(Reading time: 8 mins.)
On Wednesday (May 11th), a Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead by Israeli military with one shot to the head. At the time of her murder, she was wearing conflict protective clothing clearly marked “PRESS” but the bullet entered her head under the helmet. Ms. Abu Akleh’s murder has caused outrage around the world, which has been intensified by the Israeli military’s attack on mourners, even on the bearers of her coffin (one of whom has since died) and their attempt to blame the Palestinian resistance for killing the journalist.
WHY THE OUTRAGE THIS TIME, ABOUT THIS JOURNALIST?
Ms. Abu Akleh was a journalist of nearly 25 years’ experience, employed since 1997 by the Qhatari-based news agency Al Jazeera and her reports were familiar to millions in the Arab and wider Muslim world. She was with other journalists, one of whom was also shot but wounded in the back and is expected to recover, covering an Israeli Army raid into the refugee camp in Jenin in Palestine. Both Al Jazeera and Associated Press agencies insisted that the shooters were Israeli military and mapping on-the-spot investigation has discredited the Israeli version firstly that the killer was a Palestinian fighter and then latterly, that it might have been.
“This is one person,” remarked a commentator, “ but hundreds are being killed in the Ukraine war!” Another commented that the Russians have shot journalists in the Ukraine.
Thousands and millions and thousands of millions of people are killed in wars and as a result of wars. Yes and in a way their very numbers makes that difficult to grasp. In the war in the Ukraine before the Russian invasion, 14,000 is the number of estimated dead. Since the invasion, 9,599–24,5991 civilians have been killed, such a wide disparity in estimates a reflection that the conflict is still ongoing and also of the propaganda battle being fought over almost every aspect of the conflict.
In Palestine, the conflict death toll began mostly from 1936 and rose to unknown numbers of Palestinians (due the huge expulsions and fleeing terror) in 1948 when the state of Israel was created, and between 2008 and 2020 alone the death toll is estimated at 5,8502, not counting of course this year and last, with another three added since Sunday, including Abu Akleh. The overall figure of Palestinian civilians killed between 1936 and 2020, with huge gaps where the numbers are unknown, is 2,816,410.3
All three of the latest of Israel’s victims (unless they’ve killed more before I finish writing and editing) were unarmed civilians. Unarmed civilians are the group most likely to be killed in war (10 million in WWI; 50–55 million in WWII, whilst 2,000,000 civilians is the estimate for the Vietnam War). Even though the killing of civilians is an automatic result of war, there are all kind of laws and conventions agreed by most states, including major warlike ones, against the deliberate killing of civilians. But it does seem as though some states have carte blanche in that regard, international law or not.
For many people, every killing of a Palestinian announced adds to that ongoing toll by Israel, year after year for nearly eight decades. That’s one important significance of the death of Shireen Abu Akleh – she comes to personalise, to give a face to the millions of victims of Israeli Zionism.
Another significance of this murder is that Abu Akleh is the most recent of at least 45 journalists killed by Israeli military since 2000 – that’s more than two per year. The UNESCO Observatory lists 22 journalists killed by Israeli military since 2002 and the case remains “unresolved” in 19 of Israel’s judicial investigation — with no investigation at all listed in two of them.
Raising the issue of Russian armed forces’ alleged deliberate killing of civilians and of reporters, whether true or not, just does not compare. The allegations might be true, of course — an invading army is likely to encounter opposition in the course of which some of its personnel may kill civilians by intention and without justification. Indeed, armies before now have killed even those of their own country, their own ethnic group. In the currently relentless onslaught of western commentary, often quoting Ukrainian or NATO sources without question, along with the banning of much alternative comment, it is — and will continue to be for some time – difficult to say which is true and which is not. But the two conflicts do not compare, neither in scale nor in length of existence, nor does the death toll of civilians including reporters.
When Russia invaded the Ukraine, anybody who raised the issue of Palestine with regard to the other conflict, e.g “what about the US/NATO support for Israel?” was accused of ‘whataboutery’. ‘Whataboutery’ is thought of as a device to distract from confronting the actual issues initially under discussion by introducing another different or tangential one.
Of course, people do such things and rational discussion is frequently undermined and even shattered by such practice. But, in this case, when US/NATO was saying that it was supporting the post-Maidan Ukrainian regime for reasons of democracy and self-determination, was it justified to point out its record of war and invasion in the Middle East and its support of Israeli Zionist aggression? It seems clear to me that it was but that would not in itself be proof that the Ukrainian regime was wrong. Was it right to point to the regime’s attacks on Russian-speakers and in particular on the Crimea and Donbas regions? It seems to me that it was, in that gave context to secessionist feeling in those areas to which the Russian regime could well want to give military support, whether that were for protection of ethnic kindred or for its own selfish reasons.
None of that “whataboutery” takes away from the tragedy of war in the Ukraine, of course not, but it is valid in considering motivation, given that the US, the leading power in NATO, is also the biggest supporter of the Zionist state and that the EU is not far behind. Palestine exposed that whatever the rights and wrongs in the conflict, NATO and the EU’s motives were not about justice and peace.
