Shireen Abu Akleh was killed close to over four months ago. More than seven separate investigations by media, human rights organizations, the Palestinian government, and the UN say it was Israeli forces who shot and killed her. The United States says she was ‘likely’ killed by Israeli forces. Israel does not. We hear from Palestinian journalists who were there when Shireen was killed and from people who know how Israel runs their investigations.
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In this episode:
- Shatha Hanaysha, freelance journalist, Middle East Eye
- Mujahed AlSa’di, freelance journalist
- Dror Sadot (@Dror_Sadot), a spokeswoman for the Israeli rights group B’Tselem
- Dan Owen, researcher at Yesh Din and the author of the position paper Investigating Themselves.
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: Hi, Halla Mohieddeen here! Today we are back from a summer hiatus. In the next few months, you won’t be hearing from Malika Bilal as often; she is out for a bit on maternity leave. But she left some stories we will listen to in the next few weeks.
Now, let’s start the show.
Halla Mohieddeen: Shireen Abu Akleh was killed almost four months ago now. In the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. She was there with her press vest and helmet to do her job, to cover the news.
Shatha Hanaysha: First. They shoot the building. Then they shoot Ali. Then they shoot Shireen and they still, shooting to me. They trying to shoot all the time. There is shooting come.
Halla Mohieddeen: And right there, next to Shireen, was Shatha Hanaysha. Now, she has one request.
Shatha Hanaysha: Prove the shooting. It’s for us, for the journalist, for Shireen. We need the justice.
Halla Mohieddeen: At this point, there have been half a dozen investigations, all pointing to the fact that Israeli snipers targeted Shireen. But neither the Israeli army nor the American government have come to that same conclusion – not definitively – not yet. So, according to Shireen’s family, Al Jazeera, Shatha, and everyone who loved her and watched her around the Arabic-speaking world – there’s more to be done.
Newsreel: The targeting of journalists in conflict zones is considered a war crime.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, today we’re looking at what happened with the Israeli investigation. Monday, we’ll look at the American one to find out what’s missing and what many people think went wrong.
Halla Mohieddeen: I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.
Shatha Hanaysha: That day 11 May, I remember that day very clear.
Shatha Hanaysha: Because I remember when I saw Shireen.
Halla Mohieddeen: Shatha Hanaysha is a Palestinian journalist from Jenin.
Shatha Hanaysha: I work with a Palestinian website called Ultra Palestine and I’m a freelance with Middle East Eye and some local, uh, websites. I remember, first of all, I remember when I woke up that morning my colleague called me and told me there is an operation in Jenin camp, wake up and I wake up and start checking my phone, trying to figure out what happened. I remember he asked me, do you want to go? And I told him yeah, yeah, of course I’m coming.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, Shatha started getting ready. It was still early. 5am. But she put on her bulletproof vest marked PRESS – With the big white capital letters on the front and back. And the matching dark blue helmet.
Shatha Hanaysha: And I remember when I arrived it was a quiet day and I asked my colleagues: where’s the soldiers? Where’s the army? Everything was quiet.
Halla Mohieddeen: Then the Al Jazeera team arrived Shatha says. First, Ali Samudi, the producer.
Shatha Hanaysha: And Ali come to tell us that Shireen, she’s coming, wait a few minutes.
Halla Mohieddeen: So of course, they waited. Shireen Abu Akleh wasn’t just a colleague – she was Shatha’s hero. Shatha’s 29 and she grew up watching Shireen.
Shatha Hanaysha: Shireen. The one I always saw in the TV.
Shireen Abu Akleh: Shireen Abu Akleh. Al Jazeera, Al Bireh. Palestine.
Shireen Abu Akleh Al Jazeera Ramallah, Palestine.
Shatha Hanaysha: And I always saw her speaking about what happened going here and there from camp to the city to the village around Palestine.
Halla Mohieddeen: For 25 years Shatha had been watching Shireen.
Shatha Hanaysha: When I was young, I was acting like her, speaking like her, doing what she do in the TV.
Halla Mohieddeen: Known to the world by her famous tagline.
Shireen Abu Akleh: Shireen Abu Akleh, Al-Jazeera, Al Quds, Falastin.
Halla Mohieddeen: It wasn’t until two years ago that Shatha got to know her as … just … Shireen.
Shatha Hanaysha: My first time I went to Shireen, I introduced myself. I told her I work as a journalist and she was very kind with me.
Halla Mohieddeen: Then – a little later – she met Shireen again.
Shatha Hanaysha: When she saw me, she said: Hi Shatha, how are you? And I was shocked. Oh, my God, she remembered me. And this was amazing. And I remember I told my family and they told me: wow, she’s become your colleague now.
Halla Mohieddeen: May 11th would be the third time the two would meet.
