For Shireen Abu Akleh
During the summer of 1998, my cousin Shireen’s alarm would wake us both at 6 a.m. every morning. She shared her room with me while I worked in Palestine during that time. When the alarm sounded, I would stay still and silent as across the room she swung her legs off the bed, sliding one foot and then the other into her slippers. She would pause before standing and exhaling—burdened by the prospect of starting another day without her mother, who had recently passed away. On Sundays, shortly after waking, we would go visit the graves of her mom and our grandfather at the Greek Orthodox cemetery in Jerusalem; within two years, her father would also be laid to rest there. Shireen always brought flowers, resting them on the soil near their headstones. After a while, she would stand up, heavy with grief, and prepare to travel the country to document others’ stories as a TV reporter. My cousin, Shireen Abu Akleh, an American-Palestinian, had become a hero in Palestine. For decades she showed us not just the suffering of Palestinians, but their bravery, their perseverance, and their desire to live in freedom and dignity.
I am not yet ready to speak about Shireen in the past tense or accept that her body now inhabits a grave next to the ones we once visited together. The shock, the grief, and the anger have been overwhelming. When I saw Shireen just before Christmas last year in Berkeley, we said goodbye almost casually; with the pandemic waning and my children having grown older, we talked about planning more trips to see one another. We discussed how next time she’d spend more time with the kids, and we’d bring our dogs—who we decided would be great friends. She told me she was working on a story about sports in Palestine. I told her I would show the report to my son. It was the last feature she completed. When we parted, we said that we had spent far too little time together. Now that is an almost excruciating understatement.
People have described Shireen as a fearless journalist, but she was too smart to be truly fearless. She was undoubtedly brave, but also meticulous about her safety precautions. When we called her during the second intifada worried about her wellbeing, she reassured us, “We go wherever they say. We do whatever they say. If they tell us move, we move.” She knew the dangers of not following the orders of Israeli soldiers.
On May 11, 2022, she was covering an Israeli raid on homes in the Jenin refugee camp. Despite having valid press credentials and donning a well-adjusted protective vest and helmet (the last picture taken of her shows her and a colleague checking for a proper fit), an Israeli sniper found the small vulnerable area of flesh between the two and shot my cousin in the head without warning. She was fifty-one.
After the shooting, much of the mainstream press in the United States and Europe initially gave equal time to Israelis talking about her death and Palestinian eyewitnesses. Specifically, many reported that the sniper did not murder Shireen, but rather there were skirmishes and she was killed in the crossfire, or that Palestinians might have killed her thinking she was a soldier. The Israeli government even released a tired, inauthentic video attempting to substantiate that spurious claim. When B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, produced contrary evidence, the Israeli story changed again. When more videos showed that there were no Palestinian fighters in the area when she died, only Israeli soldiers, the government admitted that they may have killed her—but that it was an accident. This quasi-confession quickly morphed into a justification not to investigate her killing: there was no criminal intent and it would only upset the Israeli public to prosecute a soldier. Of course, the Israeli government’s changing narrative was simply a well-worn communication maneuver that did not originate from any new information produced about that day. Depending on which narrative they are positing, Israeli authorities demand that we either defer to the omniscient accuracy of Israeli weaponry and intelligence to kill only “militants” in densely populated civilian areas or believe that the same masterful military cannot tell the difference between a fighter in a moment of engagement and a well-known, easily recognizable journalist in full press gear, walking down the middle of the street.
In the weeks following Shireen’s murder, investigations by CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Bellingcat, and the UN Commission on Human Rights all concluded that Israeli soldiers were responsible for Shireen’s death and that there were no active Palestinian gunmen near where she was shot. Those findings closely resemble the statements given by Palestinian eyewitnesses, as well as findings by the Palestinian Authority.
