Alex Kane: Hello and welcome to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Alex Kane, your host today and the Senior Reporter for Jewish Currents. On May 11, 2022, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known Palestinian-American journalist for Al Jazeera. One year later, no Israeli soldiers have been indicted for the killing. Abu Akleh’s death, and the Israeli response to it, become emblematic of how Israel treats Palestinians in the occupied territories in general. Israeli soldiers routinely kill Palestinian civilians and are not held responsible for it. But the killing of journalists and specifically Shireen Abu Akleh received outsize attention. And now a new report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a prominent American press freedom group, is casting a harsh spotlight on Israel’s treatment of Palestinian journalists. The CPJ report details at least 20 journalist killings by the Israeli army, the vast majority of which were Palestinian. The report finds that Israeli forces repeatedly failed to respect press insignia worn by journalists, and the report also finds that no Israeli soldier has ever been charged or held accountable for the killings of journalists. Our first guest today is Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator. Following the segment with Sherif, I’ll be joined by a second guest: Jennifer Zacharia, a relative of Shireen Abu Akleh. Sherif, thank you so much for coming on to On the Nose.
Sherif Mansour: Thank you, Alex, very much for having me.
AK: Just to remind our listeners, could you go through what exactly happened to Shireen Abu Akleh on the morning that she was killed.
SM: Shireen was a veteran journalist who has covered Palestinian territories for 25 years; she had sources all over the occupied West Bank and Gaza. She has reported for Al Jazeera on a lot of raids, a lot of Israeli army raids going into Jenin, for example, and she got a note from one of her sources in Jenin that the Israeli army is approaching very early on, at dawn. So she basically wrote on social media, she’s going to go cover it. And she did what she has done for years: the precautions about putting on her press signs, approaching slowly, making sure that the Israeli convoy which was more than 100, maybe 200 feet away, could visibly see her and her colleagues cautiously approaching, and that’s when it happens. Shots were fired. First, it wasn’t Shireen who was shot, it was her cameraman, Ali Al-Samoudi. And then shortly after it was Shireen; he was injured, but she got the fatal shot, right between her helmet and her protective gear. And there were even more shots fired at her after she was shot and was on the ground. People who tried to rescue her.
So, this is what we know, this is what was clear from the beginning. But of course, from the Israeli government, there were immediately false claims, accusations, trying to justify what happened by the Israeli government. One by one, all of these claims have been refuted, including not just by eyewitness and local journalists, by international journalists. We are one year away from it, and the only thing we got from the Israeli government is 100 days after this happened. The Israeli government finally—not fully taking responsibility—but saying that this was a mistake and saying they still think that could have come from somewhere else. And of course, to this day, no criminal investigation has been opened. But the US government, after six months, have said that they are opening an FBI investigation. We’re here today to follow up on our frequent requests to the Israeli government to come forward with evidence to justify what they have claimed and to cooperate with the FBI investigation. We’re demanding a few things, mostly about how the Israeli army operates; specifically, how they treat journalists, including respecting press insignia. 13 out of the 20 cases that we’ve documented were of journalists who had press signs while they were doing journalism. So these are not demands we’re just doing from the Israeli government; we have done from all our governments. It’s a standard we held the US government itself accountable to when they killed journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when they supported the Saudi-led coalition and bombing journalists and killing journalists in Yemen.
AK: Has the Israeli government gotten back to you at all about your requests for how they should treat journalists?
SM: We have been in many ways communicating, asking to tell us answers to those questions. And we send them, many times, demanding the evidence they share they have, pressing them to meet with us and get that discussion going. We have not, so far, gotten any confirmation of a meeting with the Israeli government. We are meeting with the US and other foreign diplomats, Europeans and others, and we’re meeting with some members of Knesset. We’re also meeting with Israeli and Palestinian civil society, human rights groups and journalists’ union and press freedom groups. And when we go to Ramallah, we’re also planning to meet with the families of the journalists killed and other partners who helped advocate on their behalf.
AK: So the report focuses on the cases of 20 journalists, the vast majority of them Palestinian, killed by Israel while they were doing their job. Why did your team and you decide to do this report now, and what patterns did you find when examining all of these cases together?
