Veteran Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh was covering an Israeli raid on Jenin Refugee Camp in her official capacity as a reporter for Al Jazeera on May 11, 2022, when an unnamed Israeli sniper fired a bullet into the thin space between the back of her helmet and her flak jacket, killing her. At the time, Abu-Akleh was fleeing Israeli gunfire directed towards her and other observing journalists, including Al Jazeera producer Ali Al-Samudi, who was wounded moments before Abu-Akleh’s death.
One year later, Israeli military forces have issued an apology for killing Shireen Abu Akleh. This follows countless reports from journalist eyewitnesses, analyses by multiple international outlets, condemnation from world governments, and a joint investigation which determined Israeli forces deliberately targeted Abu Akleh. Israel’s admission thus reflects a definitive loss of the narrative battle over the course of a full year rather a morally-directed decision. Al Jazeera Front Lines senior producer Kavitha Chekuru joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss Abu Akleh’s assassination and the status of her case one year later.
Kavitha Chekuru is a senior producer for Al Jazeera’s Front Lines, which released the documentary The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh last December.
Studio Production: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, Darian Jones
Post-Production: Adam Coley
Audio Post-Production: Tommy Harron
Chris Hedges: Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera reporter with more than two decades of experience covering armed conflicts, knew the protocol. She and other reporters remained in the open, clearly visible to Israeli snipers about 650 ft away. Her flak jacket was emblazoned with the word, “Press.” There were two initial rounds of shooting that were fired at the journalists. In the first, producer Ali Al-Samudi was shot.
As the journalist turned to run away from the gunfire, Shireen was shot below her helmet during the second round, according to the human rights organization Al-Haq. There were a few seconds when the Israeli sniper clearly saw a profile in his scope, of Abu Akleh, one of the most recognizable faces in the Middle East. The accuracy of the M16, – Especially the M16A4, equipped with the advanced combat optical gun sight, a prismatic telescopic sight – Is very high.
In the fighting in Fallujah, for example, so many dead insurgents were found with head wounds that observers at first thought they had been executed. The bullet that killed Abu Akleh was deftly placed between the very slim opening separating her helmet and the collar of her flak jacket. I have been in combat, including in clashes between Israeli and Palestinian forces. Snipers are dreaded on a battlefield because each kill is calculated. The execution of Abu Akleh was not an accident: she was singled out for elimination.
Whether this killing was ordered by commanding officers, or whether it was the whim of an Israeli sniper, I cannot answer. Israelis shoot so many Palestinians with impunity. My guess is, the sniper knew he or she could kill Abu Akleh, and never face any consequences. The shooting, Al Jazeera said in a statement, was “A blatant murder violating international laws and norms.”
“Abu Akleh” the network added, was “assassinated in cold blood.” Abu Akleh, who was 51 and a Palestinian American, was a familiar and trusted presence on television screens throughout the region, revered for her courage and integrity, and beloved for her careful and sensitive reporting on the intricacies of daily life under occupation. Her reporting from the occupied territories routinely punctured Israeli narratives, and exposed Israeli abuses and crimes, making her the bête noire of the Israeli government. It is very hard to believe she was not a deliberate target.
Joining me to discuss the murder of Abu Akleh, and the refusal by the Biden administration to hold Israel accountable for the killing, is Kavitha Chekuru, a senior producer for the Al Jazeera show Fault Lines that produced the investigative report titled The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.
Kavitha, this is a wonderful report. It’s on YouTube, everyone should watch it. You did a tremendous job piecing together the narrative of what happened. I want you to begin at the beginning, and one of the reasons that we were able to determine what happened, is because we have video footage of it — From phones, and everything else, and cameras — That we don’t have for most Palestinians.
And then as you go forward, I wondered if you could lay out the Israeli response, and how it’s typical of Israel, in terms of first attempting to blame the victim, and how that shifted? But talk about the initial report coming in that she was shot, what you knew, and then what happened, and then we’ll get into your investigation.
