Last Wednesday morning, violence, once again, flared up in the West Bank, when Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed by a bullet during an Israeli raid against Palestinian militants in the West Bank city of Jenin. While the death of a journalist is always tragic, Abu Akleh’s death sparked an intense reaction across the globe. An American citizen, Abu Akleh was deeply connected to the media world in the United States. As a prominent Arab journalist, her face was seen daily on the TVs of countless families across the region and the world. For so many, her death felt personal.

Inevitably, this incident led to the usual condemnations, statements, and unproductive accusations often seen whenever there is a flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, with the pro-Israel camp rushing to deflect blame for the incident, and in some instances going so far as exclusively blaming Palestinians for her death, and the pro-Palestinian camp exclusively blaming Israel for this tragedy, claiming that Abu Akleh was assassinated or even executed by Israeli soliders. Unfortunately, both camps are missing key points in their arguments, exacerbating tensions and politicizing a horribly tragic death. Examples can be seen across social media platforms and news networks, particularly coming from left-leaning and biased regional sources, such as TRT WORLD, AJ+, and others.

The unrealistic language used to condemn this incident was not just found amongst Palestinian society, but from leaders here in the U.S. too. Both Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar released bombastic statements with incredibly inflammatory rhetoric that seemed more aimed at achieving their own political goals (particularly that of ending military funding to Israel) without actively seeking to further a fair investigation into this horrible death and provide real justice for the bereaved. The quick rush to single-handedly blame Israel for the horrible events yesterday, the exaggeration of conditions on the ground, and the violent rhetoric used against Israel will only inflame tensions.

Shireen Abu Akleh by Osama Eid, licensed under a Creative Commons attribution 4.0 (Licensed linked to image).

While outrage and grief amongst Palestinian society are complety justified, the rapid accusations by the pro-Palestinian camp are extreme. Between Palestinian government officials, activists in the West Bank and Gaza, and supporters of the Palestinian cause across the globe, accustions that Israeli soldiers deliberately murdered Abu Akleh, insofar as deliberately executing her, are unfounded in reality and only exacerbate tensions. What we do know is that, in light of the recent wave of terror in Israel, the IDF has been regulalry conducted counterterrorism operations in the West Bank, in particular the northern city of Jenin. This area is known to be a hotbed for terror opperations and the Palestinian Authority has a weaker influence there than in other areas nominally under its control. It’s not uncommon for Palestinian militants to respond to IDF opperations in the area (one that is typically densely populated and urban), thus creating fighting conditions ripe for misfire, stray bullets, and the unfortunate risk of civilian casualties. The notion that Abu Akleh, a well known Palestinian journalist and popular figure, was deliberately targeted does not seem to align with Israel’s interest of conducting a successful counterrorism operation by simply arresting the designated targets and moving on, given that it would enflame and anger more Palestinians (who would already be frustrated by the raid) who could then be incentivized to respond with additional violence. This doesn’t, however, leave out the option that soldier misconduct was to blame.

So far, however, both Palestinian and Israeli investigators have found inconclusive evidence to determine whether Israeli or Palestinians bullets were to blame for her death. It should also be noted that, despite Israeli negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, PA leaders refused to cooperate on a joint investigation into the incident proposed by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and supported by the United States and other international partners. According to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the PA would rather take this to the International Criminal Court in order to ensure that “Israel doesn’t go unpunished.” While this decision is not surprising given Palestinians society’s deep mistrust of Israel, this decision will not create a more conducive environment for a fair investigation and only seeks to further isolate Israel. A joint investigation by Israel and the PA, under the auspices of a third party such as the U.S., Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, or even the U.N. (or some combination thereof), is the best way to ensure that the truth is discovered, justice is delivered, and those who did in fact kill Abu Akleh are held accountable. Moreover, a joint investigation with a fair ruling could serve as a confidence-building measure for both Israel and the Palestinians. Each would be seen in the eyes of the other as a party committed to resolving this case and upholding the sanctity of the free press in this conflict. This last point is particularly pertinent given the democratic backsliding seen in both Israel and the PA in recent years, including previous incidents by both governments with regards to journalists and critics who were killed.  

While there is certainly inflammatory and unhelpful rhetoric coming from the pro-Palestinian camp, the pro-Israel camp is also guilty of similar issues. In the hours after this incident, many conflicting statements were released by Israeli officials, originally claiming that Palestinian militants shot Abu Akleh but quickly walking it back. There has been a mixed bag of reactions online, with some figures and activists expressing sorrow for the incident, yet always including a caveat about Israel’s role in the shooting, and others explicitly and exclusively putting the blame for this incident on Palestinians, with some claiming that Abu Akleh was deliberately murdered by Palestinians in order to make Israel look guilty. Much of the Israeli rhetorical argument has revolved around one video being shared by politicians and activists alike, showing Palestinian militants indiscriminately firing into an alleyway and claiming that a soldier had been shot, without any report of a soldier being injured. Though many in the pro-Israel camp claim that this could have been Abu Akleh, there is simply not enough evidence in this video to prove anything, and its use only serves political gain. There have also been statements by those in the pro-Israel camp claiming that because the PA refused a joint investigation into the shooting, they must be hiding something. This type of rhetoric only inflames tensions and exacerbates the risk of further violence and should not be used.

Moreover, there are several firsthand claims from other journalists on the ground with Abu Akleh who state that Israeli soldiers deliberately began to fire upon them, and did not stop when Abu Akleh was injured. These eyewitness accounts must be taken seriously. While it is unlikely that the journalists were deliberately targeted, any potential this has to be true must be thoroughly investigated, and if proven correct, those responsible for this violation must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Furthermore, late last week at the funeral for Abu Akleh, Israeli soldiers were seen beating mourners with clubs, confiscating Palestinian flags, and shooting stun grenades and tear gass at attendees of the funeral. While there is reason to believe this was in response to stone throwing and rioting, the legitimacy of the heavy-handed response is certainly questionable, particularly given the sensitive nature of this funeral. This new development only adds further complexity to this already tragic situation, and drives analysts of these events to question the Israeli government’s quick refutation of blame. 

The funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh by Al Watan, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image).

Ultimately, it is up to those in the pro-Israel camp to hold Israel acountable for its actions, particularly when it makes mistakes. It is also imperative to acknowledge that, regardless of “which side” is to blame, the reality of occupying millions of Palestinians creates conditions conducive for violence, conditions where innocent lives will be lost. Actively working towards a solution that allows Israel to safely disengage from its rule over Palestinians while creating a viable state for Palestinians to call home and prosper in is the only way to mitigate the inevitable future rounds of violence. When Israel isn’t on this path, it is the job of the pro-Israel camp to push it in the right direction. 

Currently, the investigation of this incident by the IDF Central Command has found inconclusive evidence of who is responsible for Abu Akleh’s death. (You can find in-depth analysis and coverage of the findings from Israel Policy Forum Policy Advisor Neri Zilber on Twitter.) At the end of the day, however, who did it matters little. The world lost a brave and talented journalist who loved her people. Shireen Abu Akleh was committed to the truth, to bringing the stories of everyday people affected by one of the world’s most infamous conflicts to light. Her loss, and the violence that ensued after, is a painful example of the devastation that violent conflict brings to the world, and the international condemnations of her death should be heard and internalized. In a tattered world, journalism and a free and fair press is a beacon of hope that must be held to the highest standard. When that institution is violated, there must be a fair and thorough investigation, supported by accurate rhetoric from leading activists and political figures on all sides, to properly hold those involved accountable.