Shireen Nasri Abu Akleh, a veteran Al Jazeera journalist, covered events in the Palestinian occupied territories for more than two decades. Joining the team that established the Al Jazeera office and brand, she was a calm and authoritative presence for viewers, who grew to rely on her to tell them about events in inaccessible parts of the heavily controlled territories. She mentored colleagues and inspired a generation of young girls to dream of their own careers in journalism.
Shireen Abu Akleh
Shireen Abu Akleh was born in Jerusalem on January 3, 1971, to Louli and Nasri Abu Akleh of Bethlehem. At some point in her childhood, she and her family lived in New Jersey in the US, where members of her mother’s family lived, and she got US citizenship through these relatives.
The family moved to Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem, where Abu Akleh attended Rosary Sisters’ School.
After graduation, she enrolled in the University of Science and Technology in Jordan to study architecture. Her choice of major was intended to please her parents, but her heart wasn’t in it; before completing the program, she decided to transfer to Yarmouk University in Jordan, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media. This was years before the explosion of satellite broadcasting outlets; her parents worried about her employment prospects, but her brother encouraged her to follow her passion.
After college, she worked for a few years with various NGOs and media organizations: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation on a program called Voice of Palestine (which she cofounded), the Amman Satellite Channel, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH) in Ramallah, and France’s Radio Monte Carlo.
Career with Al Jazeera
In 1997, aged 26, she joined Walid al-Omari and the small team that established the Al Jazeera Arabic network office and brand in the occupied Palestinian territories. There she found her voice and her professional home, and there she remained for a quarter of a century, reporting from occupied Palestine and the region until her death.
Soon after, the Second Intifada erupted, and Abu Akleh’s frequent reports from the field were beamed into millions of homes across the Arab world, connecting Palestinians who were otherwise separated and fragmented by Israel’s closures, checkpoints, and permit regimes (see Closure and Access to Jerusalem). During Israel’s invasion of Palestinian cities in 2002, when tight curfews were enforced, Palestinian viewers relied on Abu Akleh and the Al Jazeera team to tell them what was happening in other parts of their homeland. She did so, calmly and unflinchingly. “She was a fearless reporter,” said one of her colleagues. “She never hesitated to go to places where clashes were taking place. She loved her work.”1 She was always solicitous of her staff, trying to ensure their safety as carefully as she did her own.
Within the span of 15 years, Abu Akleh reported on Israel’s 2006 battles with Hezbollah in Lebanon and its four incursions into Gaza (2008–9, 2012, 2014, and 2021). Frequently filmed in her press flak jacket and wearing a helmet, she would report from dangerous settings, explaining events in a voice that was simultaneously authoritative and calming. For good reason, her colleagues referred to her as “Palestine’s war correspondent.” She also often covered the funerals of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army, as well as countless other less emotionally charged and dangerous stories, reporting on occasion from abroad, including from the US, the UK, Turkey, and Egypt. But most of her career was spent reporting from Palestine.
Abu Akleh was intent on continuing to grow professionally. To that end, according to her colleagues, she had been learning Hebrew in order to understand Israeli media, and had also recently completed a degree in digital media. These skills would also have helped her in her role as instructor at Bir Zeit University’s Media Development Center, where she taught several courses to undergraduate students at the university’s media department.
Intrepid and Dedicated Journalist
Abu Akleh pushed herself relentlessly, entering homes, refugee camps, prisons, hospitals, confrontation zones—anywhere she thought there was a story to be told. It was not the flashy political stories that drew her, but rather, the smaller stories that shed light on the daily lives of people. A colleague recalled that she was sometimes told that she was too senior to work on a particular story that interested her; she seemed to measure the importance of stories by a different scale.
In a video made by Al Jazeera on its 25th anniversary in late 2021, she explained her choice of career: “I managed to overcome my fears because I chose journalism to be close to the people. It might not be easy to change the reality, but at least I was able to convey the people’s message and voice to the world.”2
In early April 2002, Abu Akleh was a fixture in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, remaining embedded there while covering the battle of Jenin between the Israeli army and Palestinian camp defenders for 11 straight days. Almost 20 years later, she described the significance of that life-changing experience in an essay she wrote for the monthly publication This Week in Palestine:
In 2002, Jenin became a legend in the minds of many. The battle in the camp against the occupation forces that April is still powerfully present in the minds of its inhabitants, even those who were not yet born when it happened.
