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Controversy follows tragic death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh

May 13, 2022 | AIJAC staff

Shireen Abu Akleh, the well-known Al Jazeera journalist who was killed during a firefight between Palestinians and the IDF in Jenin under unclear circumstances on Wednesday, May 11 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shireen Abu Akleh, the well-known Al Jazeera journalist who was killed during a firefight between Palestinians and the IDF in Jenin under unclear circumstances on Wednesday, May 11 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Update from AIJAC

05/22 #02

 

This Update is about the tragic death of the well-known Palestinian Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during an Israeli-Palestinian firefight in Jenin on Wednesday, and the political firestorm that has erupted since then concerning the circumstances of her death.

Both the Palestinian Authority and Al Jazeera are insisting she was deliberately shot by Israeli forces, while Israeli officials say they believe it was more likely she was hit by Palestinian gunfire – though preliminary Israeli investigations remain inconclusive without access to the body or the scene. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has rejected an Israeli offer to conduct a joint investigation and has also refused to let Israel run forensic tests on the bullet removed from her body.

We lead with Times of Israel editor David Horovitz pointing out that the search for the truth about her death is being lost in the controversy and attempts to push predetermined narratives. He reviews the claims being made, past similar incidents, and importantly, the reasons Israeli troops were in Jenin in the first place – it has been the source of three recent terror attacks. Horovitz also looks at how Israel is doing in responding to and pre-empting Palestinian insistence that Abu Akleh was both shot by Israeli forces and that it was deliberate. For this important article setting out the details of the controversy and manoeuvring going on in the wake of Abu Akleh’s death, CLICK HERE.

Next up is an Arab reporter in Israel, Majdi Halabi, who works for the London-based Arabic outlet Eleph. Halabi says that while he personally is waiting for evidence before reaching any conclusions about Abu Akleh’s death, Israeli attempts to put its point of view are largely futile, as the Palestinian narrative is inevitably accepted, at least in the Middle East, but even beyond. He asserts, “The world tends to forget Palestinians’ mistakes and support them even when they fire weapons without discretion and use journalists as human shields.” For this interesting perspective from an Arab journalistic insider, CLICK HERE.

Finally, on a related issue, this Update includes an especially good piece on the context of the firefight in Jenin that led to Abu Akleh’s death. American foreign policy expert Danielle Pletka looks at the recent terror wave in Israel – where, as noted, many of the attacks have come from Jenin – and what is known about how it came about. She also offers some very insightful suggestions about what will and will not work, if the US and other foreign governments want to undertake efforts to calm Israeli-Palestinian violence. For this highly recommended piece in full, CLICK HERE.

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The narratives are set in the death of Shireen Abu Akleh. We need the truth

A veteran reporter was killed in the course of her work while clearly identified as ‘Press,’ How? Who by? Many of us think we can figure out the answers, but we don’t actually know

By DAVID HOROVITZ

Times of Israel, May 12


Shireen Abu Akleh reporting from the West Bank for Al Jazeera in an undated clip (Al Jazeera screenshot)

In a TV interview hours after the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, killed while covering clashes between IDF troops and Palestinian gunmen during an army operation in Jenin, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid rejected the suggestion that Israel had already lost the public relations war over who was to blame.

Indeed, Lapid told Israel’s Channel 12 on Wednesday evening, the Israeli narrative, “that we still don’t know what happened,” had been accepted by the Americans and even in the European arena.

His immediate, publicized — and subsequently rejected — suggestion to the Palestinian Authority to work together on an investigation, said the foreign minister, had also resonated internationally.

Of course, Lapid went on, nothing had helped with the Palestinians, “where we are immediately blamed.” But lessons had been learned, he insisted, from previous contentious incidents in which Israel froze, misled and otherwise failed to quickly disseminate what it credibly believed to have occurred.

Lessons learned? Well, partially.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s briefing to the foreign press on Wednesday, in which he stressed Israel’s commitment to “uncover the truth” about how Abu Akleh’s death unfolded, was important.

But the IDF’s spokesman, in an early response to her death, described Abu Akleh and other journalists as “filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians. They’re armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so.”

