Did Israelis or Palestinians kill Al Jazeera Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh?

Let’s be clear — even if Israeli fire did kill Abu Akleh, there is no evidence whatsoever that Israelis deliberately targeted her.
Mourners attend the funeral of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh on May 13, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

As soon as the news of the death of Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh broke out, two completely different narratives of the story immediately followed. And it was so predictable, wasn’t it? Without seeing the evidence or knowing what happened, immediately we all knew exactly what was going to happen next.

In one version, IDF soldiers entered the West Bank city of Jenin to arrest Palestinians suspected of planning terror attacks, after a wave of terror that has killed 19 Israelis since March 22. Abu Akleh was either killed by Palestinian fire, or it was possible that she was hit by errant Israeli fire, and it was still unclear which of those two scenarios happened.

In another, very different version, “Israeli occupation forces” had wrongfully entered Jenin. They “deliberately killed” Abu Akleh at the “order” of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Additionally, “all indications, evidence and witnesses confirm her assassination by Israeli special units.”

Let’s also be clear right out of the gate — even if Israeli fire did kill Abu Akleh, there is no evidence whatsoever that Israelis deliberately targeted her.

As we often say at Unpacked, facts matter. The truth matters. In each article, video and podcast we create, we want our readers not only to see different perspectives, but to get the facts of what happened.

This being said, facts are not the only thing that matters — the stories that we tell also matter. 

What I mean by this is, how are the facts interpreted? Which facts are included and which are ignored or downplayed? Or is this something altogether different — is this a story of lies, propaganda and fake news?

Facts matter and narratives matter. It’s the immediate judgment of what happened, absent all the facts, and the implications that are so dangerous.

So, this week, we decided to do something a little different. We wanted to unpack Abu Akleh’s death and funeral through the lens of Israelis and Palestinians, showcasing different voices from each group to create a sense of each “narrative.”

To be clear, there is no such thing as the Israeli or the Palestinian version of the story, but we have taken some creative liberty to paint a picture of an account each side might hear in the news.

Whether or not she was killed by an Israeli soldier, there is one thing that is certain. Israel has, time and time again, demonstrated that it is willing to look inward when something bad happens.

Whether it was the case of Elor Azaria, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila or at Kafr Qasim, Israel has a history of investigating what happened, looking inward, and uncovering the truth. It has demonstrated that it is willing to hold itself accountable in this case too.

So, who killed Al Jazeera journalist Abu Akleh? Below are two different narratives of the same story.

Israeli narratives of Abu Akleh’s death and funeral

In one version of the events, IDF soldiers went to Jenin in an operation to prevent more terror attacks against Israelis.

As Times of Israel editor David Horovitz pointed out, several of the recent terror attacks that have killed 19 people since March — including the shootings of three Israelis at a Tel Aviv bar last month, and the axe murders of three more Israelis in Elad last week — were carried out by Palestinians from Jenin and the surrounding area.

“During the operation in Jenin refugee camp, suspects fired an enormous amount of gunfire at troops and hurled improvised explosive devices. Forces fired back with live fire,” the Israeli military said in a statement. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi described the resistance they met as “wild, indiscriminate” Palestinian fire.

Yehuda Fuchs, the general in charge of the area that includes Jenin, told Channel 12 that “hundreds, even thousands of bullets” were fired by both sides in the gun battle, adding, “I don’t know which bullet” hit Abu Akleh.

“In 99% of the operations against terror in urban areas, including in Jenin where we are fired on in all directions, we don’t hit innocents, we succeed at that,” Fuchs added. 

“But sometimes… when you’re fighting in a refugee camp, and dozens of [gunmen] are coming at you and firing from 270 degrees, from almost all directions, sometimes innocent people do get harmed. The journalist Shireen, who was really very close to the line where the forces were — ours and the Palestinian terrorists — was hurt there.”

For several hours after the incident, Israeli political and military officials said that it was likely that Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian fire. Later, however, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and other Israeli officials clarified that it could have been “the Palestinians who shot her,” or errant fire from “our side,” Gantz said.

Israeli officials said that they are currently unable to determine which of these two scenarios happened because the Palestinian Authority refused Israel’s request to conduct a joint investigation and hand over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh.

(“Those who have nothing to hide do not refuse to cooperate,” Israel’s Army Radio quoted unnamed Israeli officials saying in response.)

Without the bullet, the Israeli government cannot yet determine what happened, Israeli officials explained.

Then, two days after Abu Akleh’s death, videos and images began circulating of Israeli police beating mourners carrying her casket and firing stun grenades into the crowd, during the start of her funeral procession.

Friday night, the Israel Police said in a statement that they intervened because a mob had seized the casket:

“Israeli police intervened to disperse the mob and prevent them from taking the coffin, so that the funeral could proceed as planned in accordance with the wishes of the family.” They also said that the mourners had been throwing rocks and other objects at the police, forcing them to intervene.

(In an interview with The Times of Israel on Sunday, Abu Akleh’s brother called the Israeli police account of the violence “illogical” and “untrue.”)

On Saturday, Israel Police announced that it would investigate the officers’ actions at the funeral. On Sunday, unidentified police sources told Haaretz that officers had been ordered to confiscate all Palestinian flags at the funeral, leading to the clashes with the mourners.

The police issued a statement saying that enforcement at the funeral “was carried out in accordance with the law,” and that action was taken “against suspects who waved PLO flags while making calls for incitement and riots,” Haaretz reported.