Kavitha Chekuru: Sure. That day, May 11, the crew was in Jenin, which is a city in the Northern West Bank. In the weeks preceding that, there had been a series of increasing Israeli military raids. Shireen and her colleagues, as well as other journalists, had been covering them, and that day was no exception.
Shireen and everyone there, are experienced journalists. They know how to cover conflict and they know how to cover this conflict, in particular. When they got news of the raid, Ali Al-Samudi – A producer and journalist based in Jenin, who worked with Shireen for two decades – He called her and told her what was going on: that the raid had begun. So she and the Al Jazeera crew left their hotel. They met up with Ali, as well as other journalists that were there already, and they waited. They had their helmets on, their press jackets, and they waited to make sure it was safe.
They were away from the fighting itself. When they initially looked at the scene, they were a few blocks away from where they could see an Israeli convoy. In other footage that’s come up from civilians on the ground and from the Israeli military themselves – They put out body camera footage later on, and I’ll talk about that. It’s part of their response as well – But I mentioned the footage, because it shows you where they were, which will become important as well in the Israeli military response.
What they saw was a convoy of five Israeli military vehicles, about 650ft or 200m away. They waited, there were no shots, it seemed like it was calm. As the survivors of the incident told us, when they deemed it to be safe, they started walking very slowly. They all had on their press jackets, again, saying, “Press.”
I will say that when we went to Jenin –To the spot where this happened – If you look from the spot where the convoy was, down the road to where the journalists were, you wouldn’t even need a telescopic rifle to see. This was a very short distance. It was visible to us with our naked eye, people at that distance. When you’re looking through a telescope, it’s going to be even closer, even more obvious, than what they’re looking at.
They start to walk, and all of a sudden, shots start firing. They turned, Ali was hit. The Al Jazeera cameraman immediately started to record. He was a bit of a distance away from the others. That footage in particular became very crucial, because one, it gave us the number of shots fired. But it also really gave us… I mean, it’s horrible footage; it’s Shireen on the ground, and you see the way the shots continued even after that, particularly as her colleagues and civilians tried to help her.
Chris Hedges: Well, I just want to interrupt. Because in the film, every time somebody approached her – And she’s prone face down on the ground – They’re fired at.
Kavitha Chekuru: Exactly. Exactly. It becomes a bit hard to think this was just being caught in crossfire, when any time someone tries to help her, they’re targeted again. Eventually, they were able to get her body away, they went to the hospital, and she was pronounced dead. One of the things I should point out is that – If your viewers and listeners aren’t aware – Shireen Abu Akleh was a household name in the Middle East; she was very well known. She had been covering Palestine for Al Jazeera since 1997. This was a shock for us to hear this person had been killed.
There was a very quick response from the military. They said, well, there was fighting going on. It could have been Palestinian fighters that killed her. They quickly released a video. Actually, there were two videos. One was a video they had taken from fighters themselves that they had released – At a location in Jenin where they had been shooting from – Saying that this could be where the fight or the killers were. Then they released video themselves: body camera footage showed their own location and the configuration of the convoy. This was within just a few hours of the shooting itself.
Again, the footage from all parties involved becomes so important when you’re trying to dissect everything that’s happening. That footage they had taken from Palestinian fighters saying, this is the location of the fighters, B’Tselem – Which is an Israeli human rights group – Very quickly sent one of their researchers to that exact site and showed that it was not possible for those fighters in that location, or any of the Palestinian fighters that day who had been more inside Jenin. There was no clean shot, essentially. It was very windy. It would’ve had to be a magic bullet for it to have been Palestinian fighters, is what I’m saying.
You see this a lot when the Israeli military is accused of killing civilians, of killing Palestinians. This is a pretty tried and true strategy: cast out, let the doubt spread, and then it filters into the press even. But it was impossible to do that in this case, particularly because of the video footage that was available from the Al Jazeera camera person, as well as another civilian who had been filming on his cell phone right before the shooting started.
Chris Hedges: The Israeli narrative mutates, that’s also not uncommon. Talk a bit about its mutation. How, as facts come out, the Israelis respond.