For several hours thereafter, leading Israeli political and military figures declared that it was likely Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian gunfire, before IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, while noting that IDF troops came under “wild, indiscriminate” Palestinian fire, clarified that, at this stage, it was simply “not possible to determine whose gunfire she was hit by, and we are sorry for her death.”

Very little was said by Israeli officials about the specific context for the army operation — the reason the IDF was there in the first place. The army has escalated its activities in the Jenin area in recent weeks to try to prevent more of the stream of recent terror attacks, several of which — including the fatal shootings of three Israelis at a central Tel Aviv bar on April 7, and the axe murders of three more Israelis in Elad last week — were carried out by Palestinians from Jenin and its environs. A point quite important to make, one would think, when trying to explain to a non-expert watching world the death of a journalist caught up in a gunfight.

And that’s without getting to the open question of whether the IDF has more information and material from Wednesday’s deadly clash that it did not see fit to make quickly available — as belatedly proved to be the case, for instance, regarding the deadly Israeli Navy interception of the Gaza-blockade-busting Mavi Marmara in 2010, when the IDF initially chose not to release footage showing naval commandos being attacked when they boarded the vessel.

Like several such past incidents to which Lapid alluded, the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh threatens substantive damage to Israel — diplomatically, in the court of international public opinion, and as a driver of more terrorism.

Abu Akleh’s producer, fellow Palestinian journalist Ali Samoudi, who was hospitalized in stable condition after being shot in the back in the same incident, said any suggestion that they were shot by Palestinian gunmen was a “complete lie.” An initial Israeli army probe has reportedly determined that IDF troops did not fire at Abu Akleh. The Palestinian coroners who examined the body and the bullet, meanwhile, were quoted saying that, thus far, it was “not possible” to determine whether she was hit by an Israeli or Palestinian bullet.

Getting to the bottom of what happened — be it exculpatory or problematic — won’t alleviate Palestinian hostility, reverse closed-minded conclusions, or sweep aside mis- and disinformation. But it will make a considerable difference for those — at home, abroad, in governments and among ordinary people — for whom the truth does still have a lasting value.

A death affecting more people, more deeply

In the immediate, unshakable Palestinian narrative, as Channel 12’s Palestinian Affairs reporter Ohad Hemo noted, Abu Akleh was not only shot by Israeli troops rather than hit by indiscriminate Palestinian gunfire, but deliberately targeted by Israel in order to silence the voice of the Palestinians.

With both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas definitively blaming Israel — PA President Mahmoud Abbas immediately decided that Abu Akleh was executed by Israel — that misrepresentation can only foster greater hostility to Israel and a more fertile recruiting ground for terrorism and violence.

The death of Abu Akleh is potentially more resonant than many of the previous landmark incidents Lapid presumably had in mind, affecting more people, more deeply, than the Mavi Marmara affair or even the death of Palestinian boy Muhammad Al-Dura in Gaza in 2000 — two incidents dismally handled by Israel’s spokespeople and officialdom that resonated for years.

That’s because Shireen Abu Akleh was a veteran reporter trusted by and familiar to tens of millions of Al Jazeera viewers across this region and beyond. She was killed in the course of her journalistic work, while clearly identified as a member of the press. A Jerusalem-born Christian, she also held American citizenship, making the question of responsibility for her death a matter of direct significance for Israel’s most important ally.

Blunt authenticity

The general in charge of the Central Command area that includes Jenin, Yehuda Fuchs, told Channel 12 Wednesday night that “hundreds, even thousands of bullets” were fired by the sides in the gun battle, and “I don’t know which bullet” hit Abu Akleh. “I am sorry for every innocent person who is hurt in the course of IDF operations. We do our best to avoid it…. And I’m sorry about the death of Shireen Abu Akleh.”

He presented himself as the officer who was responsible for the operation — in that “I am the Central Command general. I’m responsible for ensuring that terrorist attacks do not come out of Jenin. I’m responsible for sending combat troops, risking their lives, into Jenin refugee camp to extract people who are planning terror attacks, people who have carried out attacks, and people who are making weaponry to harm Israelis.”