SM: So I worked with CPJ 14 years now. When I started, it was the end of the 2012 Gaza war. And at the time, I wrote directly to the Israeli Government and I have raised pretty much all the same arguments when they killed journalists at the time, that Gaza war. And to this date, we have not heard any convincing argument or evidence to justify any of those killings. I think this is an important moment, because of what happened with Shireen, is that we show that in many ways that pattern of Israeli Government response comes in a routine sequence: they discount evidence, they discount witness claims, they push false claims, and in many ways, they do not follow any process to actually go to the bottom of the case. It was more about evading responsibilities, absolving the soldiers from any accountability. Whether the journalist works with an international outlet, whether the journalist has a foreign nationality—ultimately, none have seen any semblance of justice. But with Shireen Abu Akleh, because she was with a known news organization and she is an American citizen, we are pushing and making sure that we reach some transparency and accountability for her and for at least two more journalists that we classify as murdered. We’re calling for criminal investigation in Shireen Abu Akleh’s case and two other journalists, Yasser Murtaja and Ahmad Abu Hussein, who were killed in 2018.
AK: I want to dig into those cases a little bit more. But before I do so, you were talking about how Israel evades accountability when a soldier kills a journalist. What do you mean, exactly, when you say these investigations are flawed?
SM: Well, they have failed to hold anyone responsible. Out of the 20, no one was held responsible. And in every case, we revisited them all, one by one. We asked families, we asked employers, we asked lawyers, colleagues, and in majority of the case, none of the families were even contacted. None of the eyewitnesses were contacted. No process was made public. It’s all a black box. They say they are going to do those probes, criminal probes to decide whether to do a criminal investigation. The goal should be it’s done quickly, so that we know right away. But it’s slowed down, sometimes takes months, sometimes takes years, and eventually, none of them get to see any form of justice. I want to emphasize here that there is also no due course for Palestinian journalists, they have no recourse in Israel. There is just one case for a British journalist, James Miller, who was killed in 2005. His family, because he’s a British national, has been able to get support from the British government, who pursued the case and made a court hearing. And eventually, the Israeli army settled for compensating the family £1 million but without taking any responsibility for what’s happened to him. Even with that, this doesn’t meet any threshold for justice for us. We want to see more happen, at least in those three cases we classify as murder.
AK: In a number of cases your report details, like the killing of Yasser Murtaja, Israel has claimed that journalists shot dead by Israeli forces are members of Hamas, or funded by Hamas or other militant groups. How should the public assess these claims by Israel?
SM: Well, this is part of the pattern. The Yasser Murtaja case, for example, they said that he was funded by Hamas. It was refuted right away by the US government, who said, “No, he’s actually funded, his media group is funded by USAID.” And for the longest time, we kept asking, “What is your evidence?” “What happened?” Nothing. They just made a blanket statement that the Hamas-affiliated channels project and say horrible things. That’s not enough. Those protections, enshrined in international law, cannot be rendered useless by any government, by their sole claims. It has to be specific to the journalist, it has to be something that this journalist has done something that denies them, the description of being a journalist. Otherwise, any government can say, “Oh, this is a journalist, this is not a journalist, then we can do whatever we want.” That’s why there is an international law that has obligations and responsibilities in conflict zones: not to target civilians, and not to target journalists, because they have a role to play in the conflict.
AK: You noted earlier, something like—I think you said a dozen or 13 of the cases—were journalists that had press insignia on: press vest, or a helmet that said PRESS, or perhaps vehicles that had the word PRESS on it, and yet Israel has killed them. Israel says they’re committed to respecting the rights of journalists. How do you assess Israel’s commitment to press freedom, given what you found in your report?
SM: It’s merely lip service. They keep saying to us, “Oh, the IDF respects press freedom,” but we want to see it reflected in the rules of engagement, not just thrown away for the mere excuse that the journalist should not be there (because it’s their job to cover the news), or for the mere excuse that the soldier felt threatened, and then nothing else matters. So these are the kinds of claims that we want to make sure are protested, same way we protested with any other government that keeps telling us boilerplate answers every time without making any evidence to support their claims. They can show it by including protections, by making public the findings, and by collaborating with an international probe or a US probe.
