Remembering Shireen Abu Akleh
The realities of life - and death - in the occupied Palestinian territories burst into the heart of the British journalism Establishment in a beautiful and moving memorial on 28 June for Shireen Abu Akleh. The service at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street - the "journalists' church" - celebrated the life and work of Shireen, who became known as Palestinians' "voice to the world" in 24 years of reporting for Al Jazeera.
Shireen was shot in Jenin on 11 May. Reports by colleagues who were there, by the New York Times and by the United Nations Human Rights Office conclude that Shireen was assassinated by a sniper in the army of the State of Israel.
Shireen's family are from the Palestinian Christian tradition of the Melkite Church. The service was therefore multi-denominational in several ways - and one of few at St Bride's to feature addresses in Arabic. It was initiated by former London Freelance Branch chair Pennie Quinton and supported by Artists for Palestine, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK and, in a modest way, by London Freelance Branch.
The Reverend Alison Joyce, Rector of St Bride's, opened by reminding the congregation that "our ministry extends to journalists the world over. We hold you in our hearts."
"When a precious human being is brutally shot dead, we share your outrage. The shock and grief of her loss is still very raw. It has been a month: the thought of thanksgiving is far away. But we are here to give thanks for Shireen's life and work. We are here to help ensure that her name - and the names of the other journalists who have been killed covering Israel and Palestine are never, ever forgotten."
"Let us pray: Loving God our refuge and our strength we remember with thanksgiving Shireen our beloved sister…"
Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen's niece, sent a video message. "As everyone knows Shireen was the voice of Palestine - she was dedicated to uncovering the crimes of Israel. She was one of the people. She went to every corner of Palestine and she covered every angle of Palestine. She continued to uncover the crimes of Israel when [Israeli police] attacked her funeral at the French Hospital" in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem. "They attacked her pall-bearers and were trying to drop her casket." But "the people of Palestine were steadfast. They carried her on he shoulders in the same way she carried their voices for the past 25 years," Lina said.
"As a family," Lina declared, "we will continue to seek justice - to hold Israel accountable for its crimes."
Shireen, Lina reported, "was a very optimistic person." When they talked of the occupation she would speak of when it will be over. "I hope there will be justice for Shireen. I thank you for your efforts to get justice for Shireen."
The Reverend Chris Rose, now of the Amos Trust, read a prayer written by Father Shafiq Abouzayd of the Melkite Church in London, who was sadly unable to attend.
Ali Samoudi is a journalist based in Jenin. He was working with Shireen on 11 May and was shot in the back - and survived. Twenty years ago he was blown into the air by a shell close to the same spot on the edge of Jenin refugee camp - which is now becoming known as "the journalist's tree" for the memorial to Shireen there. He told the congregation - as translated by Reem Kelani - "I've known Shireen for over 20 years. I remember he for her courage and her love. She was a true professional."
Najwan Simri was a colleague and thanked us "for commemorating Shireen's voice and life. I speak from Jerusalem, the city she loved." It wouldn't do Shireen justice to say that we were friends because for me we were more than that. When I was a new producer we used to spend days away from base, whether we were covering clashes at the Gaza border on in Lebanon. Shireen became the closest person to me… we used to cry together and laugh together."
"For me," Najwan said, "they have killed a mother who was always there. I came from the north of Palestine and left my family and my childhood friends. Shireen gave me a second family.
"Surely you all know how great she was - a professional and a distinguished one at that. She was an anchor, she gave a refuge whenever we needed one. She was humble and had a composure and a kind if inner peace that is difficult for many to reach.
"The only thing that I can do in her absence to say how special she is, is to say that a person is significant by their presence - Shireen is significant by her absence. I pray to god that justice will be serve. But if there were true justice she would not have been killed in the first place."
Dr Nadia Nasser Najjab told us of her friendship with Shireen. "She was a role model for young Palestinian women. When we met in Palestine we were constantly interrupted by young Palestinian girls who wanted to say that they wanted to be like her.
"She had real ability to intervene when there were misunderstandings arose between her friends. Another friend and I used to refer to her as 'our diplomatic friend'.
"Shireen spoke the truth... My fond memories of our times together are now tinged with anger. We must continue - without Shireen."
Mina Harballou is a presenter for Al Jazeera in London. "We are still in shock and asking for answers as to why a female journalist would be killed by the same people that attacked mourners at her funeral. The rights that journalists enjoy in this country we don't see when we are attacked by an apartheid state... Despite all this she kept her composure to report. She had to deal with the emotional side of it - hearing the heartbreaking stories of her own people.
"No journalist should ever go through this in this day and age. Shireen story is every Palestinian journalist's story."
The Reverend Alison Joyce concluded: "We remember a woman of character and courage; a consummate professional and a remarkable human being much loved and greatly respected by all who knew her.
"We pray for peace and justice in our world especially in the land to whose people Shireen dedicated her life." And she had a message to journalists: "Rejecting alike the half-truth that deceives and slanted words that corrupt. … so that when all is said and done we may meet Thee unashamed."
During the service a minute's silence was held to remember 46 journalists killed in the occupied Palestinian territories since 2000.
