The Cost of War: Shireen Abu Akleh and the Apparent Disposability of Civilians and Journalists

by Samuel B. Parker



On May 11th, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed in the West Bank city of Jenin during a raid conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces. At the time of her death, Abu Akleh was clad in a helmet and an armored vest emblazoned with the word “PRESS,” clearly distinguishing her from the potential subjects of the operation. Eyewitnesses have reported that, in spite of the fact that Abu Akleh and her colleagues were not in close proximity to Palestinian resistance fighters, Israeli soldiers opened fire on them, appearing to deliberately target the unprotected face and neck of Abu Akleh. She died from her injuries shortly thereafter.


Israeli officials initially denied responsibility and blamed Palestinian gunmen for the incident. Now, in the face of credible evidence and compelling testimony to the contrary, they are hesitant to come to a decisive conclusion and are supposedly committed to a fair and thorough inquiry.


It is certainly worth asking why the Israeli government was prepared to immediately fault Palestinian resistance fighters before any evidence had materialized and why they only announced their interest in an investigation after evidence surfaced that incriminated Israeli troops. This question aside, however, the slaying of Abu Akleh constitutes a continuation of two disturbing trends.


Firstly, Abu Akleh is hardly the first civilian to die in this clash. Since the United Nations began collecting data in 2008, 3,744 noncombatants have perished in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; almost 3,500 of these casualties have been Palestinians, 98% of whom were killed by Israeli Defense Forces personnel. Many of these deaths can be attributed to criminal negligence, but others were blatantly purposeful acts of homicide. Clearly, in the ongoing struggle between Israel and Palestine, civilians are widely regarded as disposable. This cold and callous calculus has been exhibited countless times; it is evident both in the premeditated destruction of civilian areas and population centers by the Israeli Defense Forces, and in the rocket attacks perpetrated by Palestinian groups such as Hamas. As repressive Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank endures and Palestinian resistance rages on, innocent civilians will continue to bear the burdens and suffer the consequences.


Secondly, isolated from its immediate context, the demise of Abu Akleh has implications for journalists and press freedoms everywhere. Aggressive violence against any human being represents a valid and legitimate concern. Journalists typically have been afforded immunity from such harm. But recently, as journalists have worked to uncover imperialist ambition, expose government corruption, and question the rampant application of totalitarian power, they have increasingly found themselves vulnerable to attack.


Such was the case in 2018, when covert Saudi agents, operating under explicit orders and authorization from Crown Prince Salman, assassinated and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was famously critical of the Saudi royal family. And so it seems to be the case again. Abu Akleh, a Palestinian by birth and a journalist by trade, was among the most recognizable public figures in the region and had an extensive track record of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on behalf of Al Jazeera: a publication that has long functioned as a media watchdog for possible Israeli war crimes and violations of human rights. Now, she is dead under dubious circumstances, with eyewitnesses disputing almost all of the claims made by Israeli officials.


A spokesperson for the Israeli military remarked that Abu Akleh and her associates were “armed with cameras,” and thus drew alarming parallels between journalism and warfare. But make no mistake: Abu Akleh and her team were not armed. They were merely doing their job: the job of journalism, which is to relay vital information to an affected public, and so hold authoritarian systems, structures, and individuals accountable for their misdeeds. In the absence of people who are dedicated to this task, free societies cannot flourish. For this very reason, the protection of press members has been the contemporary norm. Their intentional victimization is a troubling indication of regression. The impunity with which it is done makes it that much more concerning.


No substantial action was taken to punish the Saudi autocracy for the murder of Khashoggi. In fact, the United States continues to deal deadly weapons to the Saudi regime to this day. U.S. complicity in the crimes of the Saudi state is entirely unacceptable, and cannot set the precedent for a broader pattern of behavior. If an investigation reveals that the Israeli Defense Forces did indeed kill Abu Akleh, the Israeli government must be treated accordingly. The United States must not subsidize the atrocities of states that are hostile to human life. Until the Israeli government demonstrates that it is capable of and willing to exercise restraint, negotiate in good faith, and safeguard the precious lives of noncombatant men, women, and children, the United States must condemn its conduct in the strongest possible terms.


Shireen Abu Akleh died both a hero and a victim of senseless violence. She need not have died in vain. Her death, like those of thousands of civilians before her, must serve as a clarion call for a nonviolent resolution to this conflict: one that promotes human dignity and fosters a culture of peace.


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