What the Killing of Shireen Abu Aqleh Means for Israel & the Middle East

By Ethan Dinçer

On the 11th of May, Israeli snipers shot and killed Palestinian-American journalist and Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Aqleh while she was on duty in Jenin, a city in the occupied West Bank. Abu Aqleh was covering an Israeli raid of Jenin when she was shot in the head, and reports have made it clear that there were no Palestinian forces in the area, indicating that Israeli forces specifically targeted Abu Aqleh and the three other journalists she was with. All four journalists were wearing press helmets and vests, and her killing has sparked a renewed wave of criticism against the Israeli occupation.  

The violence didn’t stop at the killing of Abu Aqleh. During her funeral, Al Jazeera aired live footage of military police raiding the funeral proceedings, detaining and beating mourners—almost causing the dropping of Abu Aqleh’s casket— smashing a window of the hearse, and tearing down Palestinian flags. According to the Israeli police, the violence was prompted by mourners refusing to place Abu Aqleh’s casket in a hearse, an arrangement previously agreed to by Abu Aqleh’s family. As funeral attendees were beat, kicked, subject to stun grenades, and arrested, Israeli forces once again proved their unending violence against the Palestinian people. 

Israel’s reaction to the killing of Abu Aqleh has been ridden with a lack of accountability. Soon after her killing, the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs claimed that indiscriminate firing of Palestinian terrorists shot and killed Abu Aqleh, a claim that was furthered by a statement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office. Both claims have been retracted, pending an Israeli military investigation. These acts of Israeli media deflection have had an immense impact on media coverage of Abu Aqleh’s death: the Middle East Eye reports that The Guardian, Associated Press, and the New York Times all made misleading or vague statements surrounding the nature of Abu Aqleh’s killing, using rhetoric such as “clashes” and “fights” that obscured the responsible party. 

Abu Aqleh’s killing by Israeli occupying forces can be placed in a larger continuum of violence. In the past few months, more than 17 people were killed in raids and clashes in Nablus, occupied West Bank, 30 Palestinians were injured during an Israeli raid of the al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, and Israel continued air raids in Gaza after a rocket attack in late April. Juxtaposed with last year’s 11-day Gaza war, in which 250 Palestinians were killed and 1,948 injured—in which the Human Rights Watch named apparent war crimes—the Israeli occupation seemingly remains steadfast in its violence towards Palestinians. 

What does this violence, and the international community’s increasing recognition of it, mean for continued support of the Israeli state by Western governments? The United States arguably remains Israel’s largest supporter in terms of monetary aid, with US $3.8 billion being delivered to the Israeli state in 2020, part of President Obama’s US $38 billion aid promise to Israel from 2017-2028. As more activists and human rights groups from across the world call for a reckoning with Israeli violence, military aid, and freedom for Palestinians, Shireen Abu Aqleh’s murder represents another instance in which the normalization of Israeli occupation—from across the Middle East to the interstate system—is being challenged. 

Abu Aqleh’s case, in particular, represents a challenge to the Biden administration’s support for Israel. Abu Aqleh was an American citizen, and an increasing number of lawmakers, activists, and civil society representatives are calling for a critical look at how the United States treats Israel, actively pointing out the double standards in US policy. Many of these double standards surround journalist rights and freedom of the press. When American journalist Brent Renaud was killed in early March by Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine, the Biden administration immediately condemned the killing, with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan condemning Russia and Putin’s “brazen aggression” against journalists. The day after Renaud’s killing, the United States and France jointly agreed to step up sanctions against the Russian state. Similarly, after Washington declassified a report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last year, the Biden administration was quick to maintain sanctions on the hit squad that killed Khashoggi. Yet, President Biden was steadfast on not taking action against Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, a move Biden defended in order to avoid ostracizing the head of state. 

These three cases illuminate the shifting, and at times hypocritical, policies maintained by the United States vis-a-vis journalists. Now, with increasing calls for Israeli accountability for the killing of Abu Aqleh, where does Israel stand in relation to the United States and to the greater Middle East? As more human rights advocacy groups name Israeli occupation as apartheid, Israel’s historic omnipresent force in the region seems to be dwindling. The Israeli government’s reaction to any critique of the occupation has turned more inflammatory, and Israel’s media campaign to diminish their violence against Palestinians is not reaching the same audience. Albeit relatively low, the higher number of U.S. Congressional representatives calling for a conditioning of aid to Israel signifies an interstate system increasingly willing to recognize and denounce the unacceptability of the occupation’s violence. 
Abu Aqleh’s killing, in the short term, should inspire more critical approaches to the Israeli occupation by both governments in the Middle East and the United States. While the Biden administration has called for an investigation of the violence at Abu Aqleh’s funeral, compared with the administration’s response to the murder of American journalist Brent Renaud, Biden is being expected to take more critical steps to hold the occupation responsible for Aqleh’s killing. In the Middle East, Abu Aqleh’s killing is a reminder of ongoing violence against Palestinians, especially to the four states—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco—who normalised ties with Israel under the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords. Abu Aqleh’s killing should be a sobering example to the Middle East about their policy decisions towards Israel, and inspire re-evaluating the policy support towards Palestinians.