Israel’s response to Shireen Abu Akleh’s death is a problem

WWhen it became known on Wednesday that esteemed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered in the West Bank city of Jenin, where Israeli forces are making military arrests, Israel convened its national PR staff to draft a plan of action. It decided to circulate a video of a Palestinian gunman firing indiscriminately from Jenin refugee camp, blaming them for the death of the Al Jazeera reporter. But the strategy fell flat when another video revealed that Abu Akleh died nowhere near.

Abu Akleh was a 51-year-old Catholic Palestinian who switched to journalism after studying as an architect and became one of the most famous TV journalists in the Arab world. Most nights for 25 years, her face lit up millions of TV screens as she shared the stories of Palestinian people living under Israeli military occupation. Arab girls and women looked up to her. And foreign journalists reporting from the Palestinian territories held her in high esteem. Now Al Jazeera has accused Israel of “killing her in cold blood” and Arab journalists from Washington to Tunisia to Syria are holding sit-ins. Qatar lit up a building with her likeness. Cartoons are circulating of Abu Akleh holding a bleeding microphone with an M-16 rifle, the type of rifle used by Israeli soldiers, pointed at it. A few Arab parents named their newborn daughters ‘Shireen’. Abu Akleh has become a Palestinian symbol.

Read more: What we know so far about the murder of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh

For Israel, her death risks damaging vital relations in the Arab world, while Abu Akleh’s US citizenship jeopardizes relations with Washington, raising both the stakes and the level of control. the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained “The investigation must be immediate and thorough and those responsible must be held accountable.”

Denial and distraction is Israel’s usual strategy for dealing with high-profile civilian deaths. The deflection has taken three forms: one alleging that Palestinians killed the civilian (famous examples include British cinematographer James Miller, 10-year-old Abir Aramin, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s three daughters and niece at their home in Gaza as he begged on live television for Israel to stop firing). Israel often claims that the victim was near a spot from which Palestinian gunmen attacked Israelis and was therefore accidentally killed by Israeli gunfire (four Gaza children on the beach, 40 people who took refuge at a UN school in Gaza, British UN worker Iain Hook in Jenin). Israel has also alleged that the civilian was involved in an attack on Israeli soldiers or was a member of a Palestinian militant organization (photojournalist Yaser Murtaja in Gaza). In other cases, Israel said the facts surrounding a murder are unclear, but certainly not Israel’s fault (Palestinian family killed by grenade on beach in Gaza). In the case of the 2003 death of American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who was run over by a military bulldozer, the Israeli military claimed “a chunk of concrete” was likely her death. When Israeli rockets tore down an 11-story media building in Gaza last year that housed Palestinian media networks and the Associated Press, Israel justified it by saying it was being used by Hamas.

In 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert initially apologized for the killing of seven members of the Ghalia family in Gaza by Israeli artillery. “But the military quickly realized it was facing another PR disaster to rival that of Mohammed al-Dura’s assassination,” wrote Guardian journalist Chris McGreal, referring to the heartbreaking images of the boy from Gaza who next to his father was killed in a firefight in 2000. “The military quickly convened a committee to investigate the deaths on the beach and almost as quickly relieved itself of responsibility.”

Within half an hour of Abu Akleh’s assassination, the Israeli state’s PR machine set to work on a diversion strategy. Israeli journalist Barak Ravid revealed in a Hebrew report on Walla! website that “an urgent consultation has taken place of the National Hasbara (PR) headquarters together with representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israeli Defense Forces. They decided the main goal was to try and fend off the story that was being put out in the international media according to which Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli fire.” (The English version of Ravid’s report on the Axios website did not include this information.) So Israel used a short video filmed that morning by Palestinian militants in a residential area, in which the men learned that they had shot a soldier. Bennett posted the video, claiming that since no Israeli soldier was injured in Jenin that day, the footage was evidence that the militants had mistaken Abu Akleh, wearing her helmet and body armor, for a fighter.

