The incident in which Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a senior reporter for Al Jazeera, was killed in Jenin on Wednesday morning is one of the most serious in the latest round of violent escalation. It has the potential to encourage the continuation of recent Palestinian violence – at least for a while.
It is unfortunate that the responses of some Israeli leaders to the journalist’s death do not reflect an understanding of the seriousness of the situation.
Abu Akleh was a U.S. citizen who lived in East Jerusalem. She had worked for Al Jazeera since the late 1990s and closely covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She was a well-known and admired professional, including among her many Israeli colleagues.
Although a large portion of the Palestinian political discourse has moved to social media in recent years, Al Jazeera still has a special status as a station that broadcasts to the entire Arab world.
Beyond the individual tragedy, in her death Abu Akleh immediately became a symbol with two-fold significance – both for the Palestinians and in the battle for journalistic freedom.
The incident in Jenin has already had secondary effects, and not just in security matters – and there will be many more. Among them is the decision by the United Arab List party on whether to remain in the government coalition, whose announcement was postponed. And it is still unclear how the government of Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, will act.
Videos from the incident posted online are short, including one in which Abu Akleh is being evacuated after being critically wounded, and then being treated in a car.
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Like her journalist colleagues, she was wearing a protective vest with the word “press” clearly written on it in English. Palestinian journalists who were near her when she was shot said they were certain she was hit by fire from Israeli troops, and that during the time of the shooting there was no activity by armed Palestinians in the area.
Other footage taken in the Jenin refugee camp on Wednesday morning show Palestinians firing weapons, but it is not clear exactly at what time or location they were taken.
The spokesman for the military, Brig. Gen. Ran Kochav, said in a statement on the incident, delivered relatively quickly after the incident, that “the possibility is being examined that journalists were wounded, possibly by fire from armed Palestinians. The incident is under review.”
Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, a sort of former journalist himself, told the Israel Hayom news website that he “assumes that the journalist was wounded by fire from armed Palestinians. The attempt to immediately blame the IDF stems from an anti-Israel viewpoint and not from a real investigation.” This looks like an overly rapid jump to conclusions, to what he wanted to prove. Outside of Israel, such responses will be seen as preludes to a cover-up.
Instead of spreading unfounded accusations, the right thing to do – which both Hendel and the military neglected to do in their initial responses – would have been to express regret over the death of Abu Akleh, say that Israel is taking the incident seriously and that it intends to conduct a thorough investigation.
Israeli evasion, coupled with failure to provide evidence for its claim, achieves the opposite of what’s desired and only bolsters the Palestinian narrative of the incident in the eyes of the international media.
Another difficulty comes from the fact that Israel did not reach this incident with completely clean hands. Over the past few weeks, violence by police officers and soldiers against Palestinian journalists has been documented in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. In none of the cases was a real willingness shown to investigate or to deal correctively with the security forces responsible.
Add to these circumstances incidents during the war a year ago, last May. At the time, Israel bombed the tower where the Associated Press agency had its offices in Gaza, without giving it sufficient thought. (Afterward, it said that the site contained Hamas military infrastructure.)
There was also the incident in which a representative of the military spokesman’s office gave information in a briefing for the foreign press, in what was later seen as an attempt to use the journalists to deceive Hamas.
The Israeli soldiers operating in the West Bank have to operate in complicated circumstances. The arrest operations are in many cases conducted in densely built-up areas, in which Palestinian gunmen fight from within the civilian population and often exploit it as human shields.
When in danger, it is sometimes difficult for them to differentiate between a gunman and a civilian, even a journalist with identifying signs. Every entry into the refugee camps in the northern West Bank, in particular, involves a relatively heavy firefight and a risk to all the parties involved.
It seems from the first details about the incident that an undercover force from the Duvdevan special forces unit entered the camp to arrest a Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant who was suspected to be in possession of a weapon.
The soldiers were fired on and had Molotov cocktails thrown at them, and a firefight erupted. All these explanations have relevance, and it is reasonable to assume that a large segment of the Israeli public is not particularly worried or upset by the death of a Palestinian journalist. But understanding of the diplomatic sensitivity that the death has aroused in the international media, the military quickly began a preliminary inquiry.
Israel is obligated to protect journalistic freedom and avoid harm to uninvolved civilians. This incident requires a real investigation that includes cooperation with foreign bodies. A military police investigation under the supervision of the military advocate general will not suffice in this case.
Otherwise, the accumulated damage from this will be long-term, and will not be limited just to the reasonable assessment that the fury over Abu Akleh’s death will keep the fire burning in the West Bank for some time.