Shatha Hanaysha: And then when Shireen comes we start walking in that side street. Everything was quiet. There is no clashes, no boys who throw stones and we start laughing together, joking and I remember that morning, very clear because I remember how happy we were all of us, and the guys in the street they were joking with us and they asking us about if they can come with us. And we told ’em: no, no, it’s not safe. I ask my colleague Mujahed where is the soldiers? And he told me, you don’t see them? And I just moved my head a little bit and I saw them.
Halla Mohieddeen: Mujahed is another colleague. He works for several Arabic channels and he also knows Shireen.
Mujahed AlSa’adi: I knew about Shireen since I was a kid – that’s 20 years now, specifically since about the year 2000, when she became really well known for how strong she was on Al Jazeera. She and I became close over the last three years and especially over the last year. She was calm. Really professional, really balanced in her work. She never liked loud noises. She belonged to Palestine, and to her hometown Jerusalem. Shireen really respected humanity.
Halla Mohieddeen: He told us the same story Shatha had about that morning.
Mujahed AlSa’adi: At around 5:45 in the morning we reached the area together where the Israeli occupation army was conducting the raid. We waited there for a while until we met up with our colleague Shatha Hanaysheh, who’s another journalist, and Ali Samoudi, who sometimes worked with Al Jazeera as a producer.
Halla Mohieddeen: They knew where the soldiers were – but they were trying to make sure if things started to kick off the soldiers saw them. They were pretty obvious, Shatha said.
Shatha Hanaysha: We were six people, six journalists, all of us wearing the vest that had a big press on it. And we stand there to take photos, videos, to know what happened around and it’s near a building and we hear the first shot.
Mujahed AlSa’adi: The occupation forces started shooting at us. And as soon as they started shooting, I told Shireen and my other colleagues, “They’re shooting at us! We’re the targets!”
Shatha Hanaysha: And that’s when Mujahed start screaming and told us that they’re shooting on us and told us come here. I told him I can’t come because of the vest, the media vest. And I told him the media vest is heavy.
Mujahed AlSa’adi: As soon as I realised what was happening, I jumped behind the wall that was next to the street we were walking on.
Shatha Hanaysha: When the shooting start, we run from that vehicles from the Israeli occupation vehicles, we run from them. When I hide to the tree, I hide from them. They know that we are journalists. They shooting us. And then I start returning with Shireen.
Mujahed AlSa’adi: The first bullet hit the building. The second bullet hit our colleague Ali. After that, I remember hearing screams from Shatha. Then Shireen’s voice. She said Ali had been hit. She said it calmly.
Shatha Hanaysha: Then Shireen told me that Ali got injured. And I’m hiding from the Israeli soldiers until now I can’t remember how I reached the tree.
Halla Mohieddeen: If you’ve seen any of the coverage of what happened that day. You’ve seen the big carob tree. Shireen was on one side and Shatha was on the other.
Shatha Hanaysha: I remember just standing next to the tree and looking to Shireen waiting her to come.
[SOUNDS OF THAT DAY]
Halla Mohieddeen: But the bullets came first.
Mujahed AlSa’adi: The third bullet was the one that hit Shireen in the head.
Shatha Hanaysha: And then I saw Shireen, when she fall to the ground, I thought maybe she just fall. I was trying to reach Shireen, there is shooting coming to us. I trying to touch Shireen there is shooting come, when the guy who helped us. When he tried to come from the middle of the street, there is shooting, and when I saw her, she didn’t move ever.
Halla Mohieddeen: Eventually, someone led Shatha over a wall to safety and went back for Shireen. She’d been shot in the head between her press vest and the helmet. The ambulance arrived. She was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead.
Shatha Hanaysha: Until now everything I do in my life. I just think about Shireen. I think about that moment when she was next to me in the ground. We need justice for her. We need to know who shoot her, who kill her, who tried to kill me, who shoot Ali, who tried to kill my colleague Mujahed who shooting, and who killed Shireen.
Halla Mohieddeen: For Shatha, it’s clear.
Shatha Hanaysha: The Israeli soldiers shooting us, they saw us. I’m very sure that they saw us all the bullets come they shoot to us.
Halla Mohieddeen: Mujahed also has no doubt.
Mujahed AlSa’adi: But there’s another question. Who gave the order to shoot? The shooter might have just been a soldier carrying out an order to shoot journalists, but it wasn’t his personal call. Who gave the order?
Halla Mohieddeen: What did the Israelis find out? Stick with us – we’ll be right back after the break.
Halla Mohieddeen: CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, AP, the investigative journalists at Bellingcat, the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, and the United Nations all point to Israeli soldiers as the ones who shot Shireen.
Ravina Shamdasani is the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ravina Shamdasani: All the information we have gathered, including official documentation from the Israeli military and the Palestinian attorney general is consistent with the finding that the shots that killed Abu and injured her colleague came from Israeli security forces and not from indiscriminate firing by armed Palestinians as was initially claimed by the Israeli authorities.
