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Shireen Abu Akleh: the voice of Palestine who refused to be silenced

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Israeli forces killed the Palestinian journalist while she was on assignment on 11 May, but her legacy will remain as a feminist icon dedicated to sharing the stories of her people.

17 May 2022

Content warning: This article contains mention of violence and death.

The camera follows the journalist as she walks through one of many villages displaced by Israel during the campaign of ethnic cleansing, the Nakba, in 1948. The journalist, with her calm, collected voice, speaks to a man, Abu Ibrahim, who was forced to leave the village of Al-Ruwais at the age of 11. He shows her an old key to what used to be his house – a key he kept for 74 years thinking he would return. The journalist ends the interview with her signature sign off: Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera. Hers is a voice that millennial Arabs have grown up with and understood to be the voice of Palestine; a voice that has told the story of national struggle, of agency, but most of all, memory. 

This year’s Nakba Day was marked by another layer of collective grief, one that has reverberated throughout the entire Arab world. On Wednesday 11 May Shireen Abu Akleh, 51, was shot and killed by Israeli forces.

The veteran Palestinian journalist had submitted what was to be her final report two days before she headed to Jenin to cover the Israeli besiegement of a house in the Jabaryat neighbourhood. Despite wearing a clearly marked press vest and a helmet, eyewitnesses saw Israeli snipers shoot her in the head below her ear.

The Israeli government initially claimed she had been shot by Palestinian fire, but eyewitnesses and colleagues Shatha Hanaysha and Ali Samoudi have refuted that narrative and denied any Israeli-Palestinian clashes were happening at the time. According to Hanaysha in an interview with Al Jazeera on 12 May, the team had been ambushed. They had not been warned about the attack, despite announcing themselves to the army as media. Ali Samoudi was shot in the back, and Shireen Abu Akleh was killed. Al Jazeera has described the attack as a ‘blatant murder’ and holds the Israeli government responsible for Abu Akleh’s death. 

“It might not be easy to change the reality, but at least I was able to convey the people’s message and voice”

Shireen Abu Akleh

Shireen Abu Akleh was born in Jerusalem in 1971. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Print Media at Yarmouk University in Jordan and worked as a journalist at the Voice of Palestine and Radio Monte Carlo, before joining Al Jazeera as a correspondent in 1997, one year after the establishment of the network. 

She rose to prominence as a reporter covering the news of the second Intifada in 2000. Shireen Abu Akleh’s professional mission was closely tied to her Palestinian heritage and she was driven to tell the stories of her people, despite difficulties she faced as a woman journalist. “I managed to overcome my fears in difficult times because I have chosen journalism in order to be close to the people,” she once told Al Jazeera. “It might not be easy to change the reality, but at least I was able to convey the people’s message and voice.” 

As one of the most prominent women reporters on Arab TV in the early 2000s, she, perhaps unintentionally, became a feminist icon throughout the Arab world. Abu Akleh was respected for her professionalism, and we looked up to her for her spirit and tenacity. For younger girls, Abu Akleh proved a career in journalism and media could be possible, and those of us who were already dreaming of it had finally seen someone who looked exactly like us doing what had seemed untenable.

As a young girl in Alexandria, Egypt who also wanted to tell stories, I found a role model on TV for the first time. I told my rather traditional relatives that I wanted to become a journalist, and prepared myself to be ridiculed by the men in my family.

“As a young girl in Alexandria, Egypt who also wanted to tell stories, I found a role model on TV for the first time”

What I did not understand then was that Shireen Abu Akleh did not only break the glass ceiling for us younger women, she had also broken the stereotypical image of women in media. An Arab woman had more options available to her as there were more urgent and important stories to be chased outside. 

The Arab world had taken notice of that subtle shift and to my surprise, so did the people closest to me. The patriarch of my family, my grandfather, told me: “Do you know what I would like to see? You on TV, like Shireen Abu Akleh. You have to work very hard to be as good as her. She is always calm and professional in the face of danger.” He paused: “And her Fusha is impeccable!” I knew that the last compliment coming from a man who prided himself as a strict Arabic teacher was his way of paying his respect to her.

Abu Akleh dedicated her life to telling Palestinian stories and amplifying Palestinian voices. She is mourned by Palestinians and Arabs all over the world. Vigils continue to be organised in New York, Berlin, and other places with a large Arab diaspora. In a historic moment, Jerusalem churches of different denominations rang their bells simultaneously to bid farewell during her funeral. Her coffin, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, was carried from Jenin Refugee Camp to Nablus, to Ramallah and Jerusalem where she was buried with her parents who she had lost at a young age. 

“Abu Akleh’s legacy as a trailblazer and authority on the stories of her country will remain”

However, Israeli authorities resorted to their typical strategies of denial, deflection and blame-shifting. After claims from the IDF’s Chief of Staff that it was “not possible to determine whose gunfire she was hit by”, Israel called for a joint investigation and for the bullet that had killed Abu Akleh to be analysed in an Israeli laboratory. The call was rejected by the Palestinian Authority as well as by the public.

Even in death and surrounded by mourners, Shireen Abu Akleh was attacked by Israel’s defence forces, with police hitting and kicking Palestinian pallbearers and mourners in a haunting scene with complete and utter disrespect to Palestinian grief. 

Yet Abu Akleh’s legacy as a trailblazer and authority on the stories of her country will remain. In her memory, Palestine’s Birzeit University has launched an annual award for media professionals, and a scholarship for distinguished women students in media studies. Outside of Palestine, the American University in Beirut in partnership with the Yafa Foundation will establish the Shireen Abu Akleh Endowed Memorial Scholarship to support Palestinian female students.

Abu Akleh will be remembered as a champion of journalism who conveyed Palestine’s lived reality to the rest of the world. Hers was a voice that refused to be silenced, even in death.

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