. . .
In Jenin, we met people who have never given up hope; they have not allowed fear to infiltrate their hearts and have not been broken by the Israeli occupation forces. It is probably not a coincidence that the six prisoners who managed to escape are all from the vicinity of Jenin and the camp.
To me, Jenin is not a one ephemeral story in my career or even in my personal life. It is the city that can raise my morale and help me fly. It embodies the Palestinian spirit that sometimes trembles and falls but, beyond all expectations, rises to pursue its flights and dreams.
And this has been my experience as a journalist; the moment I’m physically exhausted and mentally drained, I’m faced with a new, surprising legend. It might emerge from a small opening, or from a tunnel dug underground.3
She would return to Jenin many times over the years, and in the spring of 2022 she went there on her last assignment.
On the morning of May 11, 2022, Abu Akleh and her crew were in Jenin to cover Israeli army raids there when she was fatally shot and killed, most likely by an Israeli sniper stationed down the road (see Revered Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh Is Laid to Rest as Evidence Mounts of a Targeted Killing).
Funeral and Burial
Abu Akleh’s funeral procession extended over a three-day period and has been described as “one of the longest in Palestinian history.”4 Her body was taken from Jenin to Nablus for an autopsy, and both cities held marches.
The next day, her body was brought to the presidential compound in Ramallah, so that Palestinians (who are typically barred by Israel from entering Jerusalem) could have a chance to pay their respects. From there, her hearse carried her to Jerusalem.
The funeral service, attended by thousands of Palestinians, was held at the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate (Church of the Annunciation) in the Old City of Jerusalem, just inside the Jaffa Gate. In an unprecedented event, bells of all the 13 churches in East Jerusalem rang simultaneously.
The funeral procession was the largest Palestinian funeral in East Jerusalem since the 2001 funeral of Faisal Husseini, who ran the Orient House, the PLO’s unofficial headquarters in Jerusalem.
She was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery near her parents, who both died years earlier.
Abu Akleh is survived by her only sibling, her brother Anton, and his wife and three children.
Honors and Awards
During her state funeral in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority posthumously awarded Abu Akleh the nation’s highest honor, the Star of Jerusalem medal, given to Palestinian, Arab, and foreign personalities who have served Palestine and the Palestinian people in a significant way.
Both Birzeit University and the American University of Beirut announced that they would establish media scholarships in her honor. In addition, Birzeit announced that it was establishing the annual Shireen Abu Akleh Award for Outstanding Achievements in Media, to be given to Palestinian journalists and reporters covering life under Israeli occupation, to be announced each year on May 11.
The Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (Aman), a Palestinian think tank and a specialized body providing knowledge on corruption at the local and regional level, announced the Shireen Abu Akleh Award for Investigative Reports.
Bayt Mal al-Quds, a Moroccan organization, announced that it launched a journalism award in honor of Abu Akleh.
Both the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate and the Tunis-based Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (an institution of the Arab League) announced commemorative awards in honor of the slain Palestinian journalist.
Abdulrahim, Raja, and Ben Hubbard. “Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist Killed in West Bank.” New York Times, May 11, 2022.
Abu Aqleh, Shireen. “Reporting in a Time of Legend: A Journalist’s Personal Testimony.” This Week in Palestine, October 2021.
Abu Eisheh, Husam. “The Last Meeting with Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh at Bab al-Amud in Occupied Jerusalem.” [In Arabic.] YouTube, May 11, 2022.
Abu Toameh, Khaled. “Shireen Abu Akleh: The Palestinians’ Voice and Face to the Arab World.” Jerusalem Post, May 11, 2022.
Birzeit University. “Birzeit University Launches a Scholarship and Award for Media Excellence in the Name of the Martyr Shireen Abu Akleh.” [In Arabic.] May 12, 2022.
