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'A martyr for truth and a saint': Palestinian journalists describe Shireen Abu Akleh's legacy

Azmi Haroun   

'A martyr for truth and a saint': Palestinian journalists describe Shireen Abu Akleh's legacy
  • Slain Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh inspired generations to take up the profession.
  • Several journalists who have followed in her footsteps talked to Insider about her legacy.

Longtime colleagues and young reporters inspired by slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh said the trailblazing figure could tell a story with her eyes.

Palestinian reporters Jalal Abukhater, Haya Yasmeen Nasser, and Faten Elwan told Insider that Abu Akleh became their idol as early as 2000 when she reported on the second Palestinian intifada for Al Jazeera.

"There was a war outside of our windows, and it was terrifying," Abukhater, a Jerusalemite who was seven years old at the time, told Insider. "I remember Shireen Abu Akleh as being one of the only reporters who was always outside bringing the news to our homes."

Two decades later Abukhater, still influenced by Abu Akleh, became her colleague in the field.

"It's like when there's a battle and the commander goes onto the battlefield to inspire the troops," Abukhater told Insider. "That's what we felt as journalists."

Abukhather called Abu Akleh a "martyr of truth." He attended her funeral service and said that without Israeli occupation checkpoints and walls blocking access "it could have been a million man march."

The three reporters who spoke to Insider personally knew the pallbearers transporting Abu Akleh's coffin, who were beaten by Israeli police. Despite that, the reporters said the mobilization was one of the largest and proudest they had seen in Jerusalem. It represented unity in grief and a commitment to carrying on Abu Akleh's message.

A 'martyr of truth'

Abu Akleh, who had worked as a TV correspondent for Al Jazeera since 1997, was shot and killed while wearing a "PRESS" vest and covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied city of Jenin on May 11, per Al Jazeera.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 19 journalists have been killed since 1992 while reporting in Israel and Occupied Palestine. The Palestinian Ministry of Information claims that since 2000, at least 45 Palestinian journalists have been killed by Israeli forces, according to Al Jazeera.

Eyewitness accounts from Al Jazeera colleagues, an initial investigation by the Palestinian Authority, as well as an independent investigation by Bellingcat all point to Israeli Defense Forces shooting and killing Abu Akleh, though Bellingcat said it could not be 100% certain without seeing additional evidence.

The Israeli military has offered shifting narratives on the incident — first blaming Palestinian militants located elsewhere in the city and saying that Abu Akleh and her colleagues were "armed with cameras."

In an interim report, the Israeli military later admitted that the IDF could have accidentally fired the bullet. Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, chief and general staff of the Israeli army, said "at this stage, we cannot determine by whose fire she was harmed and we regret her death."

The foreign minister said that Israel was offering to conduct a joint investigation with Palestinian authorities.

The EU and UN Security Council condemned the killing and called for an independent investigation. The US, confirming that Abu Akleh was an American citizen, called for a thorough investigation. Later State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the US trusted Israel to conduct its own investigation.

The Palestinian Authority, however, has said it does not have any faith in a solo or joint Israeli investigation.

'The woman I wanted to be one day'

Nasser, a travel journalist inspired by Abu Akleh, also remembered being fixated on Abu Akleh as a girl in Jerusalem.

"I never felt like a president represents me, or people in politics represent me, but Shireen was always that person, and I saw myself in Shireen as a little girl," Nasser said. "When you would turn on the TV, as a Palestinian woman, you would see a woman presenting to you – she was a reflection of the women I grew up with and the woman I wanted to be one day, not the woman that the Western media always painted us as."

Like Abukhater, Nasser said that Abu Akleh not only inspired her life and career path but also instilled fearlessness. Eventually, they met, and Nasser has become an acclaimed journalist in the region herself.

"She's seen parts of Palestine that people who lived there their whole lives under occupation haven't seen," Nasser said.

A teacher and a lifelong friend

Elwan, one of Abu Akleh's close friends and colleagues told Insider that the veteran journalist also inspired her to stay on her path to becoming a journalist. She rode with Abu Akleh in the ambulance from the scene of her killing back to a hospital in Ramallah on May 11.

She said that Abu Akleh — originally a friend of her journalism teacher — gave her advice to help her work on her pronunciation for broadcast reports, a nudge that she says gave her the confidence to become a reporter.

By 2000, the two were working in the field together under Israeli fire, covering the intifada. Elwan, a seasoned war correspondent who worked for Al-Hurra TV, told Insider that it was the care with which Abu Akleh approached stories that set her apart.

"What was different about Shireen, is that when she worked on a story, it was her face, her body language, and her interaction with the story," Elwan said. "It's a thing that you cannot teach; it's a thing that is built-in a personality, and this is what Palestine is going to miss."


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