Shireen Abu Aqla was a Palestinian-American journalist, considered a “household name” across Southwest Asia. She reported for Al Jazeera for 25 years. On May 11, 2022, Abu Aqla was killed while reporting on an Israeli military raid in the city of Jenin. Palestinians and Israelis were quick to blame each other, but who is at fault is not yet known [as of my writing of this post on May 12, 2022]. Nevertheless, politicians, celebrities, and others on social media immediately accused Israel, without proof or an investigation.
Israel asked the Palestinian Authority for a joint forensic investigation. The Palestinian Authority refused, instead claiming that it will pursue its own investigation.
Abu Aqla’s death is a tragedy, and whoever is at fault should face justice after a thorough investigation. It’s unbelievably irresponsible for popular politicians like Ilhan Omar or activists like Shaun King to blame Israel without proof or confirmation. It’s even more irresponsible to make up completely false claims, such as that “she was assassinated in cold blood.”
Last year, at least 45 journalists were killed in war zones. Most cases received little to no attention. And yet, only when Israel is the potential perpetrator — and I very much believe it could’ve been the IDF’s bullet that shot Abu Aqla — is there a public outcry of this scale. It’s impossible not to notice the blatant double standards.
I find it ironic that everyone is suddenly so concerned about freedom of the press in Israel-Palestine, given the extensive amount of media repression at the hands of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Anyone that cares about freedom of the press should demand an independent investigation into Abu Aqla’s death, as well as an end to the harassment, arrest, and threats to journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
FREEDOM OF PRESS
To understand not just the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, but also the reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, it’s important to recognise that in addition to the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and the Egyptian and Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, we are also dealing with two repressive, dictatorial regimes: the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Of course, many are quick to blame Israel, pointing out that it’s the Israeli oppression of Palestinians that created the breeding ground for these abusive governments to rise to power. While I personally believe it’s clear that the Israeli presence has shaped the Palestinian geopolitical landscape, I think such an assessment conveniently ignores the fact that virtually every other surrounding Arab country is also under the thumb of an oppressive regime, and Israel certainly is not at fault for that.
According to Freedom House, the Gaza Strip scores 11/100 (“not free”) on the freedom scale, and the West Bank scores 23/100 (“not free”) on the freedom scale, with 100 being fully free and 0 fully unfree. By contrast, Israel scores 76/100 (“free”).
The Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, classifies the situation for the press in the Palestinian Territories as “very serious.” For reference, the classifications are as follows: very serious, difficult, problematic, satisfactory, and good.
According to the Press Freedom Index, journalists in the West Bank are threatened both by the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, Gaza is “particularly inhospitable” for the free press, as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad not only control news output but also threaten the lives of journalists, especially when said journalists are suspected of collaborating with Israel, even if such suspicions are unfounded.
In Israel, the Press Freedom Index considers the situation for journalists “problematic.”
MANIPULATION OF MEDIA
Perhaps one of the major issues in accurate reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is that we are dealing with two regimes, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, that engage in media manipulation. In addition, journalists have been caught in the crossfires of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
While the Palestinian Authority basic law supposedly guarantees freedom of press, the reality is much different. Journalists that threaten the interests of the Palestinian Authority are frequently jailed and even tortured. In 2017, the Palestinian Authority “president” (read: dictator) Mahmoud Abbas passed a “cybercrime” law that limits freedom of expression. The content of Palestine TV and the Wafa news agency is completely under the control of the Palestinian Authority. All political opposition is suppressed, and journalists supporting said opposition are arrested.
The situation for the press in Gaza is even more dire. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad often harass and obstruct journalists, and international journalists report threats to their lives if they dare to publish content outside of the official Hamas party line. Journalists suspected of collaborating with Israel are harassed, jailed, and tortured. Palestinian reporters that expose Hamas human rights abuses are also imprisoned and tortured. Hamas runs both Shehab News and the Al-Aqsa Media Network. Al-Aqsa Media is known for its virulently antisemitic content; for example, the children’s program Tomorrow’s Pioneers, which ran from 2007 to 2009, quite literally encouraged Palestinian children to murder Jews.
In Israel, the Press Freedom Index considers the situation for Israeli journalists “free,” but there are issues, mostly in the context of the Israeli presence in the West Bank. “Security issues” can fall under military censorship.
Al Jazeera — as well as AJ+ — is a Qatari state-run media outlet. Because it is state run, the Qatari government essentially exercises full control over what Al Jazeera does or does not publish. Notably, Qatar is accused of sponsoring terror groups worldwide, including Hamas. Unsurprisingly, many Hamas leaders live in mansions in Qatar.
To ignorant Westerners, Al Jazeera (and especially AJ+) has branded itself as a progressive news outlet. This is completely absurd and blatant propaganda. The Qatari regime is severely repressive of human rights, scoring 25/100 in the Freedom House scale. To this day, Qatar holds migrant workers in slave-like conditions. This “progressive” branding is merely a way for Qatari interests to influence international public opinion. In 2010, a WikiLeaks article revealed that the Qatari government manipulates Al Jazeera’s coverage of events.