Birzeit University. “Birzeit University Mourns Alumna and Colleague Shireen Abu Akleh.” May 11, 2022.
Cook, Jonathan. “Shireen Abu Akleh Was Executed to Send a Message to Palestinians.” Middle East Eye, May 12, 2022.
Editorial. “Israel Needs to Open an Investigation and Issue a Statement of Regret.” Haaretz, May 12, 2022.
Goodman, Amy, and Denis Moynihan. “Beloved Palestinian-American Journalist Killed in Israeli Raid.” Common Dreams, May 13, 2022.
Haddad, Tawfiq. Facebook entry, May 11, 2022, at 7:11 p.m.
Harel, Amos. “Israeli Military Will Not Conduct Probe into Al Jazeera Reporter’s Death.” Haaretz, May 19, 2022.
Al Jazeera Staff. “Abu Akleh’s Killing Highlights Israeli Attacks on Journalists.” Al Jazeera, May 11, 2022.
Masarwa, Lubna, Latifeh Abedllatif, Huthifa Fayyad, and Nada Osman. “Shireen Abu Akleh: Israeli Forces Assault Mourners Carrying Casket Ahead of Burial.” Middle East Eye, May 13, 2022.
Al Mayadeen English. “Forensic Analysis Proves IOF Deliberately Killed Shireen Abu Akleh.” Al Mayadeen, May 19, 2022.
Al Mayadeen English. “Probe Concludes Shireen Abu Akleh Deliberately Killed.” Al Mayadeen, May 26, 2022.
M. N. “President Abbas Awards Slain Journalist Abu Akleh the Star of Jerusalem.” Wafa News Agency, May 14, 2022.
Mohammed, Yassin. “Egyptian Journalists Launch Award in Honor of Slain Palestinian Reporter Shireen Abu Akleh.” Arab News, May 19, 2022.
Mohyeldin, Ayman. “Killing of Journalist in West Bank Sparks Outrage.” MSNBC, May 11, 2022.
New Arab Staff. “New Journalism Awards Commemorate Life and Work of Shireen Abu Akleh.” The New Arab, May 21, 2022.
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. “Palestinian Women.”.
Palestinian Journalists Syndicate.
Rubin, Shira, and Steve Hendrix. “Israel, in Shift, Investigates Possibility IDF Soldier Killed American Journalist.” Washington Post, May 12, 2022.
Saifi, Zeena, Eliza Mackintosh, Celine Alkhaldi, Kareem Khadder, Katie Polglase, Gianluca Mezzofiore, and Abeer Salman. “‘They Were Shooting Directly at the Journalists’: New Evidence Suggests Shireen Abu Akleh Was Killed in Targeted Attack by Israeli Forces.” CNN, May 26, 2022.
Salaita, Steve. “Why Did Israel Execute Shireen Abu-Akleh?” Stevesalaita.com, May 13, 2022.
Samuels, Ben. “57 U.S. Lawmakers Demand FBI, State Dept. Inquiry into Shireen Abu Akleh Killing.” Haaretz, May 20, 2022.
Al Tahhan, Zena. “Shireen Abu Akleh: Palestinians Bid Farewell to Slain Journalist.” Al Jazeera, May 13, 2022.
Wafa News Agency. “Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization.” May 19, 2022.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Shireen Abu Akleh.” May 13, 2022, 07:02.
[Profile photo: Shireen Abu Akleh Twitter page]
Khaled Abu Toameh, “Shireen Abu Akleh: The Palestinians’ Voice and Face to the Arab World,” Jerusalem Post, May 11, 2022.
Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan, “Beloved Palestinian-American Journalist Killed in Israeli Raid,” Common Dreams, May 13, 2022.
Shireen Abu Aqleh, “Reporting in a Time of Legend: A Journalist’s Personal Testimony,” This Week in Palestine, October 2021.
Zena Al Tahhan, “Shireen Abu Akleh: Palestinians Bid Farewell to Slain Journalist,” Al Jazeera, May 13, 2022.