The shooting death of the iconic Al Jazeera journalistic Shireen Abu Akleh while covering an IDF operation in Jenin in the West Bank remains a mystery, but some things we know: Palestinians hijacked the tragic event for political gain, and Israelis have again proven ham-handed and insensitive before a delicate situation.
These are not tactical failures affecting a given event. They are hallmarks of behavior by both sides, over many years and with dire implications. The heartbreaking events offer another opportunity for reflection on how we can all do better.
And as if scripted in advance, today the Palestinians mark Nakba Day (May 15), a remembrance of the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands in the (Arab-initiated) war that accompanied the founding of Israel. Let’s hope cooler and smarter heads prevail, today and going forward. Let’s hope local players of good faith minimize the damage and lower the flames. Such people exist in the Palestinian Authority and in the current Israeli government both.
For my small contribution, I’ll try to map out the situation.
First, the Palestinians are behaving shamelessly for denying Israel a joint investigation into the reporter’s death, and the reasons are transparent. If someone shot Shireen on purpose it is more likely Palestinian irregulars involved in the battle than the IDF (though nothing is impossible). If it was an accident then that is again more likely the Palestinian irregulars. It’s clear the Palestinian Authority assumes Israel will be blamed and is trying to milk the situation for all it’s worth by holding on to the bullet.
This is a dangerous and despicable game, inter alia because if Israel is responsible, not allowing it to learn lessons and punish the guilty risks more deaths going forward. Much of the world media is remiss in not emphasizing this, and the same is true of the Twittersphere and various global politicians and commentators.
Assuming by default that an Israeli bullet killed Shireen is almost Trumpian in its disregard for facts. It attaches to the post-truth moment in which facts do not matter and narrative — along with its fickle cousin “feelings” — are everything. It shows once more than not only the populist right is guilty of post-truth (though it certainly is presently the champion).
That said, the IDF investigating itself does not inspire confidence and a neutral third party should be involved. Indeed, the military and government public statements since last week do not reflect an understanding of the gravity of the situation or of the degradation of Israel’s credibility. Many Israelis don’t like hearing this, because the story they tell themselves is that lies come from the Arab side. But this is what comes from repeated killings in the West Bank that go unpunished and even uninvestigated, from the flimflam foreign journalists are increasingly accustomed to receiving, and from the wider picture.
What is this wider picture? It is that, whoever shot the fatal bullet in this case, the framing of the story in terms unfavorable to Israel is inevitable and attaches to Israel’s actions (which makes it less unfair). No other democratic country builds towns in a given territory for one ethnic group (Jews) while their neighbors (Palestinians) live under lesser and undemocratic conditions. That Israel actually does this and then is shocked at comparisons to apartheid (misleading but not crazy) is obtuse. If such is your policy, you’ll look like a thug and should expect to pay the price by being treated as one.
When trying to defend this, Israelis often point out (correctly) that the Palestinians have refused peace offers that would have partitioned the Holy Land, accorded them independence, handed them most of the disputed territory and dismantled most of the settlements. But this carries little weight today when the government (despite the dominance of leftist and center parties) offers no such thing.
The alternative is to act like an adult, look in the mirror and stop blaming the messenger. If you want better press then freeze the indefensible settlements (the military occupation is a separate issue with its own complications). If Israel ever wakes up and again elects a government that moves in this direction then the sympathy (which many claim not to care about yet decry the absence of) will shift. It will become clearer once more that the Palestinians negotiate too hard, like a side that does not want the deal. Indeed, it very much looks like they do not want a partition because rather than a respite from Israeli domination for their people they prefer a civil war in which they hope to demographically prevail. This is the bigger holistic problem that attaches to their specific behavior around the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.
Instead, Israel continues to cause itself damage with foolishness like the police beating of mourners at the reporter’s funeral in Jerusalem on Friday. The heart goes out to the family that was not permitted to mourn in peace, and Palestinian activists almost certainly share the blame. But let us suppose there is some truth to the police excuses (presented in no setting that is prominent and no way that is persuasive) that such activists hijacked the funeral and were posing a danger to public safety. That is dramatically not what comes through in the images, and it looks like the police lost their wits entirely. That any of Israel’s explanations involve the chanting of slogans reflects a mindset that is stuck in the past and blind to the optics.
Where were the commanders as their troops were swinging batons at unarmed people carrying a casket? Where was the political echelon? Why was significant damage control not immediately put into effect? Good God! Are all the brains in Israel in high tech? It sometimes looks that way.
Meanwhile, for all the talk of the framing of the story being the occupation, I’d like to propose another frame: the importance of the media in telling the world the story of the world.
No, the death of a journalist is not more important on a human and individual level than the death of any other non-combatant. But on a societal level, there is a wider story that should not be denied. We are shocked, and we should be shocked, not only because TV journalists are celebrities but also because it is critical that journalists be allowed to get close to events and write the rough draft of history. Access on the ground is only one aspect – strategic understanding, backstage maneuvering, political context and human stories matter as well – but it is a crucial aspect.
The courage of journalists who cover war zones is astounding. I will forever remember AP colleagues of mine who were killed in the line of duty like Nazeeh Darwazeh (killed in 2003 by a stray ricocheted Israeli bullet in Nablus) and Anja Niedringhaus (killed in 2014 by an Afghan renegade policeman), to name but two. All are heroes. Why do they do it? I’m not entirely sure, but there is purity there, somewhere.
The need for the news media is today relevant especially in Ukraine, obviously. These situations come up with sad regularity, belying poor Francis Fukuyama’s notion of history ending some 30 years ago. It is not ending at all, and it takes the form, as ever, of iniquities and cruelties alongside advancements and progress. Who can say which way nets positive?
Shireen was an icon not only for her reporting from Israel-Palestine but for her role in a broader and perhaps more positive story. The Arab media was basically without any credibility until Al Jazeera showed up a quarter century ago (even though, yes, Qatar is a dictatorship). And she was the face of Al Jazeera from Israel-Palestine, a symbol of feminine empowerment in a cultural zone dominated by patriarchy, and a beacon of reasonable journalism in an Arab world that cannot move forward without it.
If there is any comfort to be found, perhaps it is the hope that she represented. It does not die with her.