We heard music sung by the choir of St Bride's; Heal composed and performed on the oud by Joseph Tawadros; and The Singer Said, a setting of words by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish by singer Reem Kelani.
At a reception following the memorial service Mohammed Jamil of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK thanked us for coming "to honour Shireen and all other Palestinian journalists killed." He made a "promise to use all possible means until your killers are brought to justice". He observed that "Shireen has become a permanent icon of the truth" and challenged the International Criminal Court to "wake from your sleep - you have long ignored the multitude of the crimes committed in occupied Palestinian territories by the brutal occupation - you still have not launched an investigation into Shireen's killing - and the Palestinian have been waiting for almost 74 years but no action has been taken."
Peter Oborne, late of the Daily Telegraph, "never had the joy and the blessing of knowing Shireen but from afar I had the blessing of seeing someone giving truthful testimony." He wanted to "reflect for a second about how we can as journalists honour her legacy of truth-telling. Perhaps... when we see someone shot dead by an Israeli sniper in future we can say that they were killed, not that they 'died in clashes' - and we can not say that there were 'clashes' but that there was an assault.
"We owe it to the legacy of Shireen to ask the same questions about the killings of those other Palestinian journalists who were not US citizens - and about Israeli journalists for that matter - and not just killing of Palestinian journalists but those of Palestinians who have been shot dead, unarmed, innocent. We cannot let those deaths go: we have to ask the hard searching questions about those killings if we are to honour the great legacy that Shireen has left us.
"The British government has not even demanded an investigation at this stage. If we do not press powerfully for one then we journalists become complicit in the death of Shireen and of so many others."
Dr Nadia Nasser Najjab recalled that "Shireen was unique and nobody can ever aspire to be her. She was committed, compassionate and determined to share the experiences inflicted on the marginalised. She was respected across the Palestine divide.
"Last time we spoke, the week before she was killed... we discussed a report on Palestine - she said she 'would have liked to have worked on it but I am too busy with Jenin'... The last book we discussed was about Mossad targeted assassinations...
"Shireen enriched my life... I still cannot get over her assassination. This is too much. Of course she is not the first and will not be the last one killed by the Israeli army - but I hope that her fate will be the trigger to hold Israel accountable not only for her killing but for all."
Shireen, Nadia recalled, "insisted always to go herself to the areas she had to report on... I remember a day when she had to wake at 3am to go to the Jordan valley to report on the Palestinian workers who travel to work in Israel." They have to rise at the same time to pass through Israeli checkpoints to get to work. "Shireen's report showed that the Israeli army prevented Al Jazeera journalists from driving to the place - so they walked to report on the workers' suffering."
Tira Shubart, Chair of the Rory Peck Trust, noted that "never again must we meet in these circumstances" But "we've heard that before. Journalists must have a means to keep themselves safe not just physically but psychologically." She set out the work of the Trust "supporting freelances worldwide - with bursaries for hostile environment training; a bespoke helpdesk; and a resilience programme including fully-funded trauma management workshops." Journalists suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can apply for grants and bursaries.
The Trust has supported a number of journalists during covid - "and journalists in exile, of whom there are many more after this last year in Afghanistan." It has been able to ship body armour to freelance journalists in Ukraine. "We don't want to have to have a gathering like this again ."
Rhys Davis, a barrister at Temple Garden Chambers, discussed the legal remedies that exist "so that we can have a deterrent in place and accountability." Of course "it's a matter of political will to ensure that those are used."
"There is no doubt that to deliberately target a journalist in these circumstances is a war crime. The most obvious route is to the International Criminal Court (ICC) - "we have to wait to see what happens with the complaints" launched by the International Federation of Journalists and by Al Jazeera.
Also, "because Shireen was a US citizen, and a journalist, there are statutory provisions in the US to bring civil cases. We recall the Marie Colvin case that resulted in significant damages against Syria." And "it's easy for the US to call for an independent investigation - which it can control." States do have "the option of imposing sanctions against those responsible."
Yasmine Ahmed is UK Director of Human Rights Watch. She promised that "we will continue to bear witness and we will continue to fight for accountability. Multiple independent investigations point to Israeli forces having gunned down Shireen." Israeli forces "have a long track record of covering up".
The ICC was set up "precisely to address cases like this. An investigation is crucial to its credibility. It should not have taken the death of Shireen for the time to come - but it has come. It is no longer an option that there is impunity" for such crimes.
"Every time there is another death of a journalist it takes away something from our hearts and our souls - justice for Shireen and for all will be forever at the top of our agenda."
Jeremy Corbyn, Independent Member of Parliament for Islington North, concluded by saying that "the service in the church was absolutely beautiful." He "noted a majority of women present in memory of a woman Palestinian journalist."
"Shireen gave her life," he said, "because she was a dedicated journalist - dedicated to ensuring that the voice of the Palestinian people could be heard. It is a terrible loss. We also have to remember the other 45 journalists" killed covering this conflict.
"Just think," Jeremy enjoined us, "what it is like growing up under occupation, knowing that on your way to school or your way to work you have to go through a checkpoint. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Human Rights Watch have called it what it is: an apartheid state, in which settler-only roads take settlers to the best land and the best water.
"The occupation must end," Jeremy concluded: "I have talked with human rights activists in Israel who think the same."