IDF Central Command chief Maj.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs speaks to Israel’s Channel 12 on May 11, 2022 (Channel 12 screenshot)

Entering Jenin is always immensely risky, he said, since gunfire erupts from all directions. It’s not simple. It’s an urban area. And it’s dangerous.”

Asked about the concerted Palestinian campaign of blame against Israel, Fuchs was dismissive: “I don’t deal with [propaganda] campaigns. The only campaign I’m engaged in is to protect the state of Israel. In 99 percent of the operations against terror in urban areas, including in Jenin where we are fired on in all directions, we don’t hit innocents. We succeed at that. But sometimes… when you’re fighting in a refugee camp, and dozens of [gunmen] are coming at you and firing from 270 degrees, from almost all directions, sometimes innocent people do get harmed. The journalist Shireen, who was really very close to the line where the forces were — ours and the Palestinian terrorists — was hurt there.”

Fuchs said the IDF had no choice but to continue anti-terror operations, and would continue to do so with caution and professionalism — in contrast to the “wild gunfire” it encounters. “That’s our responsibility to the people of Israel,” he said.

It’s a first rule of public diplomacy that you don’t put grizzled, gruff-talking generals in front of the cameras. Fuchs, with his no-nonsense candor, proved rather an exception. No media-trained spokesman, he came across as straightforward but far from callous — as he spelled out precisely what he understood to have occurred and why.

This was an authentic Israeli narrative — not spin or PR. Delivered, obviously, in Hebrew, and doubtless too forthright anyway for international consumption. But resonant, at least, with the watching Israeli public. Who also, not incidentally, need to understand what’s being done in their name and for their defense.

On Thursday, the Palestinian Authority, as Lapid had predicted, declared that “all the evidence confirms” that the IDF killed Shireen Abu Akleh, and refused his offer of cooperation on the investigation and a subsequent appeal by Gantz to give Israel access to the bullet for specialist analysis.

“Those who have nothing to hide do not refuse to cooperate,” Israel’s Army Radio quoted unnamed Israeli officials saying in response.

The fact is that a journalist was killed while trying to do her job. How? Who by? Could it have been prevented? Many of us think we can figure out what transpired, but we don’t actually know.

The sooner we get to the bottom of all this — which the PA claims it has, but hasn’t; and as Israel has properly vowed to do — the better. We’ve had the predictable narratives. Now, we need the truth.

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of “Still Life with Bombers” (2004) and “A Little Too Close to God” (2000), and co-author of “Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin” (1996).


Will PA’s version of deadly Jenin events come out on top?

It makes no difference how much effort Israel makes to explain its version of the events led to Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh’s death. One Palestinian death is enough to embarrass the entire State of Israel.

By Majdi Halabi

Israel Hayom, May 12, 2021


The Palestinian narrative seems to prevail, regardless of the facts, such as in the killing of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durra in Gaza in 2000, immortalised in this mural. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons). 

Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but that in and of itself does not absolve those who caused her death of responsibility.

The nature of a journalist’s work is to be on the scene of various events, including clashes and exchanges of gunfire. As someone who has seen their fair share of such scenes, I can testify to the difficulty and risk posed to journalists doing their job professionally in such circumstances. I met Shireen and other colleagues from around the world under similar circumstances on more than one occasion. In those instances, we were fortunate to make it out alive. This time, Shireen was not as lucky.

Shireen’s death is without question a tragic event for the Arab and international journalist community that covers the Palestinian conflict. Those responsible for her death, whoever they may be, must pay the price. But in the war of conflicting versions, it will be difficult to determine who was responsible for her killing and who exactly pulled the trigger.

As soon as Shireen’s death was announced, the war over the public consciousness began. The Palestinian narrative is winning as usual, finding an attentive ear and understanding in the Arab world as well as large portions of the West.

I will not say Israel is responsible for her death before the circumstances have been clarified and all the necessary steps have been taken to discover the truth. But it is my experience in such cases that even if it turns out to be fictitious, the Palestinian version will emerge victorious. See, for example, the case of 12-year-old Muhammed al-Dura, who was killed under very similar circumstances in the Gaza Strip in 2000.