The media further degraded Palestinian accounts when news outlets characterized the Israeli forces’ assault on mourners at Shireen’s funeral as “clashes.” These were not clashes. Using tear gas, the police raided the hospital where the family and mourners were retrieving Shireen’s casket to take to the church. Still, those attending the funeral carried Shireen’s casket in the procession across Jerusalem and withstood being kicked and viciously beaten with police batons to make sure that the casket did not fall to the ground. Among those holding it were Shireen’s nieces, nephew, and brother. Deep in their mourning, they were forced to reckon with the fact that Israel would not let Shireen rest peacefully, nor let those who love her find solace in her burial.
Among other press reports, the Wall Street Journal uncritically aired the Israeli claim that the police were enforcing an agreement made with Shireen’s brother about the details of the funeral procession. The story about a nonexistent agreement quickly dominated the news cycle as Israeli officials’ claim was accepted as fact in mainstream outlets. Moreover, in no media account that I reviewed did anyone question what is meant when an occupying power refers to such an “agreement.” In reality, the Israeli police summoned Shireen’s brother, Tony Abu Akleh, to their headquarters the day after his sister was killed to inform him that they would not allow any display of Palestinian nationalism—no flags, no chants, no songs —at the funeral. They also told him to limit the number of mourners present. Tony replied that he had no control over how many people attended his sister’s funeral; she was a national hero and her funeral was for all Palestinians. Not only was there never any agreement, the police arrived at the funeral “dressed for war, not for a funeral,” Tony told me.
The mainstream media’s response to Shireen’s killing lays bare at least three issues manifesting in reporting about Palestine. First, the Israeli state’s narrative is always prioritized. It is afforded credibility and deference, regardless of how farfetched it is or how much evidence there is to disprove it. When Israeli forces kill Palestinians, invade and demolish their homes, and imprison them without charge or trial, all the Israeli military must do to evade accountability is dismiss the victims as militants or terrorists. As a general rule, news outlets mimic this obfuscation.
Second, such reporting tends to lack context about how or why Israeli forces are, for example, raiding refugee camps. They also often fail to acknowledge how many people have been killed in such raids. This kind of reporting omits the backdrop of these “accidents,” such as Shireen’s death, which is a brutal military occupation, the ongoing repression of Palestinian expression of their national identity, and the regulation of every part of life and death for the occupied. News stories about violence in Palestine rarely raise or probe this context, making insufficient reference to human rights organizations’ decades-long documentation of the violations Israel has committed against Palestinians. For example, Amnesty International recently released a report defining Israel as an apartheid state based on its robust and multifaceted system of denial of rights and freedoms to Palestinians, but that report has received only brief coverage in the mainstream press.
Third, Palestinians’ testimonies are often viewed as inherently undependable. But more even than undependable, Palestinian experiences are frequently discredited or made to sound completely subjective, whereas the perspective put forth by the Israeli government is deferred to as rooted in fact and reason. This is reflected in editorial policy as well. When the New York Times editorial board weighed in on Shireen’s killing and the difficulty of launching an investigation that would satisfy both the Palestinians and Israelis, it summarized their respective positions with the following:
The Palestinians, convinced that Israel would try to whitewash the killing, declared from the outset that they would not cooperate with any Israeli investigation. In Israel, which has faced decades of one-sided condemnations by the United Nations and other international agencies, there is a deep mistrust of any outside investigation.
In other words, Palestinian opposition to an investigation by occupying authority is rooted in personal belief, not lived experience, whereas Israeli objections to an investigation by a neutral third party are based in an incontrovertible historical record.
There were at least eight eyewitnesses to Shireen’s murder. Four of them were long-time reporters who have covered Israeli incursions into Palestinian towns and refugee camps for decades. All of them were standing a short distance from Shireen when she was shot. Their account of events—the absence of an ongoing exchange of gunfire between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters, the shots coming from the direction of an Israeli military vehicle, their understanding of the longstanding, aggressive pattern of army snipers shooting at civilians and journalists—were put against in the media in the United States and Europe against the words of an occupying force, whose occupation was built in violation of international law and continues to flagrantly break those laws.
