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Court of public opinion rushes to condemn Israel for Abu Akleh’s murder



It has been an emotionally charged week since the highly publicised, fatal, and tragic shooting of veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while reporting in the troubled West Bank town of Jenin.

Still, very few people are privy to the facts about the bullet and weapon used which caused her demise. The unconfirmed circumstances surrounding her passing haven’t stopped the vehement politicisation of her death by Israel bashers around the world and in our own backyard, all utterly convinced that Israel is to blame in spite of no actual, solid proof. During a frenzied, highly tense gun battle, the question remains whether she was killed by Israeli or Palestinian gunfire. We don’t know for certain. Numerous investigations are underway involving highly technical forensic video, audio, and GPS location analysis.

The court of international opinion, though, is convinced: Israel is to blame.

Though it’s tragic in every way, Abu Akleh’s memory has been politicised. There has been a lot of hate directed at the Jewish state following her untimely passing. This was coupled with viral distressing scenes taken of her tumultuous funeral procession a couple of days later, in which Israeli riot police armed with batons were seen striking funeral-goers. All of it culminated at a time of heightened emotions as pro-Palestinians marked the annual Nakba Day – the term used by Palestinians to protest the anniversary of the day Israel declared its independence in 1948.

Former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk tweeted, “I have no idea who killed @AlJazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last night. You don’t either. Let’s find a real, independent, quick investigation to avoid her tragic death becoming another source of conflict. And all commit to respecting findings.”

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas charged that Israel was responsible for killing her. Israeli officials at first said it was probably Palestinian gunmen that had mistakenly shot her, but later said errant Israeli sniper fire could also have caused her death.

Palestinian officials and witnesses, including journalists who were with her, say she was killed by army fire. A conclusive ruling isn’t yet possible, the army said.

Israel is reportedly insisting it cannot determine who shot her without being allowed to examine the bullet removed from her.

On Saturday, the PA said that while international bodies could participate in the investigation, Israel wouldn’t be permitted to join the probe into her death.

Abu Akleh, 51, was a longstanding journalist at Al Jazeera, and a Catholic, Palestinian-American citizen, who was born and raised in Jerusalem. The Israeli army has escalated its activities in Jenin in recent weeks to try prevent more deadly terror attacks, several of which – including the fatal shootings of three Israelis at a central Tel Aviv bar on 7 April and the axe murders of three more Israelis in Elad last week – were allegedly carried out by Palestinians from Jenin and surrounds.

Jenin reportedly appears to be the home town of several of the terrorists who carried out a spate of fatal attacks inside Israel in recent months. There have been 19 devastating terror attacks on civilians in Israel.

Within hours of Abu Akleh’s passing, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) condemned Israel for the killing.

Political parties ventured to label her death as “deliberate” and “premeditated” – an assassination even. There was an outcry.

Local journalists, too, were quick to lambaste the Jewish state, bewailing the senseless killing as an attack on journalism, in spite of having no facts and not providing any context to back their opinions. Abu Akleh has become the latest Palestinian freedom symbol.

Though no journalist should ever face the risk of losing their life in the line of duty, in this instance, truth is the ultimate casualty of war, sidestepped in the crossfire of public opinion.

The South African National Editors’ Forum said in a statement, “We note that journalists, acting honestly as the eyes and ears of the public at large are increasingly being targeted by authoritarian regimes who wish to keep repressive and often murderous actions secret.”

The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) said Dirco’s condemnation of Israel without confirmation of the facts was “irresponsible”.

“It was reckless and incendiary in the extreme to allege blame in a region where tensions are running high and easily inflamed. Such actions encourage more violence,” the SAZF said.

It called for calm and caution in reporting the tragedy, and for the media and Dirco to wait for investigations to conclude before assigning responsibility.

While Israel and the Palestinians remain gridlocked in a battle of words over the circumstances leading to her death, there has been international uproar at the way her chaotic funeral was policed.

Images of police beating mourners at the start of Abu Akleh’s funeral elicited widespread shock and further international condemnation – creating a public-relations disaster for Israel.

Police said they rushed the funeral-goers on Friday, 13 May, because they “disrupted the public order” by throwing stones. Videos quickly went viral of dozens of troops in helmets attacking funeral attendees, at one point nearly causing the pallbearers to drop the coffin.

More than 10 000 Palestinians showed up to pay their respects to Abu Akleh during the long funeral on Friday that moved across Jerusalem to the Mount Zion cemetery. But the day was marred by these police scenes at the St Joseph’s Hospital.

According to Times of Israel, in footage from the scene, Palestinians carried her casket forward in an attempt to form an impromptu procession on foot. After a brief standoff – during which some Palestinians hurled objects at police – officers rushed the crowd, beating mourners and firing stun grenades into the crowd.

Israeli police said they had acted against “300 rioters” who had violently seized the coffin, attacked cops, and sought to march on foot to the Old City, in violation of the family’s wishes.

“Israeli police intervened to disperse the mob and prevent them from taking the coffin so that the funeral could proceed as planned in accordance with the wishes of the family,” the Israel police said in a statement.

The late journalist’s brother, Anton Abu Akleh, has disputed these claims, and criticised the police’s attack.

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