Kavitha Chekuru: Yeah. The first response was to say that it might’ve been Palestinians, and then it’s a little bit of a step back. It’s like, well, maybe it was, but maybe not. We don’t know. And then it’s like, well we need to see, because it could have been us, but we don’t know yet. There’s the waiting game, essentially. As that waiting game goes on, in the meantime, various investigations come out from respective news outlets: from the EBP to CNN, the New York Times, The Washington Post, as well as human rights groups like B’Tselem. The United Nations did their own investigation. All of them said it was likely that it came from Israel, but it was the Israeli military that shot her.
Finally, it was in September that the Israeli military put out their final conclusion, because they said that they were conducting an investigation. And their investigation said that, yes, they may have shot her, but that it’s because she got caught in crossfire. The problem is that it’s disputed by witness testimony, and that again, video footage is available. But there haven’t been any consequences. Yeah. They said-
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the US response. Shireen was a US citizen, and it’s very telling of the collusion between Israel and Washington, the Biden administration. Talk about the US response, US promises, and investigation. Go into what happened.
Kavitha Chekuru: Yeah. Very quickly, the US was asked about what they were going to do. Like you pointed out, she was an American citizen. At first they said, well we want all the facts. We deplore this, this is awful. The things that they normally say. In June, Secretary of State Blinken said that he wanted a thorough and independent – And that’s the keyword here, independent – Investigation into her killing, so that they can know the facts. The independence is really the key here.
There’s a US office in Israel and Palestine called the US Security Coordinator. Essentially it’s run between the State Department, and the DOD. They were responsible for looking into the killing, initially. They were already starting to go along with the Israeli conclusion by that point, not the Palestinian conclusion, the Israeli conclusion. That’s lying. She was killed by the Israeli military, but it was a crossfire. They were leaning on the crossfire to say it was an accident. In the aftermath, they’ve really stuck to that. One of the things that they’ve also said is that, well, they want to make sure that this never happens again.
So then the question becomes, how do you make sure that this doesn’t happen again? There has to be accountability. But the problem is that you need to have real investigations with real consequences. Otherwise, what you end up with is impunity. That’s what’s happening here, because the US is going along with the Israeli lie. It opens the door to this continuing on. Because if there are no consequences in the killing of a US citizen, a renowned journalist, then what does that mean just for Palestinian civilians?
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the bullet, because the Palestinians have the bullet that was extracted from Shireen’s body. The Israelis say they cannot have a conclusive investigation unless they are provided with the bullet. For obvious reasons, the Palestinian Authority is very reticent to give the bullet to the Israelis. And then the Americans step in. Can you speak about what happened?
Kavitha Chekuru: Yeah. The US security coordinator did say that they did a forensic analysis of the bullet, but that it was inconclusive.
Chris Hedges: Well, the US promised an independent investigation if they were provided with the bullet. The bullet was provided to the US and then what happened?
Kavitha Chekuru: The US was provided with the bullet. They did analyze it, and they said that it was inconclusive. But there’s been no independent investigation. However, in November, the news broke that the FBI was going to investigate. Now, there’s not a lot of facts surrounding that though, I will point out. It came out more than 6 months after she was killed. By that point the US had made clear what their stance was on this killing and the idea of investigation, which was there wasn’t going to be an independent investigation run by the US. That was off the table. When it comes to the DOJ and the FBI, their investigations are supposed to be independent of the administration.
There’s not a lot of facts about when this investigation is happening, or if it has already happened, for instance. What we do know though is that Israel isn’t going to cooperate. The Israeli government made that clear. This was the previous government, which is not as right-wing as the current one. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the current one is not going to be cooperating either.
Chris Hedges: Talk about her funeral.