Perhaps most troubling, these mainstream journalistic tendencies mirror the actions and words of the U.S. government. Rarely have these practices had a more clear and concentrated manifestation than the July 4 report on the U.S. Security Coordinator’s findings and the subsequent State Department press conference on Shireen’s killing. Instead of honoring the Abu Akleh family’s request for a thorough, transparent, and independent investigation that considers both criminal and civil liability, the U.S. government eschewed any responsibility to the family of its murdered citizen by presenting a report that both violated their trust and sought to paint Israelis as well-intentioned responders to “terror.” Without an independent investigation of forensic findings, it claimed certainty about the shooter’s state of mind and lack of intent to kill. The State Department endorsed the notion that the Israeli military can be trusted to investigate itself, no matter its awful record of human rights violations during its occupation. Moreover, in the narrow factual circumstances of Shireen’s case—Israeli forces killing an internationally prominent journalist and U.S. citizen—the U.S. government accepts on good faith the Israeli military’s pledge to “try” not to do the same thing again.
In these accounts we are asked to see the occupation through the lens of the occupiers; any other perspective or experience is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Reporters do not have the words to explain what happens to Palestinians, except when their experiences have been siphoned through the opinions of Israelis. This is doubly dehumanizing. In the first instance, it ignores the real lives of Palestinians. In the second, it reinforces the antihuman construction of Palestinians that Israeli narratives depend on.
So much, then, for the perspective of the Palestinians who actually live and die at the hands of brutal occupation. These people know exactly what a killing by an Israeli sniper looks like, how it finds its victim in the inches of unprotected flesh, its intentionally terrifying combination of predictability and uncertainty. Those whose lives are dictated physically, emotionally, and mentally by the contours of a brutal military occupation are surely in the best position to recognize the acts of the aggressors, the cruel and violent machinations of the structure that constrains and criminalizes every aspect of their identity and livelihoods. Those same people are also entitled to resist that occupation. Their resistance should not serve to remove them from credibility.
This is especially evident now, as the resistance of others is glorified and celebrated internationally. We know from the recent coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that the media does possess the vocabulary to describe courageous people fighting for freedom. Recently, an article by a well-known progressive writer claimed that the Ukrainians were offering the world a “crash course in the heroic . . . [and] human capacity.” I have no interest in detracting from the notable courage of Ukrainians, but millions of people, in part thanks to my cousin’s intrepid reporting, know about the ongoing and inspiring courage of the Palestinians. But while the plight of Ukrainians has covered the front page of every newspaper, with all manners of affronts to their humanity reported on and sympathized with—the Palestinians’ courage in their decades-long struggle against the onslaught of brutal policies and practices has been met largely with silence or meaningless condolences akin to the “thoughts and prayers” offered to victims of gun violence in the United States. They fight for their identity and their freedom despite billions in U.S. funding and political support given to the Israeli army and government. My cousin, no doubt, was struck by a bullet made and funded by the United States, fired from a U.S.-made rifle.
The Israeli government’s violent and widespread subjugation of Palestinians continues. A mere two days after killing Shireen, the Israeli military attacked the camp again, firing a missile at the house of two brothers it sought to arrest. Shortly thereafter, Dawoud Zubaidi succumbed to wounds inflicted by Israeli fire in a Jenin raid the previous week. In mid-June, they killed three young men in Jenin by unleashing a hail of bullets on their car.
Meanwhile, Israel resumed demolishing homes in the Palestinian region of Masafer Yatta, another mass expulsion of over 1,100 people—a program now approved by the Israeli high court—an official continuation of the ongoing displacement of Palestinians that began in 1948. In Jerusalem, Israeli settlers, aided by soldiers, have infiltrated and disrupted worship at the Al Aqsa mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They have attacked the holy sites of Christians and Muslims while violently beating and arresting Palestinians who attempt to protect those sites.