(Guidelines from the attorney general are that police should attempt to take down a flag only when there is “a high probability that waving the flag will lead to a severe disturbance of the peace,” Haaretz reported.)

Meanwhile, Israeli officials have expressed sorrow over the Al Jazeera reporter’s death and called for more investigations to get to the bottom of what happened. Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel said claims that the IDF was responsible were “not based on an investigation or facts, but on propaganda.”

Israeli writer and activist Hen Mazzig described how many Israelis view the situation this way: 

“The Israel government wants to investigate and find out as much information as possible about a journalist killed in a war zone. The Palestinian leadership wants to stop any joint investigation and prevent the public from learning any facts.”

Palestinian and Arab narratives of Abu Akleh’s death and funeral

The other narrative looks very different. In this version, not only was Abu Akleh “shot by Israeli troops rather than hit by indiscriminate Palestinian gunfire, but [she was] deliberately targeted by Israel in order to silence the voice of the Palestinians,” Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote.

Al Jazeera, for example, said in a statement the day that Abu Akleh was killed: 

“We condemn this heinous crime, intended to prevent the media from carrying out its message, and we hold the Israeli government and the occupation forces responsible for her death…We call on the international community to condemn and hold the Israeli occupation forces accountable for the deliberate killing of our colleague Shireen Abu Akleh.

Similarly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of “executing” the reporter, vowing to bring the matter to the International Criminal Court at The Hague to “punish the criminals.”

“We have rejected a joint investigation with the Israeli authorities because they are the ones who committed the crime,” Abbas explained. Another PA official added that they refused the joint probe because “all indications, evidence and witnesses confirm her assassination by Israeli special units.”

Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official, went even further. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he called Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett a Nazi and accused him of giving the “order” to kill the journalist.

Later, after Abu Akleh’s funeral, Arab Joint List Knesset member Ahmad Tibi said in an interview:

“Shireen was shot and killed three times: the first, when she was shot in the head, the second, when it was announced soon after that Palestinians shot her, and the third, when her funeral was attacked in such a barbaric way.”

Palestinian officials announced that they conducted an autopsy and recovered the bullet that killed her, but said that “it is currently not possible to determine who carried out the shooting. The bullet will be examined by experts.”

Meanwhile, younger Palestinians reflected on how Abu Akleh was an icon and hero for their generation. One Palestinian activist, Yanal Jabarin, said in an interview with Al-Monitor

“Shireen was a hero. She was a teacher and a guide for every young person who entered the media and wanted her help…I enjoyed watching her…She entered every Palestinian home.”

Similarly, in a Haaretz op-ed, Palestinian journalist Hanin Majadli wrote: “Abu Akleh wasn’t just another very professional journalist or a great reporter, she was the voice of my generation. She shaped our political consciousness to a large degree.”

“Israelis don’t understand the depth of our anger and sadness,” Majadli added. “For us, the Palestinians, Shireen Abu Akleh was a legend. The entire Palestinian nation, in its homeland that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea…feel a sense of collective grief.”

Diversity of perspectives

How did Israelis react to the news? As the story of Abu Akleh’s death and funeral continued to unfold, Israelis shared their perspectives on Israeli police actions at the funeral, how the story was being covered in the media, and whether Jews should mourn the death of an Al Jazeera reporter.

“To the Israel Police: It’s not a crime in the State of Israel to fly the Palestinian flag, it’s not a crime to chant slogans (of whatever nationality), it’s not a crime to hold a funeral procession. Behavior of forces in Jerusalem today is disgraceful,” Israeli journalist Neri Zilber tweeted.

Similarly, Haaretz correspondent Nir Hasson argued that the actions of Israeli police reveal a deeper issue: “The real problem lies not in the way this incident is perceived by the world, but in the unjustified use of violence by the police,” he wrote in Haaretz.

The Jerusalem Post Editorial Board agreed that “it’s time to revamp the Israel Police.” They connected the actions of Israel’s police at Abu Akleh’s funeral to the disaster at Mount Meron last year in which 45 people were killed, arguing that a “responsible police would have known how to prevent” the tragedy.

Meanwhile, others focused on what they viewed as disproportionate media coverage of Abu Akleh’s death relative to other journalists killed in war zones. 

For instance, one video published by the Israel Advocacy Movement showed that a Google search for “Abu Akleh” produced significantly more results compared with four other journalists who were recently killed in Ukraine and Afghanistan:

Similarly, actor Jonah Platt argued that the world reacts very differently to Israelis’ wrongdoings (assuming that an Israeli soldier did kill Abu Akleh) compared to Palestinians’ wrongdoings, tweeting:

“The problem is that when the Israelis do something bad, everyone says, ‘See? Israel is BAD.’ When Palestinians do something bad (like, say, murder 20+ innocent civilians via terrorism in the last 2-3 weeks) everyone says… Nothing. They say absolutely nothing.”

Meanwhile, in an Arutz Sheva op-ed, Moshe Phillips, a commentator on Jewish affairs, posed the question of whether Jews should mourn Abu Akleh’s death given that she worked for Al Jazeera, calling it “an openly antisemitic media network” that is funded by the government of Qatar.

Phillips cited a 2018 op-ed by Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who described Al Jazeera as “downright hateful to the Jewish people” and “a major exporter of hateful content against the Jewish people, Israel, and the United States.”

“So while I’m not organizing any parties to celebrate Akleh’s death, and I would certainly not have proposed seeking her death, please excuse me if I don’t sit shiva for [Abu Akleh],” Philips concluded.