Two weeks before an Israeli sniper killed Shireen Abu Akleh, Reporters Without Borders marked the fourth anniversary of the killing of Palestinian journalists Ahmed Abu Hussein and Yasser Murtaja by Israeli forces. The organization also reported that from March 30, 2018, to April 25, 2022, “at least 144 Palestinian journalists [had] been at the receiving end” of Israeli military or police violence. The tally included two journalists who had been shot in the eye and one who had been shot in the legs and needed to have one leg amputated. In addition, many journalists were arrested and imprisoned. From 1992-2022, Israel imprisoned 49 Palestinian journalists which, when adjusted for population, is more than seven times Russia’s rate of journalist incarceration.
On the morning of May 11, 2022, when Palestinian journalist Ali al-Samoudi was shot and injured and seconds later Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed by Israeli military gunfire, what took place was not particularly unusual. In the preceding years, a Palestinian journalist had been at the receiving end of Israeli military or police violence on average once every ten days. More recently, within the space of one week “from 4 to 10 April , nine Palestinian journalists were hit by teargas grenades or had teargas fired at them.” With the identity of Abu Akleh’s killer concealed (save for the pronouns used to refer to him), there is no point in speculating about his personal motive or the motive of whoever might have given him the order. It does matter, however, that his action fits into a broad pattern that spans decades and connects to the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe.
Silencing the Messengers
Israeli state violence directed at Palestinian journalists is part of a long-standing effort to shrink the space of Palestinian civil society. Since 2010, there have been at least 27 Israeli legislative, administrative or judicial actions that place severe limitations on Palestinian civil society. Military Order 1615, which went into effect that year, “imposes a 10-year sentence on anyone who … publishes words of praise, sympathy or support for a hostile organization, its actions or objectives.” Israel consistently silences and impedes the work of those who collect and disseminate information about its human rights abuses specifically targeting human rights organizations. In 2019, it deported the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, and since 2008, Israel has blocked the entry of successive UN special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967. In 2020, Israel did not renew the visas of the international staff members of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, forcing them to leave. On August 18, 2022, it shut down six globally respected Palestinian human rights organizations after accusing them of terrorism ten months prior. International human rights workers are not spared.
On the day of Abu Akleh’s killing, Israeli army spokesman Ran Kochav described her and her colleagues as “armed with cameras,” reflecting Israel’s long record of treating the collection and dissemination of information about the realities of Palestinian life under its control as a serious threat. Reminders of Palestinians’ presence on the land, their historical and ongoing suffering, and the degraded conditions of their lives, occasion a crisis for supporters and advocates of Israel who have reason to try to obscure this reality from the world, and at times perhaps from themselves.
Historical and Continuing Wrong
The state of Israel was the culmination of a decades-long project to realize the dream of a Jewish state in the ancient biblical land. When this Zionist project first began to unfold early in the 20th century, that land for thousands of years had also been known as Palestine. It was inhabited by a diverse Arabic-speaking Indigenous people with a thriving society living in many cities and hundreds of villages, 95 percent of whom were either Muslim or Christian. This fact, which many persons of conscience thought was sufficient reason to either abandon or radically alter the Zionist project, did not give pause to those who pursued it despite the predictable severe harm it entailed to the Indigenous people. The mainstream of the Zionist movement simply viewed Palestinians as an unwanted presence to be displaced or subordinated, and consciences were eased by the still repeated lie that the land was without a people.
During the months preceding and following Israel’s establishment in 1948, 80 percent of the Palestinians in that portion of the land were expelled or fled for their lives, and were immediately barred from returning, making them into permanent refugees. The newly established state dynamited and bulldozed hundreds of their villages. It took over Palestinian cities and properties, and quickly proceeded to try to erase evidence of their history from the land. The shameful but unavoidable truth is that the project of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was in fact realized by the catastrophic destruction of Palestinian society. Supporters of the Zionist project largely refuse to acknowledge that the realization of their dream was premised on the Palestinian Nakba.
