Opinion |

Why Shireen Abu Akleh Is a Palestinian Icon

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
Artist Jaber Abbas, 35, applies final touches to a mural that he painted to pay tribute to Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, in Nazareth, Israel, Monday.
Artist Jaber Abbas, 35, applies final touches to a mural that he painted to pay tribute to Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, in Nazareth, Israel, Monday.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Last week, Shireen Abu Akleh, a correspondent for Al-Jazeera, “fell” in the line of duty. She was hit by a single bullet to the head, while wearing a bullet-proof vest and helmet, and covering events in the Jenin refugee camp. Much has been written and will be written about her professionalism, the circumstances of her death and the investigation of the incident. In the Palestinian arena there is no doubt as to who is responsible. Whether the bullet undergoes ballistic testing, the presence of an “occupying army” in Jenin is reason enough to pin the responsibility on Israel, even if the details remain murky.

In Israel, the incident has been described mainly as a public relations disaster and less as a return of the conflict and the occupation to public awareness. The goal is to push the term “occupation” out of the lexicon. In contrast, for the Palestinians, Abu Akleh’s death has become an event worthy of the history books. Her burial procession has already been called the longest funeral – for three days her coffin passed through Palestinian towns and villages, including Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, and Jerusalem. If it were up to the Palestinians, they would have tried to continue on to Bethlehem and Hebron, possibly to Gaza, never mind Nazareth and Haifa. This is no exaggeration, these were the driving emotions. The embrace of Abu Akleh was a rare event in the Palestinian landscape.

Beyond the emotional element, her death highlighted a basic issue: The Palestinian public is searching for a figure or event that can convey a message to the world that the Palestinian people, wherever they may be, still cling to their national sentiments and their right to freedom and self-determination. This striving is independent of any particular leader or faction.

Abu Akleh was an investigative reporter on the ground who brought the Palestinian narrative to hundreds of millions of TV screens. This would have been enough to earn her a favorable and respectful reception. Many, including people in Israel, only discovered that she was Christian after her death. This did not diminish the support for her; on the contrary.

When have priests ever been seen praying over a Palestinian leader alongside Muslims reciting the prayer of mourning? She was not a member of Fatah or a Hamas activist. Neither Mahmoud Abbas nor Yahya Sinwar had any claim over her. This is true for the Palestinian community in Israel as well. Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi can argue with one another endlessly, but they are in consensus when it comes to Shireen Abu Akleh. This also holds true for the refugee camps of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and in neighboring countries. There is no Hashemite tutelage over her, like there is over Jerusalem’s holy sites, but Jordan’s King Abdullah commemorated her by setting up a scholarship in her name. No one will hold Jordan’s king to account, and even Israel could not come out against it. No one can accuse them of commemorating terror. Shireen knocks down all arguments of supporting people with “blood on their hands.”

The power of the image lies in its simplicity. This may explain why the photo of the coffin draped in a Palestinian flag and surrounded by Israeli police officers has become the iconic image of the funeral around the world. The photo tells the Palestinian story in its painful essence. A casket containing the remains of a woman who struggled in her own way to present the Palestinian national narrative beyond the conflict and its divisiveness and power struggles. A coffin raised above the discord, carried on the backs of young Palestinians who are facing down an armed and particularly brutal police force. A scene of death, pain and oppression, that despite everything, proves to the world that the Palestinian people are still alive and kicking, striving for their freedom.

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