The Hague, Netherlands – On a cloudy Tuesday morning Al Jazeera submitted the results of a six-month investigation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as part of a formal request to investigate the killing of veteran Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces.
On May 11, Abu Akleh and her colleagues were fired upon by Israeli forces in Jenin in the occupied West Bank. They were wearing protective helmets and vests clearly marked “Press”.
Abu Akleh’s dedicated coverage of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories had given a voice to Palestinians and made her a household name in the Arab world. She was 51 years old when she was killed.
Abu Akleh’s family members and former colleagues, lawyers and members of press freedom and rights organisations had gathered in The Hague to call on the ICC to hold those responsible for her killing accountable – and to take on a case that many believe has implications for the future of Palestinian journalists.
‘Time to take action’
Speaking at a press conference held shortly after the request had been submitted to the ICC, Lina, Abu Akleh’s niece, said her family supported the network’s request for an investigation.
Al Jazeera, where Abu Akleh worked for 25 years, was “like her second family” said Lina.
“It’s past time for justice for Shireen and for every Palestinian that has been killed by the Israeli army,” she said.
“The evidence is overwhelmingly clear. It’s time for the ICC to take action.”
Speaking at the same press conference, Rodney Dixon KC, a lawyer for Al Jazeera who investigated Abu Akleh’s killing and submitted the dossier of findings to the ICC, said her death was the culmination of other attacks on Al Jazeera and its journalists, including the bombing of the network’s Gaza offices in May 2021.
The evidence points to a “wider pattern and policy” to silence the network in Palestine, said Dixon.
“So there’s … no reason to say this is only an isolated incident and not one for the ICC,” he explained.
“And that’s why we are asking the prosecutor to look both at crimes against humanity and war crimes,” he added.
‘A line drawn’
Lina, who wore a badge with Abu Akleh’s picture on it, told the packed press conference that she wanted to know not only who had shot her aunt but “who was involved in the chain of command that allowed them to kill my aunt”.
Dixon stressed that the prosecution must go up the chain of command and also look at those who oversaw or failed to prevent Abu Akleh’s killing. It would serve as a deterrence, he said, so that perpetrators will know they cannot get away with such acts. “There has to be a line drawn,” he told Al Jazeera.
Israel has shifted its narrative on the killing of Abu Akleh, initially blaming a Palestinian gunman, before months later saying there is a “high possibility” she was “accidentally hit” by Israeli fire. Israel says it will not launch a criminal investigation.
“No one will interrogate IDF soldiers and no one will preach to us about morals of combat, certainly not the Al Jazeera Network,” Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid said on Tuesday, using the acronym for the Israeli armed forces.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz expressed condolences to the Abu Akleh family and said Israel’s military operates at “the highest standards”.
“The ICC should focus on its core mission. And that core mission is of serving as a court of last resort in punishing and deterring atrocity crimes,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.
‘We need to protect ourselves’
For Walid al-Omari, Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau chief and a longtime colleague of Abu Akleh who called her a friend and a sister, the pursuit of justice for Abu Akleh is also about protecting other journalists.
“We need to protect ourselves because they will continue,” he told the press conference. “Our issue here, our case, is not against the soldier who pressed the trigger. It’s a systematic policy, that they continue shooting and attacking journalists.”
Israel could not keep acting as though it was “above international law,” he added.
Abu Akleh and the other journalists shot at that morning were “walking just to do their job,” he said.
Before the press conference, he described how her death had left a “huge gap”. Many mornings at 7.30am, when he arrives at the bureau – where people frequently come to mourn Abu Akleh and leave flowers – he finds her colleagues crying, al-Omari explained.
Safety of journalists
Frane Maroevic, the executive director of the International Press Institute (IPI), told the press conference that the IPI welcomed the submissions by Al Jazeera and Abu Akleh’s family to the ICC.
He reflected on how her killing had sent shockwaves across the international journalism community and press freedom organisations.
Maroevic pointed out that, according to UNESCO, at least 18 Palestinian journalists have been killed since 2002, with many more attacked or had their equipment destroyed. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Information, since 2000, at least 45 journalists have been killed by Israeli forces.
“Authorities are legally bound under international law and human rights law to ensure the safety of journalists, even in situations of conflict, and a deliberate attack on a journalist can constitute even a war crime,” he said.
Reporters Without Borders also called for the ICC to take action.
“Shireen’s murder is not the first case of a journalist targeted by IDF. We fear it is not the last one as long as justice is not served – independent, impartial, effective justice,” Antoine Bernard, the director of advocacy and assistance at Reporters Without Borders, told the audience.
A lack of justice in Palestine means a “blank cheque” for crime repetition, he later explained to Al Jazeera.
“It is absolutely key that crimes against journalists be countered by independent effective justice. A justice that is done, and seen to be done.”
‘Everybody will know there is justice’
Standing alongside his daughter Lina, a badge with his sister’s picture pinned to the lapel of his grey, wool coat, Anton said that it was an important day for the family, which had submitted a complaint to the ICC in September. “We are seeking every legal action we are capable of to pursue justice and accountability for Shireen,” said the older brother of Abu Akleh.
Justice is important, he added, as his sister had devoted her life to reporting on the abuses endured by Palestinians under Israeli occupation. “She was silenced because the Israeli army doesn’t want these reports to come out. They silenced her,” he explained. “And by taking justice, by holding the Israeli army accountable for their crimes, everybody will know that there is justice served in the world.”
Speaking a couple of days before Al Jazeera submitted its ICC request, seated in the ground floor café of a hotel, a World Cup match playing in the background, Lina recounted how as a young girl she would practice her aunt’s sign-offs with her Barbie phone. The sense of justice that Abu Akleh instilled in her is what Lina says motivates her to press on today.
“What keeps me going, is knowing that she would have done the same if it was any other family member, friend, colleague. She would have tirelessly fought for justice, because she was optimistic, always, that justice will prevail.
“… This is why we are here. It is the least we can do for Shireen,” she added.