Arab reporter based in Israel Majdi Halabi: Regardless of the truth, the “Palestinian version will emerge victorious.” (Photo: Israel Hayom)

With an organized military, Israel is seen as the stronger side, while the Palestinians are seen as weak and occupied by Israel. The world tends to forget Palestinians’ mistakes and support them even when they fire weapons without discretion and use journalists as human shields.

The death of an Al-Jazeera reporter once again brings the issue of purity of arms to the forefront of internal Israeli discourse, and there will be those who take advantage of the incident to emphasize their opinion either for or against a resolution to the conflict. The Israel Defense Forces will once again be at the center of controversy, and questions regarding the purity of arms of a military operating in occupied territories will once again be raised.

To my mind, it makes no difference how much effort Israel makes to explain its version of events. One difficult image or Palestinian death is enough to embarrass the entire State of Israel and its public diplomacy system.

Majdi Halabi is the Israel affairs correspondent for the London-based Arabic-language news website Elaph.


What Is Behind the Uptick in Terror Attacks In Israel?

The causes are numerous. One solution is to re-engage on the basis of reality.

Danielle Pletka

The Dispatch, May 12

An AIJAC infographic on the recent terror wave in Israel.

Seven terrorist attacks in the last six weeks have left 19 Israelis dead. Some attacks were beyond gruesome, with the attacker wielding an ax. Others were shootings in crowded city cafes. In one attack, a man shielded his fiancée and died in the act. In another, a teen girl was motivated by the death of her boyfriend to stab a Jew. Israeli authorities expect the terror wave, the worst in many years, to continue. The perpetrators have all been arrested or killed, but Israeli authorities expect there are more to come.

Experts agree that there is no one theme, no one group that can claim responsibility. Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist group that governs Gaza, celebrated each murder, but the Jerusalem government hasn’t fingered the group for plotting attacks. ISIS took credit for another. In the United States, these might be called “lone-wolf” killings, though the presence of so many terrorist groups around Israel—Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and ISIS, all generically promoting violence—renders the label pointless. To the dead, sponsorship is not really the point. So what’s behind the uptick in killings?

Some have fingered Palestinian anomie, or worse yet, Sunni anomie: losing wars, terrible leaders, failed battles for supremacy, democracy, everything. Others have blamed Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, traditionally (though hardly Quranically) a time of increased violence. Traditionalists have cast the Israelis as the villain, with heavy handed interventions on the Temple Mount in the wake of Palestinian violence and the usual tension between Arabs and Jews. Still others have harked back to the Sheikh Jarrah controversy—a mundane Jerusalem housing matter that escalated into a symbolic battle for ownership of Jerusalem. It contributed to last year’s 11-day war and tensions are still simmering. Many also believe that increased incitement over social media, including Telegram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other platforms has encouraged young men to kill. It will be worth keeping an eye on whether the shooting death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on Thursday will inflame tensions further. Akleh was killed while IDF forces were exchanging gunfire with armed Palestinians near the Jenin refugee camp, though it’s unclear whether her death was caused by IDF or Palestinian fire.

If all of this feels like the same story, different day, in the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there’s a reason for that. The so-called peace process is done for, with even the Democratic Biden administration—normally a haven for peace processors—preoccupied with inflation, immigration, crime, Russia, Ukraine, China, Taiwan, everything but the Middle East. A proposed visit by the president to East Jerusalem, once (and perhaps again) home to a U.S. consulate and de facto “embassy” to Palestine, is unlikely to shake things up.

A smarter approach by the United States would look at the topography of the Palestinian people and think more clearly about how to address their problems rather than falling back on the two-state solution as the answer to everything. First, what do Palestinians believe? Fine work by both the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and veteran Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki lay bare part of the trouble. Almost half of Palestinians polled believe “armed struggle” is the solution to their problems. Fully 58 percent oppose a two-state solution; 70 percent oppose “unconditional return to negotiations with Israel”; almost as many oppose dialogue with the United States. Most troubling of all, “73% believe the Qur’an contains a prophecy about the demise of the state of Israel; but only 32% think the year for this demise is 2022.” Yikes, “only” 32 percent (and it’s already May!).

