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‘They shot 16 bullets’: Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s family vows to keep up fight for justice

May 10, 2023 at 5:42 pm

Shireen Abu Akleh’s niece Lina Abu Akleh (R) attends a memorial mass held at the Allika Church in Beit Hanina for slain Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh ahead of the first anniversary of her death in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem on May 07, 2023 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

On 11 May last year, life for the Abu Akleh family changed forever.

That was the day Shireen Abu Akleh, a senior Al Jazeera journalist widely respected for her extensive coverage of Palestine and Israel, was shot in the head while reporting on an Israeli military raid in the Occupied West Bank city of Jenin.

As the news broke and television channels around the world flashed footage of Shireen’s last moments, her family was forced to reckon with a most bitter reality and monumental loss.

“It was very shocking. You could never imagine something like this,” her elder brother, Anton, told Anadolu in a video call ahead of the first anniversary of the Palestinian journalist’s death.

“It was a very disturbing, sad day. I was away and I couldn’t believe it until I got to Jerusalem. It was very painful.”

Over the past year, Anton and his family have been trying to do two of the most difficult things at once: heal from a harrowing personal tragedy and seek justice for someone they deeply loved.

READ: Monument dedicated to slain Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh stolen in Tunisia

“It was very tough. We lost a dear sister. She was a very strong pillar in the family, supporting me and my children. She was very supportive,” said Anton, who is seven years elder to Shireen, and grew up with her in Jerusalem.

“We are a small family and we all were in a very bad condition mentally, physically. Losing Shireen had a very negative impact on all of us.”

‘All the facts point to the Israelis’

Dealing with the pain is an ongoing struggle, just as their quest for justice.

For the latter, though, Anton and the Abu Akleh family are clear on who they hold responsible for Shireen’s death.

“All the facts point to the Israelis, to those soldiers who were present at that time,” said Anton.

“All the evidence shows that she was targeted. Shireen had her flak jacket; her helmet had press written on it on both sides. She was standing with media people, with the press, with her colleagues and, yet, they shot 16 bullets towards Shireen. Even the person, the young man who tried to help Shireen, was shot at.”

Anton and the Abu Akleh family are not alone in making this assertion.

Al Jazeera, the news organisation where Shireen spent 25 years, has drawn the same conclusion, as have investigations by a UN panel and other rights groups.

Both the Abu Akleh family and Al Jazeera have approached the International Criminal Court to investigate the killing of the 51-year-old Jerusalem native and US citizen.

Israeli authorities have refuted the claims, initially saying she was hit during crossfire between Palestinians and the Israeli army.

An Israeli military report released later in September said it was “not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire,” but admitted there was “a high possibility” that Shireen was “accidentally hit” by Israeli soldiers.

However, the report reiterated that “another possibility” was that Shireen “was hit by bullets fired by armed Palestinian gunmen.”

READ: US opposes move to refer Shireen Abu Akleh’s case to ICC

As he has done consistently over the past year, Anton was quick to dismiss the Israeli claims.

“There was no exchange of fire between (Palestinian) militants and the Israeli occupation army. No exchange of fire, no reason to shoot. They knew what they were doing. And I believe, based on these facts, that she was targeted,” he said.

“They tried to blame Palestinian militants for killing her, and then they retracted their story and … said ‘we might have killed her by mistake.’ This is unacceptable.”

Anton said the family does not have “any confidence” in Israel “after all the stories and narratives they brought out.”

“And they pulled all of them back because they were all fake. They were trying to cover up their story and the killing,” he added.

​​​​​​​‘A very big influencer’

Shireen’s work made her a household name among Palestinians and in the wider region. Her family believes that the very same popularity made her a target.

“Shireen was a very big influencer. She was reporting on the atrocities committed by the Israeli army against civilians, against Palestinians, against children: demolishing homes, the killings, all this,” said Anton.

“I believe this is a systematic strategy and policy of the Israelis to kill those who have such an impact and influence … They wanted to kill Shireen and they wanted to make it a lesson for other journalists.”

He said the massive turnout at Shireen’s funeral was proof of her ability to “unite the Palestinian people”.

“We saw at her funeral how all Palestinians showed up. People of different religions, different parties, they all came for Shireen,” he said.

‘Someone should pay the price’

Anton said the quest for justice has been a challenge and “a big financial burden” for the family.

“But we are still fighting,” he asserted.

Since Shireen also had American nationality, the family approached the US government and met Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, last July.

The meeting came weeks after a State Department report said investigations overseen by the US Security Coordinator “could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet” that killed Shireen.

It concluded that gunfire from Israeli military positions was “likely responsible” for her death, but “found no reason to believe that this was intentional.”

“We were hoping to meet President (Joe) Biden. Unfortunately, we couldn’t. We conveyed our message through Secretary Blinken, and we informed him that the … report released on 4 July was not accepted,” said Anton.

“We told him there was a crime committed and we want you to treat it as any other crime. There should be a credible and transparent investigation.”

According to Anton, no Israeli official has ever reached out to the family.

READ: Memorial held for slain Palestinian reporter Shireen Abu Akleh

“We didn’t speak to any Israeli official and they didn’t try to speak to us,” he said.

“Israel has to first recognise that this was an intentional killing … We don’t know how they came up with something called ‘unintentional’ or ‘mistake.’ Even when there is a mistake, someone should pay the price.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.