Lessons Learned from the Tragic Death of an Al Jazeera Journalist

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Becca Wertman
|May 23, 2022
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In the past two months, Israel has been rocked by a wave of terror attacks that have taken the lives of 19 Jewish, Arab, and Druze Israelis. Some of these attacks have been condemned by Canadian politicians and media. However, the most recent of these heinous crimes – the murder with axes and knives committed by two Palestinian terrorists of three Jewish men, Yonatan Havakuk, Boaz Gol and Oren Ben Yiftah that left 16 children without a father was largely ignored in Canada. Unfortunately, when Jews are murdered, it’s rarely headline news.

Contrast that with the response to the horrific event on May 11, when an Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, was tragically killed in a gunfight between armed Palestinian militants and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Journalists reporting from conflict zones risk their lives to provide transparency of global events and it is deplorable when they become casualties of war. Their safety is vital.  

Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly was quick to issue a statement of sympathy and then another Tweet calling for an investigation. Other Canadian Members of Parliament followed suit. Some politicians and Canadian media correspondents even accused Israel outright of responsibility for her death, without results of the investigations underway and in the face of statements by Palestinian forensic experts that they could not yet determine whether it was Palestinian or Israeli fire that killed her. Others went so far as to muse that a war crime might have been committed.

The fact is, at this stage, no one knows whether it was Palestinian or Israeli fire that killed Abu Akleh. What we do know is the following: Israeli forces were undertaking counter-terror efforts in Jenin, in response to the recent wave of terror attacks, when they came under heavy Palestinian militant gunfire. There was an exchange of fire between the two, with Palestinian militants firing thousands of rounds and the IDF firing a few dozen rounds. Abu Akleh, who was reporting from nearby, was struck by a bullet and killed. Complicating matters, both Palestinians and Israelis often use the same types of ammunition.  

Following appropriate protocol, Israel asked the Palestinian Authority to participate in a joint investigation of the incident. The Palestinian Authority refused. Israel asked the Palestinian Authority to examine the bullet, which, with the body, is in their possession. Again the Palestinian Authority refused. Israel is carrying out an investigation, using “all the tools at our disposal in order to arrive at the truth.” On May 19, the IDF stated that based on its initial analysis it narrowed down the IDF weapon that might be involved in the fire exchange, however without the bullet and cooperation of the Palestinian Authority, it still is impossible to know the full story. The Palestinian Authority has also stated it will conduct its own investigation.

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Premature claims of culpability are not only unhelpful – they are harmful – to any investigation efforts, as are baseless claims of war crimes designed to torque an already tense situation. 

Indeed, as many have noted, targeting journalists is illegal under international law, as journalists are considered civilians. As defined in Article 79 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, “journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in zones of armed conflict are civilians within the meaning of Article 50 (1). As such, they enjoy the full scope of protection granted to civilians under international humanitarian law.” As many have noted, Abu Akleh was wearing a press helmet and vest. Therefore, should the investigation demonstrate that armed forces specifically targeted her, their action would amount to a war crime. However, absent any evidence, it is possible that, in the exchange of fire, a stray bullet hit and killed her. While devastating, this would not amount to a war crime.  

We will soon know the details of the investigations, which, despite the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to participate, will provide clarity. Those responsible must be held to account.  

If the investigation shows Israel is at fault, then history has shown that Israel will acknowledge the action, study the series of events, ensure its forces learn from this incident, and that relevant disciplinary measures or legal actions will be taken. If, however, it is determined the Palestinian militants are responsible, it is unclear what efforts will be undertaken to prevent such an unfortunate incident in the future. What has already become clear, however, is that it is easy to jump to conclusions, and that the murder of Jews – when targeted in terror attacks – is of less interest to the global community than an opportunity to demonize the Jewish state.

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About Becca Wertman
Becca Wertman-Traub is a Canadian-Israeli living in Jerusalem. She is the Director of Research at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
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