In the context of Israel-Palestine, it is worth noting that Al Jazeera is both pan-Arabist and deeply antisemitic. From various iterations of Holocaust denial, antisemitic 9/11 conspiracies, antisemitic caricatures, and the erasure of Mizrahi Jewish history and identity, among many other things, Al Jazeera’s disdain for Jews is crystal clear. The Arabic-language channel is not at all covert about its antisemitism.
IMPRISONMENT & TORTURE
As recently as 2020, Human Rights Watch condemned the Palestinian Authority for its arbitrary arrests of Palestinian journalists. In 2017, after years of harassment, the Palestinian Authority imprisoned and tortured journalist Sami al-Sai. For instance, his hands were tied behind his back with rope to the ceiling while the rope was pulled to apply pressure on his arms. Though he was released, he was once again imprisoned in 2020 after posting a Facebook video about the sale of watermelons in the West Bank. Sami al-Sai has also been briefly detained by the Israeli military a couple of times for incitement.
Between January 1, 2018-March 30, 2019, the Palestinian Authority arrested and even tortured 752 Palestinians for social media posts.
In 2019, Palestinian journalist Hani Al-Agha was arrested by Hamas and tortured for over 20 consecutive days. Also in 2019, Hamas arrested and tortured hundreds of civilian protestors, including journalists.
In 2016, Palestinian journalist Ayman Alul stated that he no longer would report on Hamas’ repressions, after Hamas arrested him for “manipulating public opinion.” Alul was imprisoned for 10 days and was presumably tortured.
Rami Aman, a Palestinian peace activist and journalist, was arrested by Hamas multiple times, most recently in 2020, when he was held for 200 days and punished with “physical and psychological torture.”
The above, of course, are just a few examples.
NOTABLE INTERNATIONAL CASES
Various international journalists reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict have been kidnapped, tortured, and even murdered by Palestinian groups.
On March 2007, Alan Graham Johnston, a BBC reporter, was kidnapped in Gaza by the Army of Islam, an Islamist militant group designated a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Thanks to international pressure, he was released two months later.
In 2006, two Fox News journalists were kidnapped in the Gaza Strip by the Holy Jihad Brigades. According to the journalists, they were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint. Ten days after their kidnapping, the Holy Jihad Brigades released a hostage video, demanding all Muslim prisoners in the United States be released within 72 hours. Thanks to mounting international pressure, the two were released about two weeks later, though there are claims that someone paid a $2 million ransom. Fox News denies this claim.
Vittorio Arrigoni was a pro-Palestinian Italian journalist that was kidnapped in April of 2011 in Gaza by a group known as The Brigade of the Gallant Companion of the Prophet Mohammed bin Muslima. A YouTube video posted after his kidnapping showed him blindfolded, with blood around his right eye. The group demanded the release of their political prisoners in Gaza within 30 hours and called Italy “an infidel state.” Before the 30 hours were up, Arrigoni was strangled to death with a plastic cord.
In May of 2021, in the midst of the most recent Israel-Gaza war, Israel bombed the Al-Jalaa building, which housed Al Jazeera, the Associated Press, and other news outlets. This bombing sparked an international outcry.
At 1:40 p.m. on May 15, 2021, the IDF and the Shin Bet began contacting civilians and journalists, warning them to evacuate the building. Some minutes later, the IDF used what is known as its “roof knocking system” (essentially, dropping non-explosive devices over roofs to warn residents to evacuate) on the building.
Journalists immediately contacted Israeli forces, stating that they needed more time to evacuate. After an hour of deliberating, the IDF concluded that Hamas was using the presence of journalists as human shields. As such, it bombed the building with three missiles.
Israel later claimed that Hamas had been using the building to develop a system to electronically jam the Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system. The Associated Press said it had no knowledge of Hamas presence in the building. Israel shared its intelligence with the US, though initially the US said that the evidence was not enough to justify the bombing. After Israel provided more evidence, the US reportedly “found the explanation satisfactory.” In June of 2021, Israel offered to rebuild the building.
Shireen Abu Aqla’s death is unequivocally a tragedy. I believe that anyone that cares about freedom of the press in war zones and specifically in Israel-Palestine should demand a swift, joint investigation or a neutral, international third party investigation. I am not a forensic ballistics expert, and as such, I cannot presume to know who shot Abu Aqla to death. [I am writing this as of May 12, 2022]
Unfortunately, many others who are also not forensic ballistics experts — such as Bella Hadid, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Shaun King, and Susan Sarandon — have been quick to blame Israel. I cannot stress how irresponsible and dangerous this is. If you care about human rights, you should care about due process and truthful reporting.
War journalists take grave risks daily, which Abu Aqla was certainly aware of, as she was wearing a bulletproof vest. Last year, at least 45 journalists were killed in war zones. Their deaths too are worthy of attention, but because Israel can’t be to blame for those, the world is silent.
Freedom of the press is indeed a serious concern in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, but this is primarily due to the heavy repression, harassment, abuses, arrests, and torture of journalists every day at the hands of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. To pretend otherwise is insincere. If you genuinely care about freedom of the press, you should care about this issue.
I hope whoever killed Abu Aqla is brought to justice.
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