media, and they matter only insomuch as they are relevant to Israeli or American lives.

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Is there anything else you want to make sure we know about Shireen and her life and what happened?

I want people to remember her as funny, as someone who loved to shop and party and had a sweet tooth. I rarely saw her sad or upset, even though she had lost her mom and dad at a younger age. And she covered so many tragedies, but her smile was constantly there. Covering Palestine is depressing, but she was such a free spirit, and covering Israeli human rights abuses never broke her—it never stopped her from appreciating and enjoying life. I just wish that she were still around to appreciate and enjoy life.

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