The reality of what was done to Palestinians in 1948 was immediately distorted by a thick web of myths, including the false claim that they left voluntarily in response to radio broadcasts. This claim, which effectively blames Palestinians for their own dispersion and dispossession while absolving Israel of responsibility, was repeated for decades, long after it was discredited by professional historians. Today, the parts of Israel’s relatively open state archives dealing with the Nakba are severely censored. A 2011 law authorizes defunding institutions that commemorate the Nakba, and limits have been instituted on teaching about it in schools.
Israel has as much to hide about Palestinians’ present as it does about their past. When it occupied the remaining parts of Palestine in 1967, it gained control over large numbers of Palestinians, including refugees. Today, Israel effectively controls the entire territory between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, where roughly half the population is Palestinian, and half is Jewish Israeli. The tension between this demographic reality and the Jewish identity of the state deepens the crisis for many of Israel’s supporters and advocates because it has given rise to indefensible conditions. Short of another future ethnic cleansing (which shockingly high numbers of Jewish Israelis support) or Palestinian independent statehood (which the continued settler colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem has made virtually impossible), Jewish Israeli dominance has been secured by the ever more formalized subordination of Palestinians. The 2018 Basic Law that declares that “the right to self-determination in the state of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people,” is but the tip of an elaborate structure of subordination. Under Israel’s control, Palestinians today are compelled to live severely restricted lives regulated by laws and institutions that fit the definition of apartheid under international law.
This reality which many among Israel’s supporters find difficult to face, was largely recognized by the U.S. State Department in its most recent human rights report on Israel:
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; arbitrary or unjust detention, including of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories; restrictions on Palestinians residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and association; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for alleged offenses by a relative; restrictions on freedom of expression and media including censorship; harassment of nongovernmental organizations; violence against asylum seekers and migrants; violence or threats of violence against Palestinians and members of national, racial, or ethnic minority groups; and labor rights abuses against foreign workers and Palestinian workers.
By impeding the work of journalists and human rights organizations Israel can try to obscure this reality of the Palestinian present, even if it cannot fully conceal it.
An extensive system of segregation protects most Jewish Israelis most of the time from having to face the deeply troubling and shameful conditions that secure the ethno/religious privilege they enjoy. It allows them to maintain a sense of their own innocence of the historical and ongoing crimes of their state against the Palestinian people, and helps explain their high score on the happiness index.
But Palestinians make their presence known by acts of resistance, sometimes through violent actions, and far more often by engaging in sustained nonviolent civil resistance. The work of Palestinian civil society, including that of journalists and human rights organizations, brings Palestinians’ presence to the fore and serves as a reminder that underlying the apparent normalcy of everyday life for Jewish Israelis is a deep injustice that began in 1948 and persists to this day. The guiding thread of any serious engagement with Palestinians’ conditions of life is that, from its inception, Israel has enshrined the ethno/religious dominance of Jewish Israelis at their expense. Those who shine light on this disturbing truth make it difficult to enjoy the fruits of domination with a clear conscience. In that way they constitute a pervasive threat. This is how without a hint of irony or self-awareness their cameras can be referred to as arms, and their nonviolent documentation of human rights abuses can lead to accusations of terrorism.
In a career that spanned more than 25 years, Shireen Abu Akleh shone a bright light on the daily humiliations and pain of Palestinians’ life under Israeli occupation. She also understood the direct line that connects their current oppressive conditions to the historical wrong of 1948. In a report she prepared for Al Jazeera shortly before she was killed, she visited the site of a destroyed Palestinian village in the north and interviewed a Nakba survivor. In the same report, she visited a refugee family in the Jordan valley of the West Bank whose Nakba, she said, continues. For, they live in tent-like structures after their home was destroyed for the ninth time by Israeli forces.
Not long after recording that report, Shireen Abu Akleh and her team went to the Jenin refugee camp armed with cameras again constituting a real threat to Israel’s ideology of national innocence, where they were attacked by Israeli military gunfire. As we mark the grim anniversary of her killing, we should consider how state violence against journalists fits in a 75 year-long pattern of attempts to obscure Israel’s efforts to make Palestinians disappear from their Indigenous land or live in perpetual subordination.
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