But then Al Jazeera posted film material shows Abu Akleh face down on the ground in a less built-up area and her colleagues helplessly trying to reach her as the bullets kept flying. The word PRESS was visible in large letters on her protective clothing. “We saw the soldiers in the area and there were no Palestinians,” said producer Ali Samudi, who was also shot. The soldiers were about 150 meters away… I didn’t see who was shooting, but I can see [sic] where the bullets come from. They come from the area where the soldiers are. There were no fighters in the area.” Two hours later, a local researcher from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem filmed a video geolocation the clip of the Palestinian gunmen in the Jenin refugee camp, hundreds of meters and several bends from where Abu Akleh was murdered.

By this time, the US ambassador to Israel had confirmed that Abu Akleh was a US citizen. President Biden plans to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories in June. White House press secretary Jen Psaki called Abu Akleh a “reporting man.” House speaker Nancy Pelosi called her killing of a ‘horrific tragedy’. Congressmen Betty McCollum and Mark Pocan condemned it and Rashida Tlaib accused Israel of murder† Israel regrouped and the military quickly backtracked on its claim. On Wednesday evening, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was on a conference call with reporters and said he was “deeply sorry for what happened,” that Israel wants a full-scale investigation and that he has asked the Palestinians to put the bullet in their hands. parts found embedded in Abu Akleh’s head, promising to share all forensic findings with the Americans and the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians refused, saying they do not trust Israel — a point an Israeli minister appeared to admit in an interview with an Israeli radio station on Thursday. “Israel’s credibility is not great in situations like this,” said Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai.

When Palestinian Americans are wronged by Israeli forces, Israel is quick to investigate, but the process rarely ends in harsh sentences. Four months ago, at the request of the US, Israel launched an investigation into the murder of an elderly Palestinian-American man who was being held by Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night. Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad had returned to Palestine after living in Milwaukee for nearly 40 years. He died of a heart attack outside in the cold at a construction site where soldiers had left him on the ground, gagged with his hands tightly bound and his eyes covered, after beating him. The unit’s supreme commander was reprimanded; the soldiers were not punished. In 2014, an Israeli police officer beat 15-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir to a pulp and then placed him under house arrest. The attack was captured on video. But it wasn’t until it became known that he was a US citizen that he was allowed to return to Florida and Israel opened an investigation at Washington’s request. An Israeli judge sentenced the police officer to community service; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its disappointment.

Abu Akleh was assassinated just days after the International Federation of Journalists, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS) and the International Center for Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) filed a formal complaint in The Hague for “systematic attacks on Palestinian journalists”. According to the PJS, an estimated 50 Palestinian journalists have been murdered since 2000. Israeli forces have a “track record in using deadly force and systematically attacking Palestinian journalists without any accountability,” according to the ICJP. Four years ago, Haaretz journalist Amira Hass revealed court files showing that in 2012, Israeli soldiers beat and arrested Palestinian journalists with batons, on orders from their commanders, with the stated intention of disrupting their coverage of a Palestinian demonstration. Last August, Israeli soldiers arrested seven Palestinian journalists covering nonviolent protests in the hills of South Hebron in the West Bank. During the May 2021 war, Israel said it bombed the media building in Gaza City because it was being used by Hamas. But it provided no evidence, and the devastating attack also had the effect of discouraging ground coverage in Gaza, where 254 people were killed. Thirteen people in Israel were killed.

In Jenin, where Israeli forces conducted counter-terror operations after a spate of deadly attacks on Israeli Jews, hundreds of Palestinians carried the corpse of Abu Akleh from the morgue, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, flak over her chest. lpriests bathe about her body. In Ramallah it was received with a state fanfare. A state funeral was held Thursday with a burial on Mount Zion in Jerusalem on Friday.

Hours after she was murdered, Israeli police shot a young Palestinian who shouted “Allahu Akbar” and attacked her in the Old City, seriously injuring her. Police did not say if he had a weapon, and no police were injured. And in East Jerusalem Israeli police stormed Abu Akleh’s house demands that her family and friends remove the Palestinian flag from the building. Visitors yelled at them until they voluntarily left. In the streets outside, Palestinians demonstrated with Palestinian flags, a attach a flag to an Israeli police car and arrested for it. Remarkably, however, the Israeli police did not intervene by force.

The next day, Thursday, unnamed Israeli officials told reporters that soldiers in a military vehicle about 150 yards from where the journalists were working had fired repeatedly around the time Abu Akleh was killed.

With coverage by Simmone Shah/New York

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