Halla Mohieddeen: The Palestinian Authority added they were targeted attacks.
Nida’ Ibrahim: The attorney general here said that they were more than 160 centimetres, which means that they were targeted to kill.
Halla Mohieddeen: They refused to cooperate in a joint investigation with Israel saying Israel was unable to investigate themselves and passed the bullet onto American authorities over the fourth of July weekend. The US State Department said Israeli gunfire was quote, likely responsible for Shireen Abu Akleh’s death. But Israeli authorities claim they tested the bullet while it was in American custody at Israeli labs despite the Palestinian Authority.
Newsreel: Inconclusive. That’s the result of a long-awaited and long-disputed probe into the bullet that killed Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May.
Halla Mohieddeen: How did this happen and why? That’s what we wanted to find out – so we started with Dror Sadot. An Israeli who works with the Israeli rights group B’tselem.
Dror Sadot: And one of the things we’re doing is investigate cases of Palestinian fatalities in the west bank in Gaza.
Halla Mohieddeen: The first tweet from the Israeli military on May 11th – about a Palestinian journalist being shot in Jenin said there would be an investigation. But Dror was sceptical even before that. In fact, B’tselem started their own investigation just moments after hearing Shireen had been shot.
Dror Sadot: Basically after we heard reports there was a killing in Jenin and that the journalist, that Shireen, was killed our field researcher went to the field and, the same morning after the killing, the army and also the prime minister, then Naftali Bennett, they kept on, posting video of Palestinians shooting, as if those are the ones who killed Shireen Abu Akleh.
Halla Mohieddeen: Dror had an investigator in the field, and as they watched this video -which was put out by the Israeli government- they sent their investigator to that same location where the government video was shot.
Dror Sadot: So our field researcher in Jenin went to the same exact place. And it was far, far away and with a lot of walls in the middle so it was obvious that there was no connection between this footage and the killing of Shireen.
Halla Mohieddeen: Within hours B’Tselem had their own diagrams, videos and article up on social media showing that what the Israelis were putting out there just wasn’t true.
Dror Sadot: It was very important for us to respond quickly, to the situation, to show how the Israel propaganda works.
Halla Mohieddeen: But going forward, Dror didn’t have a lot of faith that Israel would do a better job. They look at the deaths of Palestinians killed by the Israeli military all the time.
Dror Sadot: And we can say clearly that there is no truthful investigation in the side of Israel. We have decades of experience, showing that the Israeli enforcement system has nothing to do with justice or finding out the truth.
Dan Owen: Israel just understands that it can continue, with the occupation and what follows, which is obviously, situations like the one in which Shireen Abu Akleh was killed.
Halla Mohieddeen: Dan Owen is also Israeli and the author of a report with the Israeli rights group, Yesh Din, digging into the policy of Israel’s military when it comes to these sorts of investigations.
Dan Owen: In many cases, we have access to the investigation materials.
Halla Mohieddeen: But Dan was struck by Israel’s response in this case.
Dan Owen: I was honestly surprised when they decided not to open an investigation. They’re not even trying to keep this facade anymore, a journalist, has been killed in the Israeli military says that there’s nothing to investigate.
Halla Mohieddeen: In 2011, the Israeli military changed its policy, so any death of a Palestinian who was killed by soldiers in the West Bank will require the immediate opening of a criminal investigation. This is only for situations that are not of real combat nature. But Dan says this is very subjective.
Dan Owen: That’s very much subjective. We do know that soldiers are allowed to shoot, and even kill Palestinians when they feel their lives or the lives of their surroundings are in immediate danger.
Halla Mohieddeen: And even if an investigation is opened, it’s just a preliminary investigation.
Dan Owen: This is not a criminal investigation. This would be a complaint in most cases, then the military advocate general will decide whether or not to open an investigation. From our report regarding 2019-2020, the military received 273 complaints, alright, regarding violence against Palestinians or destruction of property by soldiers. Out of these 273 complaints, only 56 investigations were opened. Now out of these 56 investigations, only four led to an indictment of soldiers.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s worth repeating – only four led to an indictment.
Dan Owen: In most cases, the investigation is mostly, talking to the victim or talking to one of the soldiers investigating, holding an interview with one of the soldiers. It really, it differs between case to case. But, as a whole, I can say most investigations are just a complete failure. They are nothing like a criminal investigation that you’re used to seeing within the police.
Halla Mohieddeen: All of this is what happens in the cases Dan’s looked at. Dan hasn’t looked into the specifics of Israel’s investigation into what happened to Shireen.