When international sporting and cultural organisations of the western capitalist world began to ban Russian teams and individuals from participation, were people justified in saying “Hey, what about Israel?” Surely they were, for that ongoing struggle in which Palestinian land has been ripped from the hands of its people, in which the latter are daily oppressed and from time to time massacred, in which they suffer military occupation, daily discrimination, ethnic cleansing, racism and apartheid – have they not been calling for decades for banning and boycotting Israeli and its sporting teams? And what was the response? They they were bringing politics into sport! And those who did show their solidarity in sports competitions were often penalised for doing so.
When states began to apply economic sanctions to Russia and to Russian individuals, were Palestinians and their supporters not justified in crying out “Hey, what about Israel?” Of course they were.
The strange thing is that those who accused others of “whataboutery” in the past for raising the issue of Palestine in the context of the war in the Ukraine have now begun to cry “what about the Ukraine?” in the context of the international outrage about the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh. Former critics of ‘whataboutery’ have themselves become ‘whatabouters’ now – and without even the shadow of the justification of their accused predecessors.
It’s worth asking what we mean by “international” in the case of the outrage over the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh. That “international” includes a large part of the Arab world. It includes a large part of the non-Arab but Muslim word4. It includes a large part of the non-Arab, non-Muslim world in western Europe and in the USA and in many other parts too. Certainly the Irish public in general has empathised with the Palestinians for decades.5
But it does not include what the western media mean when they use the words “the international community” – the outrage does not encompass the ruling classes of the Western European countries, much less of the USA, nor even the ruling classes of much of the Arab and Muslim world. In this they are being to a degree, honest. Because those ruling classes have either supported the Israeli Zionists directly, or have supported the USA which keeps Israel alive. Only seven elected representatives of the USA’s Democratic Party – out of the 225 it has in the US Congress, quickly expressed condemnation of the killing and called for a quick and independent investigation. Not one of the 210 Republicans expressed condemnation at the time – even though Shireen Abu Akleh was a citizen of the USA!
Leaders of a few countries expressed regret but could not bring themselves to even say that she had been killed by the Israeli military. The authorities in Berlin banned an attempt to hold a vigil over the death of the Palestinian journalist, including it in their ban on any Palestinian solidarity events at this time of year, when people commemorate the Palestinian ‘Nakba’. That is what Palestinians call the ‘Catastrophe’ that resulted from the seizure of Palestine by the Israeli Zionists, the creation of its state and the mass expulsion of Palestinians.
It is worth noting too that the media we are reading, which at first either ignored this murder, downplayed it or repeated the Israeli lies that Shireen Abu Akleh had been shot, not by Israeli military but by Palestinian resistance fighters, is compiled by journalists too. On the one hand this points to the severe loss to the world when a journalist who exposes injustice is killed (or persecuted and jailed for extradition to another country, as in the case of Julian Assange). On the other, it points to what a large contingent of hired liars and prevaricators is included among the ranks of journalists, that they cannot even stand up for the truth and protest the murder of one of their own occupation or trade.
And it teaches us how much our sources of information are mediated and manipulated by the national and corporative news media. Years ago we were being told that social media would free us from their manipulation or at least provide a viable alternative – independent news and commentary sources would flourish and we could be our own media. Yet the bans and exclusions put in place by Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and governments have shown us what an illusion all that was – in terms of information, we are generally even more controlled and manipulated now than we were before the advent of social media.
Hopefully, those who did not know this already will have learned, both from the coverage of the war in Ukraine and from the murder of this journalist. Those who thought that there was any justice in Israel or generally in the western governments towards the Palestinians, will hopefully have been disabused of that illusion too. Shireen Abu Akleh cannot be brought back to life nor can she be replaced. What we can do is strive to pull down that State that killed her and to knock away all its props around the world.
2“According to the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), some 5,600 Palestinians died between 2008 and 2020 while nearly 115,000 were injured. During the same period, around 250 Israelis have died while approximately 5,600 were injured” https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2021/05/12/the-human-cost-of-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-over-the-past-decade-infographic/
4Because a great many non-Arab Muslims sympathise with the Palestinians, who mostly ascribe to the faith of Islam and to Muslim culture. However, some Palestinians are Christian, some of Jewish (in the sense that a minority of the population of Palestine was Jewish for decades before the Israeli Zionist occupation) and some of no religion. Shireen Abu Akleh was baptised a Christian; her funeral service was held in a Catholic church and her remains were taken to a Protestant cemetery.
5The Irish cannot fail but be struck too by some parallels with the British occupation of Ireland – the impunity of the Zionist occupiers, for example and the attempt firstly to blame the resistance for those killed by the British Army, followed by a fog of conjecture and holding their own inquiry; the attack on mourners, the seizing of the national flag and attacking people for displaying it (the display of the flag was officially illegal under Israeli law in 1967 and unbanned in 1993 but as seen, is still often objected to by Israeli police).
Conflict deaths in Palestine 2008-2020: https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2021/05/12/the-human-cost-of-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-over-the-past-decade-infographic/
Conflict Palestinian civilian deaths since 1936-2020: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_casualties_of_war
At least 45 Journalists killed by Israel since 2000: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/12/infographic-the-journalists-killed-by-israeli-forces-since-2000