Grief is always surprising, its different manifestations, its persistence, its transformations that break us anew. But grief riddled with anger is different. I can’t comprehend that someone aimed a rifle at my cousin and made sure that they targeted the barely exposed area that could absorb a fatal wound; that they saw her standing behind that tree, seeking cover, unarmed, clearly marked as a journalist; that they discharged their weapon like it was any other retracting of their finger. They shattered her head, took her future, broke millions of hearts, and then continued on confident that they would never have to bear any responsibility for this murder. I can’t hear my cousin’s name anymore without it being preceded by the word “Shahida” or martyr. The videos of her—her voice, her mannerisms, her laugh that used to bring joy—are painful now. There will be no new reports, no phone calls with updates, no jokes or reminiscing with her, no plans.
Shireen was dedicated and principled, ethical, and compassionate. She cared deeply for the people about whom she reported, their lives, and how she represented them. She was a champion of truth, and she believed in the importance of giving voice to the silenced. She had the calm and grace of her mother, as well as her sense of humor. With the raising of an eyebrow, the hint of a mischievous smile, or the utterance of one word she could make you laugh hysterically. She was so effortlessly funny, so endearingly charming and witty. It was a comfort to be with her. She was grounded, measured, and humble. She would never have imagined the magnitude of the response to her death.
I will no longer see her mother in her smile, or our grandfather’s head nod when she talks. We will never have the future trips we had planned, where I imagined her telling me stories. But when I close my eyes I hear her laugh, I see her dancing at her brother’s wedding, free and joyous, surrounded by her loved ones.
For days I tried to avoid the circulating video of my cousin’s body next to her colleagues, paralyzed in fear as Israeli soldiers continued to shoot at anyone who moved toward her. When I finally did, I saw her lying lifeless on the ground, the familiar tilt of her hand turned upward on the cement, the useless press gear on her body, knowing that as much as the people around her called for an ambulance, reached for her, cried out her name, she would not get up again. Amid all that, a lone young man, unarmed, unprotected, in a t-shirt and jeans, descends from the wall. Despite sporadic fire from the Israelis, he leads my cousin’s colleague to safety then comes back for Shireen and carries her off. These are the people of Jenin and the people of Palestine.
I struggle to find any solace in this story, except for the knowledge that Shireen’s last day was in Jenin, a town whose resistance she documented extensively during and after the second intifada. She was especially inspired by their courage and resilience. She respected and admired them and was devastated when most of those she had come to know during their defense of the town in 2002 were either killed or imprisoned.
The Palestinians in Jenin, Gaza, and the rest of the West Bank and throughout historic Palestine have demonstrated moral courage in their quest for freedom and independence for over seventy-four years. We have heroes and we have martyrs. And, thanks in part to Shireen, we have a beautiful archive of courage and resistance.
Shireen’s death is personal, but it is also collective. It is national grief, so we have not had to grieve alone. Palestinians, armed with nothing but their love for Shireen and each other and their rage due to losing another leader, another sister, showed up at her funeral in unprecedented numbers. In spite of the predictable police violence against them, they share our grief and comfort Shireen’s family. You needn’t look for heroes anew, they have been here all along. Rising up, getting shot down, and then lifting one another over their shoulders to show another way. With a spoon and some dirt we can find freedom, and even when commemorating someone’s death under threat of batons and beatings, the Palestinian people came together to turn mourning into unity and love. Shireen raised their voices. Now they keep hers alive. For that we are so grateful.
There has been enough selective solidarity, enough performative humanity. If you believe in people’s right to fight for their freedom, in the sanctity of human life and dignity, then you must also acknowledge these are universal principles. Seeking truth and justice for Shireen’s killing is an opportunity to come together as an international community, to resist the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine and annexation of Palestinian land, and to demand accountability.
As for Palestinians, we will wake up every morning and reckon again with the fact that Shireen is not here—that she was killed cruelly and senselessly. We will get up, heavy with grief, and continue to tell our stories.
Jennifer Zacharia is a writer and attorney. She has a JD from Columbia Law School, an MIA from the School of International and Public Affairs, and a BA from UC Berkeley. She is Shireen Abu Akleh’s first cousin.
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