Pre-pandemic crowdsourced polling done by the Washington Institute indicated an almost across-the-board trend among Palestinians toward more pessimism about the future, less realistic aspirations for victory in conflict, increased commitment to the return of all “historically Palestinian” lands, and diminished support for a two-state solution. While support for a new mass uprising or intifada was also low (for a variety of reasons, including lack of confidence in Palestinian leadership), there remained an overall commitment to violent means.

Another source of trouble is the Palestinian economy: Vulnerable before COVID and uniquely dependent on foreign assistance, Palestinians endured a dramatic economic downturn, job losses and a continued contraction of aid inflows—per the World Bank from “27% of GDP in 2008 to 1.8% in 2021.” There has been some post-COVID recovery, with the unemployment rate reportedly “bouncing back” to around (a still unfathomable) 25 percent in the West Bank and Gaza, though it is likely substantially higher in Gaza. Among younger people, the story is starker: In 2020, 42 percent of young (15-24) Palestinians were unemployed.

How has this happened? Aid programs out the wazoo, cash transfers from Gulf countries straight into the coffers of both the West Bank and Gaza governments, liberalized Israeli work permits and greater engagement with the Palestinian leadership

… and still, 19 dead in six weeks. Sure, the aid has declined over the last two decades, and more conservative Israeli governments have had harsher policies, permitted more settlement activity, and enforced more stringent border closures. But the Palestinians themselves deserve some agency. And the answer is perhaps less complex than some wish to believe.


Pletka: “There is violence because there is incitement to violence” – a screenshot from a Palestinian Media Watch video highlighting incitement in a sermon broadcast on official Palestinian Authority TV (Image courtesy of Palestinian Media Watch)

There is violence because there is incitement to violence. There is organic hatred toward Israel and Jews for historic and current policy reasons to be sure, but there is also unending political encouragement and glorification of killing (though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned several of the recent attacks). There is a loss of faith in democratic self-government because the Palestinian Authority has not conducted a presidential election in 22 years. There is a loss of faith in the peace process because it has not delivered peace. There is rising unemployment because of failed leadership and corruption.

As we have detailed on these pages before, there is a growing sense among Palestinians that they are being left behind by history. Israel has made peace with four Arab states in the last two years, and will likely ink additional agreements before too long—with or without encouragement from Washington. “Palestine” the cause has lost its luster among all but the most extreme of governments. Should it be any surprise that without work, without economic security, without political and civil society, and with incessant governmental encouragement to kill and glorification of murder, young men turn to violence? It doesn’t excuse it, but it helps to explain it.

In the case of Salafi-jihadis, the United States government understands that defeat is the prelude to extinguishing groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS (though current U.S. policy is another story). In the case of Hamas, PIJ, and even those within the Palestinian Authority who incite terror, however, defeat seems to be off the playbook. The United States makes little effort to unseat or even destabilize the terror group holding the reins of power in Gaza, and still less to corral others like PIJ. Sanctions do little to stem the flow of cash from Iran and others. There is scant messaging about the need for fresh leadership, and almost no serious efforts on the part of the United States or Europe to dislodge President-for-life Mahmoud Abbas.

Similarly, there is occasional bleating from concerned politicos about incitement and social media glorification of violence, but little serious effort to quash, for example, the use of Facebook to encourage terrorism. There was also once a time when the United States prioritized the imperative of economic reform in the Palestinian Authority, putting some real muscle behind former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, but even that has fallen largely by the wayside (or perhaps this embarrassing “roadmap” put out by USAID is incorrect?).

Israel can do more to mitigate some of the immediate economic problems among the Palestinians, but it has neither the leverage nor the the power with Palestinian leaders that is required for real change.

One option is simply to let the Palestinian people wither on the vine, and tolerate the loss of a few dozen Israelis every year to terrorist attacks. Another is to allow “Palestine” to become another Iran, a nexus for greater violence in the Middle East along the lines of Lebanon or Syria. But the better choice is to re-engage on the basis of reality, and seek to loosen the grip of crooks, killers and extremists, look to discredit their failed rule, search and support a new and better generation of leaders and help the Palestinian people find a better path.

Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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