AK: And we still don’t know exactly what Israel’s investigation into Shireen’s death looks like, right? We don’t know what people they interviewed, we don’t know what evidence they collected, we just have their statements.
SM: Only their statement about the preliminary probe, which basically does not even take full responsibility of what happened and diluted it by saying it might be something else.
AK: You detailed your recommendations for what Israel should do. But what do you think the United States and other countries around the world should do in order to ensure that the cases of Palestinian journalists are not treated as Israel is treating them? Given the fact that the US funds Israel, given the fact that other countries have relationships with Israel, and that, as your report demonstrates, this is a documented problem: Could you outline some of the most important recommendations for the US and the international community in order to protect journalists, end impunity, and prevent future killings of Palestinian journalists?
SM: Our recommendation is for the US government to use their leverage and special relationship with Israel to press for answers and make it public. We’ve heard nothing now for six months since it was known that they have opened an investigation. We want to see progress reports. Those progress reports should be done by the State Department, should be pressured by Congress and the Senate in order to make sure they are providing transparency about what happens. But also, there was a very specific request, made by Senator Leahy himself, to consider the Leahy review in Shireen’s case. So far we haven’t seen anything; this review’s past due. There are other governments and other institutions, including the UN Special Rapporteur, and the International Criminal Court, but also the Media Freedom Coalition, a coalition of 50 or more governments, including European allies of Israel, who also should play a role in order to pressure the Israeli government to cooperate.
AK: Thank you so much. Our guest again, was Sharif Mansour CPJ’s, Middle East North Africa Program Coordinator. All of the reports and articles that he mentioned will be in the show notes. Thank you so much, Sherif.
SM: Thank you for having me, Alex.
AK: We’re now joined by Jennifer Zacharia, a writer and lawyer who is Shireen Abu Akleh’s first cousin. Thanks so much for coming on to On the Nose, Jennifer.
Jennifer Zacharia: Thanks for having me.
AK: So let’s begin by just talking about who Shireen was to you.
JZ: Well, she’s my first cousin, I grew up spending time with her and loving her amazing sense of humor. She had a great sense of humor. She was very, very sort of quietly funny. She could just look at you a certain way, and you’d have to laugh. She was understated and humble. She was someone who, every time you talked to her, you felt better. She was a real light to everybody, I think, who knew her. You know, we miss her a lot.
AK: It’s been one year since she was killed by Israeli soldiers. Where were you when you found out?
JZ: It was early morning. I was on the East Coast. I was in South Carolina, actually. And I got a text from Lina, her niece, telling me the news. And yeah, I was in complete disbelief. Of course, Lina was still in disbelief. It was just a complete shock, of course.
AK: You’re in shock because she had been doing this for so many years.
JZ: Yeah, and she was so careful about herself, careful about her crew; you know, they live with the occupation as civilians and as journalists. So she knew exactly how to stay safe. She would always wear all of her equipment, she would always make sure she was in communication with the Israeli soldiers. As you saw in that video, they went, and when she was shot, they were making themselves known. Before they did anything, before they approached, they made sure that they were seeing that they were recognized, that they were at a distance where they can be seen as journalists. So it could have only happened really like this, where it was intentional.
AK: Obviously the Israelis say it was likely a soldier that that shot her by mistake. Or they also hold out the possibility that it wasn’t an Israeli soldier, although we know, given the reports and investigations by everyone, from the CPJ to CNN to Washington Post, The New York Times, to Forensic Architecture, that it was very clearly a soldier that killed her. But I’ve heard from you now, and Lina previously, and others, that this was targeted—that’s also what Forensic Architecture found. What’s the significance to you of that word? You don’t say she was just killed, you said that she was targeted.
