arely does a journalist get the respect and recognition that Al Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Aqleh, the 51-year-old Palestinian American journalist, got before she was gunned down allegedly by Israeli armed forces last week. Shireen had become a role model for Palestinian women for her intrepid journalism exposing brutalities on Palestinians. Her voice while signing off her reportage has become iconic in the Arab world.
Journalists all over the world trooping in to cover developments in Israel-Palestine had huge respect for her stature and willingness to help them gain insight into the state of affairs in the region. The condemnation and demand for an impartial probe into her killing made by the United Nations Security Council represents a rare case of Security Council unity on an issue related to Israel. It speaks volumes for the high standards of journalism and integrity that she had shown in her work as well as for the television network that harbored her.
Israel initially denied that the perpetrators were its armed personnel, but coming under international pressure it has been forced to announce a probe. But, that does not inspire much confidence since Israel is known for enacting farces in the name of such probes. The shooting of Shireen has not only sent shockwaves among her friends and admirers, but is a deadly reminder that Press freedom in the world today is in jeopardy. She was among a group of journalists covering a raid by the Israel Defense Forces in the refugee camps in the West Bank city of Jenin last week when, according to the reporters present there, soldiers shot her in the head. She and her producer (who was shot in the back) were wearing vests marked with the word “Press”.
A statement issued by the military said Palestinian gunmen recklessly fired hundreds of rounds at an Israeli military vehicle, some in the direction of where Abu Aqleh was standing. It said Israeli forces returned fire and that without doing ballistic analysis, it was not possible to determine who was responsible for her death. Reporters, who were with Abu Aqleh, said there were no clashes or fighters in the immediate area when she was killed.
Israel’s response, like most governments’ across the globe in such situations, is following the predictable line of denial and detraction. It had first tried to pass the incident off as the work of Palestinians and circulated a doctored video to substantiate its claim. But, when Al Jazeera debunked Israel’s concocted version with its own video footage showing how Shireen collapsed at the spot where no Palestinians were found, Israel offered to conduct a proper investigation. But the Israeli army investigating itself will not have the trust of Palestinians, or the wider world. At least 47 journalists have been killed by Israeli forces since 2000. The figures in countries like India are no less.
Palestinians are especially vulnerable and often treated not as impartial observers but as partisans. Shockingly, no one has been held to account or appropriately punished in Israel for deaths of journalists. After each probe, Israeli police or army personnel were let off with light reprimand.
No wonder, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, wants to go to the International Criminal Court over Shireen’s death. Before her killing, the International Federation of Journalists had already submitted claims to the court that Israel’s targeting of the media amounted to war crimes. Negotiations on the Security Council statement on Shireen’s killing were led by Norway, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Norway’s UN Ambassador Mona Juul commended the “good collaboration” by UN ambassadors and termed protection of journalists a priority for her country. “We are particularly concerned about the rising trend in attacks on media workers, and on women journalists in particular,” Juul said later in a statement.
What is really disconcerting is the failure of the new inclusive government of Israel, which has promised to adopt a liberal approach to Israel-Arab conflict, to rein in the armed forces and the police targeting Palestinians. For, last year the highest number of Palestinian deaths resulting from confrontations with Israelis was recorded since 2014. Not only that, Israeli police continued with impunity to launch an unprovoked attack on mourners carrying the coffin of Shireen. The funeral in Jerusalem drew thousands of people.
The procession, under Palestinian flags and amid slogans, was among the largest gatherings in Jerusalem in recent memory. It also turned out to be an unusually open display of Palestinian national sentiment. But, at the start of the funeral Israeli riot police stormed into a group of mourners as they tried to carry the coffin from a hospital in East Jerusalem to a church in the Old City. The police did not seem to have learnt any lesson from the killing, fired stun grenades and used batons to beat the mourners. However, Israel’s minister for regional cooperation who is a Palestinian-Israeli member of the Left-wing Meretz party, decried that the Israeli police “disgraced the memory and funeral” of Abu Aqleh.
The killings and attacks on journalists in Israel-Palestine conflict zone show mere change of government with a liberal face is not enough. The need is for the change of a mindset of different wings of the ruling establishment and tolerance for truth, however unpalatable it may be, for the rulers and the agencies they control. In India the ruling dispensation often uses its probe agencies to cow down its critics and journalists. It may not be a coincidence that the spyware used by the Indian government to access the mobile phones of journalists and civil society activists in order to track their activities in the cause of free speech was supplied by an Israeli company.