The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Palestinian journalists, a colleague’s death hits close to home

Palestinian artists paint a mural honoring slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Gaza City on May 12. (Mohammed Saber/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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JERUSALEM — Amid the procession of thousands of people escorting the body of slain Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh through the streets of Ramallah on Thursday and another in Jerusalem on Friday were many who were both mourning and working — dozens of Palestinian journalists who are reporting a major story while they reflect on what her death says about their life.

“We have all been telling each other, what happened to Shireen could happen to us,” said Ahmad Mashal, a Jerusalem-based producer for the German broadcaster ZDF who worked hundreds of raids, riots and rallies with Abu Akleh over two decades. “We know we might be the victim of a bullet anywhere, anytime.”

Abu Akleh was shot while covering an Israeli military operation Wednesday in a West Bank refugee camp. Colleagues, Palestinian officials and her network accuse Israel of the killing. Israel has said that Akleh and producer Ali al-Samudi, who was wounded, were caught in crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants and that it is not yet known who struck them.

Like many Palestinian journalists, Mashal has spent the hours since Abu Akleh’s killing toggling between his grief for his friend of 30 years and setting up live shots, calling sources and documenting the latest trauma in a workplace (Israel and the Palestinian territories) where at least 19 journalists — all but three of them Palestinians — have been killed in the past three decades, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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Abu Akleh was one of hundreds of journalists who cover Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But unlike international reporters who are granted a greater assumption of neutrality, local journalists, often through no fault of their own, frequently find themselves identified with one side, which puts them in regular danger and can make them suspect to everyone.

“You are caught between both sides trying to be objective,” Mashal said. “Sometimes when you go up to a young person and ask him, ‘Why are you throwing that rock?,’ he looks at you and says: ‘Are you not from here? Do you not experience the occupation?’”

The suspicions of the Israeli military are even more pronounced.

“You have to be extremely careful around the army,” said Mashal, who said he has been pushed and punched and had his car keys taken by Israeli soldiers in the field. “We all know the rules. Shireen was always very, very careful.”

Abu Akleh and the other journalists arriving to cover the Israel Defense Forces activity in Jenin on Wednesday were following a well-practiced protocol. Two of the reporters who were part of the small group said they walked slowly and deliberately past IDF vehicles and paused to be as prominent as possible. All wore blue protective vests labeled “Press.”

“We waited very still for about 10 minutes to make sure the Israeli army can identify us as journalists,” said Shatha Hanaysha, a reporter for the Ultra Palestine website.

Samudi, the producer, who was shot in the upper back, said they were using all the skills his decades in the field have taught him. “Whatever the Israeli army says for us to do, we do,” he said in an interview from the hospital where he was recovering.

The Al Jazeera crew had come to Jenin on word that the Israeli military was conducting a raid to arrest suspected militants, one of dozens they have carried out during a spike in terrorist attacks against Israel that have killed at least 19.

Israelis officials say the reporters were caught in a crossfire and have noted that journalists are often obliged to take such risks. After initially saying it was “most likely” that a Palestinian militant shot Abu Akleh, the IDF now says it is investigating the possibility that she was hit by an Israeli round.

Shireen Abu Akleh's funeral on May 13 grew into the largest Palestinian gathering in Jerusalem in recent years. An investigation into her killing is underway. (Video: Neeti Upadhye, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

On Thursday, Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh called the killing an “assassination.” He said that the Palestinian Authority has refused Israel’s request to conduct a joint investigation.

While politicians can trade barbs, Palestinian reporters are tasked with reporting, often critically, on the same soldiers and police they face at the armed checkpoints they must cross almost every day.

The patchwork of territories — some patrolled by Israelis, some by Palestinian police, and some by Israeli settlers and even Palestinian militants — makes getting to any story an unpredictable commute.

“Just getting there is a hassle many times,” said Rania Zabaneh, an Al Jazeera producer since 2002. She counted Abu Akleh as a mentor and friend who would have appreciated how she had to pull away from the procession Thursday to oversee another report. “Trying to get to Nablus, to Hebron, you feel like you’re covering islands.”

Mohammed Daraghmeh, a longtime reporter who is now the bureau chief for Asharq News, said he was recently returning to his home in Ramallah after spending a day covering the pending evictions of Palestinian families south of Hebron. As he passed an intersection where Israeli settlers often wait for buses and rides, he saw a soldier pointing his automatic weapon directly at his windshield.

“I was terrified he was about to press the trigger,” he said. “[The killing of] Shireen reminds me again that there is no place safe in Palestine. You can have a helmet, you can have a vest, and still you die.”

But still, like his friend Abu Akleh, Daraghmeh, 58, said he relishes his time out in the dramatic limestone hills and chaotic towns of the West Bank.

“She always liked best to be in the field,” he said. “You touch the story. You feel the heat. It’s better than being in the office.”

Mashal said the work has become only more hazardous in recent years. A decade or so ago, Palestinian journalists knew to set up near or behind the Israeli soldiers as they battled with rock-throwing Palestinians, in accordance with the logic that it was better not to be in front of the guns.

“We could survive being hit by rock,” he said. “We used the Israelis as protection.”

Now both sides are well armed, making it hard for reporters to find a safe space.

And yet, as he attends memorial events for his friend and files stories about her death, Mashal said he has no plans to give up a routine that is both terrifying and rewarding, even though his children have pleaded with him in recent days to retire.

“Of course I’m going to continue,” he said. “It is my life.”