It has been over two weeks since Palestinian reporter for Al Jazeera, Shireen Abu Aqleh, was shot and killed by Israeli regime forces. Although at the time, Western media would have had you believe otherwise.
Headlines circulated claiming that Shireen had died in clashes between the Israeli regime army and Palestinian ‘gunmen.’ Palestinians passively dying, as opposed to being killed by the Israeli regime army, is a standard trope pedalled by the Western media. It is a framing that Judith Butler writes about in Frames of War which allows for certain lives to be grieved and others not—because it is just what happens to them. In other words, for much of the Western media, Palestinians simply die. This use of the passive voice obscures from the reality of a deadly regime of violence.
The Israeli regime is directly responsible for Shireen’s death. Along with a group of fellow journalists, Shireen had been in Jenin, covering an Israeli military raid, when they came under fire from Israeli snipers. Shireen was shot in the head and another journalist, Ali Al Samoudi, was shot in the back. She had been wearing protective clothing including a press jacket and a helmet. The sniper shot her in an exposed area below her ear. In other words, the shot was very precise and clearly intended to inflict fatal damage. Shatha Hanaysha, another journalist who was standing next to Shireen when she was shot said ‘They only shot when one of us moved’.
The Israeli regime immediately claimed that Shireen had been killed by ‘Palestinian militant’ fire. They then back peddled and claimed that it was impossible to ascertain who shot Shireen as she had been caught in a gun battle. In addition to the eye witness testimonies of Shatha and the other journalists and civilians that were in the area, there has since been several videos released that reveal quite clearly that there was no such gun battle. The footage shows, to the contrary, that the scene had been relaxed. Shireen and the other journalists had been standing around casually before the shots were fired.
Regardless, the Israeli regime announced in an official statement that there would be no criminal investigation into the killing of Shireen. It continues to argue that Shireen had been killed in ‘an active combat situation’ and that the Israeli soldiers testified to the fact that they had not targeted Shireen. This is not unexpected from the Israeli regime, indeed rarely do they investigate their own soldiers for killing Palestinians. Despite Israel’s attempts to whitewash Shireen’s killing, there are growing international calls for an independent investigation including from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Even with an independent investigation, Palestinians know that accountability is unlikely thanks to decades of Israeli regime impunity. Palestinian civilians, including journalists, are routinely killed without any consequences. The Palestinian Journalist Syndicate has long documented this—since the occupation of the 1967 territories, the Israeli regime has killed an estimated 86 Palestinian journalists. More than half of those were killed since the year 2000.
Indeed, prior to Shireen’s killing by a few weeks, a complaint was submitted by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS) and the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) about the systematic targeting of Palestinians journalists by the Israeli regime. The complaint comes after decades of documentation and focuses on four cases, that of Ahmed Abu Hussein, Yaser Murtaja, Muath Amarneh, and Nedal Eshtayeh.
The first two were killed by Israeli snipers and the latter two were seriously injured and maimed, all while covering demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank. Like Shireen, all of them were wearing clearly-marked press jackets. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry has now announced that it has formally asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Shireen’s killing.
This pursuit of justice at the ICC is not new, indeed Palestinians have sought accountability through this international body for over a decade. In 2009, Palestinian officials submitted a request for the West Bank and Gaza be considered under the ICC’s jurisdiction. After several years of deliberation, this was rejected on the basis that Palestine was not recognised as a state by the UN.
In November 2012, Palestine was admitted to the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state and subsequently exceeded to a number of international treaties, including the ICC’s Rome Statutes. On February 5 2021, the ICC pretrial chamber decided, by a majority, that the court may exercise its criminal jurisdiction in the ‘situation in Palestine’ with the territorial scope of this jurisdiction extending to Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. This gave way for the former ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to launch an investigation a month later into suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the West Bank and Gaza.
While many felt that this was grounds to celebrate, others remained sceptical, noting the institutional limitations of the ICC itself. For example, the ICC does not investigate regimes themselves but rather individual crimes committed by them. Additionally, there is a temporal scope to the ICC’s investigation—in the case of Palestine, it is 2014. And most crucially, the ICC has geographic limitations—it only extends its jurisdiction to Gaza and the West Bank, not all of colonised Palestine.
This latter limitation is not surprising considering that the international law framework limits Palestinian territory to that which was occupied in 1967, not 1948. Beyond this, the political landscape in which the ICC operates is a challenging one. We know that it continues to come under pressure from outside actors when it comes to investigations into Israeli war crimes. During the Trump administration, several ICC members were placed under US sanctions in direct response to investigations into Israel and US war crimes in Afghanistan. The US’s current administration has also voiced its opposition to the ICC investigation into Israeli war crimes, on the grounds that ‘the Palestinians do not qualify as a sovereign state’.
Considering all of this, the chances of holding the Israeli regime accountable at the ICC for the killing of Shireen and others is highly unlikely. This is why it cannot be the only avenue that should be pursued in the search for justice. More serious measures are needed that target the regime in its entirety for its subjugation and oppression of the Palestinian people. These measures include those adopted by the Palestinian-led Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Indeed, justice will come one day but it will be Palestinians that bring it about.