Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder hurts oppressed people

The journalist is among more than 50 reporters who have died at the hands of the Israeli regime and is remembered for bravely giving a voice to Palestinians.

The world is appalled by the brutal killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, yet another Palestinian journalist who has been killed by Israeli military forces. She worked for Al Jazeera Arabic and was shot and killed in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, on 11 May. 

Born in Jerusalem in 1971, Abu Akleh studied journalism in Jordan and worked for several news outlets in Palestine and Jordan. She became a household name around the world and inspired hundreds of journalists, especially after her coverage of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2000. 

“I chose journalism to be close to the people. It might not be easy to change the reality, but at least I could bring their voice to the world,” she said recently.

Israel, in line with its strategy of managing the narrative of occupation, routinely targets and kills journalists. It has killed more than 50 Palestinian journalists in the past two decades and injured close to 150 in the past four years alone. 

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While the number of Palestinian journalists killed is disproportionally high, it’s worth noting that more than 554 journalists have been killed around the world in the past decade. The work of journalism and recording the first rough drafts of history has become worryingly dangerous in many countries.

The killing of Abu Akleh, a champion of telling stories from the front lines of the Israeli occupation, came ahead of preparations to commemorate 74 years of Israeli occupation on 15 May. She would have been getting ready to remind the world that Palestinians have endured occupation, dispossession and oppression since the Nakba, or catastrophe, in 1948, when Israel started its forced removals of Palestinians and its destruction of Palestinian society. 

A cataclysmic day

Many still remember the Nakba. Palestinian Ali Hamoudi was eight years old at the time. “I remember I had to hide with my family in a cave near my house for nine days. There were seven of us in the cave and not much room to move around. We could hear the Israelis passing, but they couldn’t see us because the cave was hidden.”

The cogent and eloquent defender of the Palestinians, the late Edward Said, also recalled how in 1948 his entire family became refugees. “None of the older members of my family ever recovered from the trauma,” he wrote in The Politics of Dispossession.

A few years before his death, Said commented: “I still find myself astonished at the lengths to which official Israel and its supporters will go to suppress the fact that decades have gone by without Israeli restitution, recognition or acknowledgment of Palestinian human rights … The Palestinian Nakba is characterised as a semi-fictional event … caused by no one in particular.”

At the end of World War II, the tide was beginning to turn against colonialism. Beginning with India in 1947 and then picking up with Ghana 10 years later, the “winds of change” brought new nations into being across the previously colonised world. But two countries were resisting those winds. Settler colonialism was entrenched in South Africa in 1948 as apartheid began and in Palestine as the state of Israel was formed. 

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Today the Palestinians are waging the last national liberation struggle against a European settler colonial regime. In South Africa, our struggle also continued well beyond the period in which most colonised countries won their independence, and so Palestinian and South African activists became close during the 1970s and 1980s. The ANC and the Palestinian Liberation Organization were often united in international platforms, often with the Irish Republican Army too.

Nelson Mandela is much maligned today, but on international issues such as Palestine and Cuba he took firm positions against Western imperialism. Just 16 days after he was released from prison, Mandela met with Yasser Arafat in Lusaka, Zambia. At the city’s airport, Mandela embraced Arafat and reiterated his support for the Palestinian struggle. “I believe that there are many similarities between our struggle and that of the people of Palestine,” he told the media.

Eight months later, during his three-day visit to Australia in October 1990, Mandela said: “We identify with them [the Palestinians] because we do not believe it is right for the Israeli government to suppress basic human rights in the conquered territories. We agree with the United Nations that international disputes should be settled by peaceful means. The belligerent attitude adopted by the Israeli government is unacceptable to us.” Mandela also famously said that “South Africa will not be free until the Palestinians are free”. 

Choosing one’s battles

Journalism is never a neutral practice. Every journalist makes moment-to-moment decisions – political decisions – about which stories to cover and how. There is a great tradition of radical journalists who, adhering to the highest principles of the craft, have written in the service of emancipation. In South Africa we have superb examples in people like Sol Plaatje, Ruth First and many others. 

Abu Akleh was always scrupulous about facts, but she did not indulge the liberal pretence of neutrality, let alone being, as most journalists around the world are, a stenographer for the powerful. She was an asset for the cause of oppressed people. 

The mainstream media, in countries like the United States that claim to champion free speech and media freedom, has covered Abu Akleh in a way that has left freedom-loving people around the world saddened and disillusioned. Not even the inhumane and barbaric treatment of her casket received the kind of condemnation one would expect from the media in many developed societies. 

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It seemed like Abu Akleh was an unworthy victim. As the famous intellectual heavyweight Noam Chomsky reminds us, “… worthy victims will be featured prominently and dramatically, that they will be humanised, and that their victimisation will receive the detail and context in story construction that will generate reader interest and sympathetic emotion. In contrast, unworthy victims will merit only slight detail, minimal humanisation and little context that will excite and enrage.”

The Israeli state likes to claim that it is a democracy encircled by hostile forces, implicitly presented as barbarians at the walls of the city. No democracy murders journalists. No democracy shows such disrespect for the dead. No democracy bombs cities. No democracy drives people out of their homes and off their land. 

In a United Nations report some years ago, international law expert John Dugard said Israel was unwilling to learn from South Africa and observed that the human rights situation in the occupied territories continued to deteriorate. Dugard drew shocking parallels between Palestine and South Africa, saying that the “large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, levelling of agricultural lands, military incursions and targeted assassinations of Palestinians far exceeded any similar practices in apartheid South Africa”.

The murder of Abu Akleh calls to mind Weeping, the great anti-apartheid anthem by Cape Town band Bright Blue, which in turn has echoes of JM Coetzee’s brilliant novel Waiting for the Barbarians. The book takes its title from the 1904 poem Waiting for the Barbarians by the sublime Greek poet Constantine P Cavafy, who wrote: “It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping.”

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