Kavitha Chekuru: Her funeral? I will say, I wasn’t there. I was watching it as a spectator from the States. There had been a state funeral first in Ramallah on May 12, the day before. And then on May 13, they brought her body to Jerusalem to be laid to rest in a Christian cemetery in the old city. And thousands of Palestines had come out to mourn her. This footage was being broadcast live, the whole procession on Al Jazeera English, and Al Jazeera. As soon as they brought the coffin out of the morgue and they started to leave the gates of the hospital to begin the rest of the procession, they were attacked by Israeli security forces in Jerusalem.
It’s shocking. Shocking footage of the way that the security forces attacked these mourners who were carrying the coffin. What her brother told us when we spoke to him was it felt like they were trying to make the mourners drop the coffin.
Chris Hedges: Well, then the coffin almost falls to the ground.
Kavitha Chekuru: Yeah. The mourners made sure to keep it up while they were being beaten. In the footage, you can see them ripping away the Palestinian flag. If people have not watched that footage, I would encourage them to watch it.
Chris Hedges: What do you think the message that Israel intended to impart with the killing, and with the response to the killing? What were they saying, in particular, to the Palestinians?
Kavitha Chekuru: It’s interesting when you think about when journalists are killed in a situation when it’s not a traditional, or typical war. We’re not talking about Ukraine. This may seem a little bit crazy, but earlier in the year I was covering the killings of journalists in Mexico. I think there’s a commonality when you look at why journalists are targeted in these non-traditional conflicts. People don’t want certain things to be known. They don’t want journalists there to document the truth, and I think that’s the case here. We asked that question to the journalists that were there on the day of the shooting and who had been shot at as well. They said the same thing that they think the Israeli government doesn’t want what is happening in the occupied territories to come out, because the situation is getting worse. More Palestinians were killed in the occupied West Bank last year than any year since, I think, 2004, 2005.
Chris Hedges: When you carried out this investigation, what surprised you the most?
Kavitha Chekuru: The US, they have a tendency – It’s not like this is new – But the way that they are ignoring the very clear facts of what happened. This idea that they have continued to say she was caught in crossfire is a blatant lie. There’s footage that shows that’s not true. It’s that audacity to continue to lie when we’re talking about the killing of a US citizen. That might have been something that stuck with me.
Chris Hedges: Netanyahu’s new government is even more extreme than the old government. And neo-fascist probably isn’t too far from, certainly what many elements of that government is comprised of. It’s a coalition government with the most extreme figures in the Israeli political establishment, many heirs of the terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Where do you see this going? What’s going to happen now?
Kavitha Chekuru: It’s a good question. To be blunt, nowhere good. If we’re talking about what it means for Palestinians, in particular, we’ve seen there’s actually been a lot of protests by Israeli citizens themselves against this new government already.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. But mostly around judicial reform, if I have that correct, not about the occupation.
Kavitha Chekuru: No. But if we’re talking specifically for Palestinians, there’s nothing good. The government has even made it very, very clear from day one that this is going to be the most extreme Israeli government in recent memory, and that they regard Palestinian land as Israeli land. Even looking at the way settlers have been acting in the past couple of weeks, in particular, you can see that emboldenment. So it’s even more important that journalists are able to do their job in occupied territories.
Chris Hedges: Where are we going? I think Al Jazeera wants to bring this before the International Criminal Court, if I have that correct? They don’t want to let it drop.
Kavitha Chekuru: Yeah. I should say, I don’t want to speak as a representative for Al Jazeera in that way, because it’s a legal case, and I don’t think I’m really qualified to do that.
Chris Hedges: But they are seeking redress in international forums. Maybe you can at least explain that.
Kavitha Chekuru: Yeah. They did bring a petition to the ICC at the beginning of December. There has been a wider petition from Palestine human rights groups and lawyers in regards to the Israeli occupation, and for the ICC to investigate. I would say this is one part of that. Getting accountability in any situation where it’s a Palestinian killed by the Israeli military, very rarely is there justice. I hope that’s not the case here, but if you look at the past, it tells you that it’s very difficult to achieve.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was Kavitha Chekuru, the producer of The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh on Al Jazeera, which can be found on YouTube. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, Darian Jones, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.