Halla Mohieddeen: We spoke with Shatha, Muhajed and other witnesses. None of them were contacted by the Israeli authorities. The Palestinian Authority interviewed witnesses. They took measurements. And they came to the conclusion that Israeli forces targeted Shireen. CNN had an expert look at the bullet markings on the Carob tree. The New York Times visited the site four times and consulted with an acoustics expert in Montana. They also came to the conclusion that Israeli shooters, not Palestinians, fired the shots. Israel could do a more thorough investigation Dan says.
Dan Owen: Based upon basically the operation debriefing within the unit.
Halla Mohieddeen: We spoke with a former soldier who confirmed that almost everything that happens in the Israeli army is documented. For instance, in the case of Shireen – the Israeli army says they have the weapon that was used, they released some of the soldiers’ body camera footage that they say is from that day.
Dan Owen: Any unit within the army, especially combatant ones, they have like operational tools, which record, beginning with the use of weapons, how many bullets were shot et cetera, et cetera.
Halla Mohieddeen: Dan’s seen this evidence used.
Dan Owen: Then in many cases, the investigation, or even the preliminary inquiry will rely heavily upon these operational debriefings, which record all this data concerning the operations.
Halla Mohieddeen: We reached out to the Israeli military, by phone and email. They did not respond. But in a press statement, they say, quote “soldiers did not recognise journalists in the area throughout the activity and certainly did not deliberately fire at journalists.” They also say their investigation is not done. In their preliminary investigation, they claim a soldier who they have not identified with the elite Duvdevan unit fired in the direction of Shireen. They say he thought he was firing at gunmen near the journalists. The MDT David vehicles at the scene can hold up to eight soldiers. Based on what he’s seen, Dan says the military has the means to know exactly who fired at Shireen but lack the will to investigate this shooting.
Dan Owen: Behind the soldier, there’s a whole system, leading to that moment where the soldier opens fire upon a Palestinian teen or woman or…
Halla Mohieddeen: Or a journalist.
Dan Owen: And that system is the same system that is supposed to investigate the soldier. So when it comes to investigating who gave the orders who’s responsible for allowing soldiers to open fire at Palestinians who are not any kind of threat, the Israeli army is supposed to investigate itself.
Halla Mohieddeen: The Duvdevan unit has been described as a secret extermination unit. Soldiers often go undercover disguising themselves as Palestinians. It was described to us by a former member of the military as “mosquito-like” – extremely precise. But when it comes to identifying who shot and killed Shireen Abu-Akleh – they’ve come up short. And Dan says that’s exactly what Israel wants. He explains this using a high-profile case of an Israeli officer shooting a Palestinian child in the back at close range in 2020.
Dan Owen: This is a high-ranking officer. It’s not a small soldier. He calmly walked outside the Jeep, chased the child and shot him in the back and killed him on the spot, went back to the Jeep and drove off. So he was about to be promoted. There was a petition against that, and the petition was denied, and he got his promotion.
Halla Mohieddeen: We also spoke with an Israeli journalist who was shot by the military. He did not want to be interviewed but he told us that he gave up on the case in the courts. Even for members of the Israeli military who are shot and killed by other soldiers – going up against your own is tough.
Dan Owen: No one within the Israeli public seems to question how come soldiers open fire so easily at another person, resulting in death. Nobody actually asks that question.
Halla Mohieddeen: Shatha, Mujahed, Al Jazeera and the family of Shireen Abu Akleh and her millions of fans throughout the Arab world haven’t given up though.
Shatha Hanaysha: We deserve to know but I know that they don’t want anyone to speak about what happened. They don’t want anyone to tell the truth about what really happened in Palestine.
Halla Mohieddeen: Al Jazeera’s taken the case to the International Criminal Court and as you’ll hear on Monday, Shireen’s family is pushing for justice from the United States and Dan says – that may offer hope.
Dan Owen: First off an American investigation would be very welcomed. This would be nothing like an Israeli investigation. This would be an investigation that is external that can actually reach some sort of truth and can actually get some type of accountability. Israel is very much dependent on the US when it comes to almost anything security, economics, etc. I believe the US has a lot of power when it comes to changing policies and actions that Israel has been doing for the past 55 years.
Halla Mohieddeen: On Monday we’ll have part two – the American investigation.
Halla Mohieddeen: For now, that’s the Take.
This episode was produced by Amy Walters with Negin Owliaei, Ruby Zaman, Alexandra Locke, Chloe K Li and me, Halla Moheideen. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan and our engagement producers are Aya Elmeleik and Adam Abou-Gad. Ney Alvarez is our head of audio.
We’ll be back.
Host: Halla Mohieddeen
This episode was produced by Amy Walters and Negin Owliaei with Ruby Zaman, Chloe K. Li, and Alexandra Locke. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Aya Elmileik is the lead engagement producer and Adam Abou-Gad is the assistant engagement producer. Ney Alvarez is our Head of Audio.