The shooting of Al Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Aqleh – one of the Arab world’s best-known journalists – is not only a sad and devastating blow to friends and admirers, but a deadly reminder that press freedoms in the Holy Land are under attack. Abu Aqleh was among a group of journalists covering a raid by the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank city of Jenin on Wednesday when, according to the reporters present, soldiers shot her in the head. She and her producer (who was shot in the back) were wearing vests marked with the word “press”. Her Qatar-based employer accused Israeli soldiers of shooting Abu Aqleh “in cold blood”.
Israel’s response was a familiar one: claim the shooter was a Palestinian. This approach was largely abandoned when the army’s evidence was debunked. Israel now says its troops may have “accidentally” shot her. But public arguments over ballistics suggest Israel thinks guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt – or blame for the killing cannot be assigned.
The argument, however, is not being played out in a court of law but in the court of public opinion. The EU and the US – Abu Aqleh was an American citizen – called for a probe. Disgracefully, the UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, did not. There should be an investigation. Whoever shot Abu Aqleh ought to be held accountable. 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. Palestinians are particularly vulnerable, too often treated not as impartial observers but as partisans – rarely receiving official accreditation, having their movements restricted and being assaulted with impunity.
No one has been held to account in Israel for media deaths. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, wants to go to the international criminal court over Abu Aqleh’s death. Prior to 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. Last May, Israel bombed the Gaza City media building – home to Palestinian networks and the Associated Press – claiming (without offering evidence) that it was being used by Hamas.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is simmering and threatens to boil over. Since the current Israeli government took office last June, Israeli forces have killed 76 Palestinians, including at least 13 children, in the occupied territories. It is a concern when international law is disregarded in Israel. Mass expulsion and the demolition of Palestinian villages have been greenlit. Illegal settlements on occupied land are being expanded. Israel is seeing its worst wave of terror attacks in years; a spate of knife, gun and axe assaults have left 18 Israelis dead.
This Sunday marks Nakba Day, when Palestinians mourn the loss of their homeland to a newborn Israel. Temperatures ought to be lowered. But Israeli authorities raised them. On Friday, mourners at the funeral of Abu Aqleh – a journalist Israel accepts its soldiers might have killed – were attacked by baton-wielding police. Israel is proud of being a democracy. Journalists should be able to cover protests against the Israeli occupation and document the Israeli army’s actions without risking their lives.