Crime and the Criminal #8: Death of a Journalistic Icon

Israel Tries (and Fails Miserably) to Defend the Indefensible

Last Wednesday, the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed while covering an Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin.

Abu Akleh was a household name in the Middle East. Her fearless reports for Al Jazeera on Israel’s military occupation of Palestine made her a role model for young Arab women. Despite wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest marked “PRESS,” Abu Akleh was shot in the head, and one of her colleagues was shot in the back.

Multiple eyewitnesses at the scene said no Palestinian gunmen were nearby and blamed Israeli snipers for opening fire without warning.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 19 journalists have been killed covering the Israel-Palestine conflict since 1992. Scores more have been injured. Last year, Israel bombed a building in Gaza that housed both the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.

“There were no [Palestinian] fighters where we were, none at all,” Ali al-Samudi, the journalist who was shot in the back, told the Washington Post. “They [the Israeli army] shot at us directly and deliberately.”

This is the second time this year that an American citizen has allegedly died at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces.

In January, IDF soldiers dragged 78-year-old Omar Assad from his car, blindfolded and gagged him, then dumped him on a construction site in freezing cold weather where he died of a stress-induced heart attack.

As I revealed in an earlier newsletter, the soldiers who abused the elderly American citizen hailed from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, a unit for ultra-Orthodox Jews notorious for beating, torturing and sexually assaulting Palestinians.

In the wake of Abu Akleh’s death, Israel blamed Palestinian gunmen.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett released a statement saying: “Based on preliminary information that we have, there is a significant possibility that the journalist was shot by the armed Palestinians.”

Israel’s foreign ministry posted a video online showing Palestinian fighters firing down a narrow alleyway and said “Palestinian terrorists, firing indiscriminately, are likely to have hit Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqla.”

Within hours, a researcher for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem visited the site and used satellite maps to show it was impossible for the Palestinian gunmen to have killed Abu Aqla because they would have had to shoot through walls and around corners.

By Thursday, Israel had backed off the claim that the Palestinians killed the Al Jazeera journalist, saying instead it was unclear who shot her. “At this stage, we cannot determine by whose fire she was harmed and we regret her death,” said Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, the IDF’s chief of staff. Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said: “It can be Palestinians who shot her. Tragically, it may be on our side. We are investigating it”.

The Israeli government proposed opening a joint investigation with the Palestinians. But the Palestinian Authority rebuffed the offer. Israel claimed the Palestinians’ refusal to let Israel examine the bullet that killed the journalist meant they were trying to hide the truth.

Israel has a long history of conducting sham investigations that whitewash crimes allegedly committed by its soldiers. The investigations, which often drag on for years, seldom result in convictions, and if they do, the punishment is usually a slap on the wrist.

“We support the involvement of any party in the investigation — except for the Israelis,” said Anton Abu Aklah, Shereen’s brother. “If you’re accused of a crime, it makes no sense that you would investigate it.”

Instead, the Palestinian Authority asked the International Criminal Court to investigate. The ICC is already investigating Israel for alleged war crimes committed during 2004’s “Operation Protective Edge.” Israel has vowed not to cooperate with the ICC probe, saying the court is biased against the Jewish state.

Predictably, Israel advocates denounced those who believed the IDF killed Abu Akleh as Jew-haters.

“Immediately believing that Israel shot Shireen Abu Akleh is rooted in the idea that Jews are the ultimate evil who are responsible for every wrong doing,” tweeted author Ben Freeman.

Then on Friday, the story took another shocking turn, when during the Al Jazeera journalist’s funeral in Jerusalem, Israeli police attacked the funeral convoy, beating mourners with clubs and nearly causing the pallbearers to drop her coffin.

For those of us with long memories, the scenes recalled the Royal Ulster Constabulary beating Catholic funeral-goers in Northern Ireland and South African police crashing the funerals of anti-apartheid freedom fighters.

“The scenes of members of the Israeli security forces attacking pallbearers at the funeral in Jerusalem of slain journalist Shireen Abu Akleh yesterday were chillingly reminiscent of the brutality meted out to mourners at the funerals of anti-apartheid activists in South Africa during our struggle for freedom,” Mamphela Ramphele, director of the Desmond Tutu Foundation, said in a statement.

The Israeli police justified their actions by claiming “rioters” stole the casket against her family’s wishes to stage an anti-Israel demonstration, a charge the family disputed.

Anton Abu Aklah slammed the Israeli police for “extreme, vicious and brutal force.” He said the police’s version of events was “illogical and untrue.”

The real reason for the attack soon emerged. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the police chief gave orders to seize any Palestinian flags flown at the funeral. News footage showed the police ripping Palestinian banners from the hearse.

Israel fears expressions of Palestinian identity such as flying flags undermine its ongoing campaign to “Judaize” occupied East Jerusalem by pushing out Palestinians and replacing them with Israeli settlers.

Video of the attack caused global outrage. The White House called the scenes “deeply disturbing.” The European Union said it was “appalled.”

A top Catholic clergyman in Jerusalem accused Israel of “disrespecting the church” and violating freedom of religion. (Abu Aklah was a Palestinian Christian.)

In response to the outcry, the police chief ordered an investigation into his officers’ use of force.

Israel’s version of the events surrounding the journalist’s death was further undermined on Sunday, when the well-respected research group Bellingcat released a report based on open source video and audio recordings that claimed evidence supports the eyewitness accounts that the shots that killed Abu Akleh were fired by the IDF.

“Based on what we were able to review, the IDF were in the closest position and had the clearest line of sight to Abu Akleh,” lead researcher Giancarlo Fiorella told the Times of Israel.

After examining the video of the killing, the report also found that “the shots seem to be both aimed and deliberate, not wild undirected sprays,” which “points to the possibility of intentional targeting of the journalists by the shooter, rather than accidental crossfire.”

Intentionally targeting journalists during an armed conflict is a war crime.

Supporters of Israel complain that the world demonizes Israel.

Last week, Israel demonized itself.

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