JZ: I mean, in some ways it makes it harder. Because it means that instead of just mourning her, you know, we’re angry, and we’re seeking justice, and doing all these things that we shouldn’t have to do when we’re just mourning a loved one. And then it also means, as the CPJ report documented, it’s not unusual. It’s a pattern of behavior. And so, I guess it also means that we feel like it’s a great injustice, like it’s part of a series of great injustices, and some of those are things that Shireen documented, uncovered herself. So, it’s been hard to stomach that idea. It’s completely taken over our response to her death. She didn’t get in a car accident or something. It’s a targeted killing by a military occupying force that have done similar things before. So our approach is obviously to try to seek justice for her, and to try to have the behavior stop.
AK: When you say you’re seeking justice, can you just talk about what that looks like for you and the rest of the family?
JZ: So, from the beginning, we’ve been asking for an accountable and transparent process to find out who killed her and to seek justice up and down the chain of command—meaning the soldier all the way up to whoever in the government would have possibly sanctioned something. We’re going to pursue justice for her in every way possible. I mean, there’s the ICC, there’s the FBI investigation; we’re trying everything until we get justice for her.
AK: What would you say, the killing of Shireen, and the aftermath, says about how Israel treats Palestinians in general?
JZ: I think that Palestinian life is seen as without value. I think the Israeli narrative depends on the idea that somehow Palestinians exist—if they exist at all—only exist to basically be suppressed, to be kept out of the way, to not complicate things for them, with no acknowledgement that Palestinians have a robust and long history and are really fighting for their freedom and their basic rights. So I think that’s Shireen’s death is really a symbol of the ongoing attempts to always try to silence Palestinians or people that speak on behalf of what’s going on, people that are honest enough to say what’s happening, to describe the horrors, really, that Palestinians live under an occupation. And I think that that attempt to silence her, and the impunity, the ongoing impunity that is enjoyed by the military when they kill ceaselessly—I mean, 13, I think, people in Gaza killed, and the Israeli press and even a lot of the European and US press cover it as just talking about, you know, “Three militants were killed.” They don’t talk about the fact that children were killed, they don’t talk about the fact that it was in the middle of the night in the house; I mean, the family, the entire family is going to be killed if you bomb in the middle of the night while people are sleeping. So it’s a pattern of constantly making the point to Palestinians that they control every element of Palestinian life and death, and that they can kill at will, and I think that that’s the message, and I think they send it often. And I think they get to do that with relative impunity. So I think Shireen’s death is a really important time to seek accountability, because I think there are so many levels of egregiousness that the international community should step up and get involved as quickly as possible.
AK: And obviously, we’re talking about an American citizen, and we’re talking about Israel killing an American citizen in a military that receives $3.8 billion a year from the United States. What is your assessment of how the US has responded to the killing of Shireen by one of their closest allies?
JZ: I mean, President Biden was in Jerusalem shortly after shootings, death, and the family asked to meet with him there and he did not meet with them. And Biden, I think it was at the White House Correspondents Dinner, mentioned two journalists killed and did not mention Shireen. She’s a US citizen, why leave her out? A lot of the responses, official and unofficial, have been unsatisfactory. A lot of lip service, condolences and very light condemnations, but nothing with too much substance. Of course, the FBI investigation is separate from that. We’re hopeful that the FBI investigation will be something different, but it’s been a long wait.
AK: What do you and your family plan to do now and want to see happen now, one year, after Shireen’s death?
JZ: We really want the transparent process that seeks accountability for her to be completed. We want there to be focus on it, and we want accountability. We want to bring the people responsible for it to justice. We want everyone to keep talking about Shireen, we want the attempts to silence her not to have succeeded. So it’s very heartwarming for us that so many people all over the world have kept her memory alive, kept her alive through a variety of means. Schools have scholarships in her name to journalism departments for young women in the Middle East. There’s museums and exhibits, and talks, and lectures, and memorials, especially, of course, in Palestine that’s happening—and that’s the most meaningful, in a lot of ways. But it’s also critically important that everyone everywhere keeps talking about this, because it is a symbol of so much suffering, and we don’t want anyone else to suffer the same way we have this last year.
AK: Thank you so much for coming on and for her talking about her life so eloquently. I really appreciate it.
JZ: Thank you for having me.
AK: That’s all for our show. This was the latest episode of On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. As always, please share this episode, like it on your podcast apps. And, as always, go to JewishCurrents.org for more. See you next time.