Shireen Abu Aqleh and the death of investigative journalism in Israel and Palestine

Palestine - Jerusalem

On May 11, 2022, Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh was shot dead during a raid conducted by Israeli forces in the West Bank. Another journalist, Mr Ali Al-Samoudi was also shot and is currently recovering.

According to Al Jazeera, the Qatari news network for which Ms Abu Aqleh was a longstanding correspondent, the 51-year-old journalist was covering Israeli army raids in the Palestinian city of Jenin, in the West Bank. The network’s official statement, published shortly after her death, stated that Ms Abu Aqleh was wearing a vest which identified her as a journalist at the time that she was shot.

This statement is corroborated by a video, taken shortly after the shooting, which shows the Al Jazeera film crew, wearing blue vests marked with “PRESS”, scrambling for safety while gunfire can be heard in the immediate vicinity. In the distance, a body in a “PRESS” vest can clearly be seen lying motionless on the ground.

However, in a tweet immediately following the announcement of Ms Abu Aqleh’s death, the Israel Foreign Ministry claimed that “Palestinian terrorists, firing indiscriminately, are likely to have hit” the journalist. Then, in an act of apparent self-contradiction, on May 12, 2022, it was reported that Israel had launched an official inquiry into the incident, with the process overseen by American officials.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has since added Ms Abu Aqleh to their list of 25 journalists and media workers who have been killed in Israeli and Occupied Palestinian Territory since 1992. The vast majority have been Palestinian.

Just 16 days prior to Ms Abu Aqleh’s death, the International Federation of Journalists, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians launched an official complaint with the International Criminal Court, alleging that Israeli forces systematically target Palestinian journalists. The complaint was lodged on behalf of Ahmed Abu Hussein (killed), Yaser Murtaja (killed), Muath Amarneh (injured), and Nedal Eshtayeh (injured). All four were wearing “PRESS” vests when attacked, as was Shireen Abu Aqleh when she was shot.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has stated that he will refer the death of Ms Abu Aqleh to the International Criminal Court. 

These events have unfolded within weeks of the anniversary of Israel’s bombing of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera offices in Gaza. The owners of the tower, housing the offices of the press were given one hour’s notice by Israeli forces before the bombing proceeded. The Israeli government’s justification for this was that there were “Hamas military intelligence assets” using journalists as human shields. No evidence has been provided for this assertion.

In his May 18, 2021 article for the Washington Post’s “Global Opinions” section, David Ottaway noted that the bombing of the Associated Press reminded him of his own experience with the Israeli special forces. Describing his time spent covering the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, he remembered that Israeli agents had threatened to bomb the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, which had become a safe haven for the international press.

The situation in Israel raises some particularly difficult questions for the international press.

  • Will events such as the bombing of the Associated Press offices and the killing of Shireen Abu Aqleh become commonplace? If so, are news organisations willing and able to send their journalists to conflict zones where they have little assurance over their own safety?
  • If news organisations become less willing to send their journalists into conflict zones, will coverage of current affairs in the region become more propagandistic and subject to manipulation of facts, or will the events not be covered at all?

The answer to the second question becomes self-evident when examining the coverage of recent events in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The governorate of Jenin, where Ms Abu Aqleh was reporting, has recently become subject to great debate, relating to its status as a hotbed of civil unrest.

The Great Mosque of Jenin in the northern West Bank. By Moataz Egbaria (Wikimedia Commons).

On one side, Israeli news organisation Haaretz reports that Jenin, which was once apparently “a model of Palestinian stability”, is now “in the midst of a terror wave”. Writing for the organisation headquartered in Tel Aviv, Amos Harel asserts that Jenin is currently under the watchful eye of Israeli special forces due to a series of attacks carried out in Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv, which were orchestrated by Palestinians from Jenin Governorate.

Contrastingly, Al Jazeera reports that the attacks were carried out in response to an increase in the number of Israeli special forces operations and arrests in the city of Jenin in the months leading to the 20th anniversary of the 2002 Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp.

Such conflicting narratives can be found elsewhere.

In October 2021, there were conflicting reports of Israeli construction workers digging up Palestinian and Jordanian graves from the 1967 Six Day War in order to build a biblically themed park over Al Yusufiyah Cemetery.

The Middle East Eye tells one story. It claims that graves were “razed and demolished” – exposing human remains to the public – and that when Palestinians conducted a peaceful sit-in protest near the cemetery, Israeli forces fired stun grenades and skunk water cannons at them.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post claims that allegations of Israel bulldozing the war graves are entirely unsubstantiated, even libellous. Furthermore, a month before the Palestinian sit-in, the Times of Israel ran a story about a Jordanian soldier who was killed during the Six Day War being honoured with a military funeral after his remains were unearthed during construction work on Ammunition Hill.

Perhaps most fittingly, the most heated debate in Palestine over the last few weeks has centred around the violent outbursts seen at Shireen Abu Aqleh’s funeral procession.

Pallbearers carry Shireen Abu Aqleh’s coffin. By alwatan_live (Wikimedia Commons).

Al Jazeera reports that Israeli forces targeted the procession, almost making the pallbearers drop the coffin, before seizing Palestinian flags from mourners and smashing the window of the hearse. It reports that by the end of the day, 33 people were injured with six hospitalisations. The Qatari news organisation has condemned the events surrounding the procession.

Meanwhile, the Times of Israel amended its article after correspondence with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle Eastern Reporting in America (CAMERA), the pro-Israel media-monitoring organisation. The article, which originally stated that Israeli police rushed the funeral procession and acted violently towards the mourners, was amended to state that the police were attacked by mourners, which provoked them to react.

As divisive stories emerging from Israel and Occupied Palestine become more commonplace, the importance of impartial investigative journalism becomes clearer. Nevertheless, the threat posed to journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that the survival of impartial investigative journalism in the region hangs in the balance.