The funeral of the Palestinian AlJazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh on 11 May, drawing tens of thousands of mourners in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, was reminiscent of Yasser Arafat, the global symbol of the Palestinian liberation movement for many decades, in 2004.
Perhaps it was not as huge in terms of the bereavement and the size of the crowd that turned out for Arafat’s last journey, but in their final farewell to their beloved TV reporter it was certainly another moment for the Palestinians under Israeli occupation to show their strong sentiments of nationalism.
For the Palestinians, the cold-blooded murder of the veteran journalist and the Israeli police’s brutal assault on her funeral was another sign that the prospect of a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict is more remote today than at any time in the last seven decades.
Moreover, scenes of the ruthless crackdown on mourners during Abu Akleh’s funeral flickering across the world’s TV screens have consolidated Israel’s image abroad not only as an abusive colonial power but also as an anti-democractic regime that fits into broader trends of regional authoritarianism.
Abu Akleh, 51, was shot dead in Jenin, a city considered to be a stronghold of militant Palestinians. She was there to report on a raid by Israeli military and security forces on a refugee camp. She was wearing a helmet and protective vest that clearly identified her as a member of the press.
Israeli government leaders have oscillated between first denying that its army soldiers were behind the killing and then by seeking to blame armed Palestinians for the death of the journalist.
However, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Abu Akleh was apparently struck by a 5.56 mm bullet, probably fired from an M16 rifle, a main combat weapon used by Israeli soldiers.
The Associated Press news agency quoted a statement by an Israeli army official on Thursday, who said that a soldier’s rifle had been located that was thought to have been used in the killing of the AlJazeera journalist.
Video footage of the moment Abu Akleh, wearing a helmet and a protective jacket labelled “press,” was shot dead has been shared online showing that those around her were shouting warnings that an Israeli sniper was firing at them.
Abu Akleh’s funeral in East Jerusalem two days later, which drew crowds reckoned in the thousands, was assailed by Israeli police, crushing many mourners in the throng.
Israeli riot police attacked Abu Akleh’s casket and pushed and shoved mourners outside a Jerusalem hospital. They fired tear gas as people tried to carry her coffin in a customary procession to the cemetery, and they tried to disperse crowds carrying Palestinian flags and chanting Palestinian slogans.
Both the murder of Abu Akleh and the crackdown on her funeral have been received by grief, shock, and indignation worldwide, with many governments and international groups demanding a “thorough” and “transparent” investigation into her killing.
But the Israeli army, adamant in its use of shoot-to-kill rules of engagement in the occupied Palestinian territories, has refused to probe Abu Akleh’s killing, which many say may constitute a war crime.
The army’s Military Police Criminal Investigation Division said it did not plan to investigate the fatal shooting of the Palestinian-American journalist, reportedly acting on fears of condemnation by its commanders.
Abu Akleh’s murder and the attack on her funeral have put Israel in the spotlight over atrocities against the Palestinians at a time of increasing tensions in the West Bank and escalating violence.
Inside Israel, the ruling coalition was jolted as an Arab lawmaker quit, leaving embattled Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in control of a crumbling minority government.
In a letter to the coalition, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the left-wing Meretz Party cited police aggression at Abu Akleh’s funeral and the Israeli police crackdown on Palestinians among other factors as the reason for her resignation.
Her resignation has underscored the difficulty Arab Israelis face in participating in Israeli politics, as successive Israeli governments continue with their systematic cruelty towards the Palestinians that many now equate with racism and apartheid.
Even after Zoabi decided to rejoin the bloc to give Bennett’s government another chance, the current coalition which has brought Arabs and Jews into the government for the first time in decades will remain fragile as Israeli Arab lawmakers could give up any time and throw up their hands in despair.
Twice before, Arab Israeli parties backed Israeli governments in the 1950s and 1990s, but for many among the two million Arabs in Israel the escalation of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is causing them to wonder whether Israel is indeed a mixed state and if they can live together with the Jews.
Across the world, and even among many of its traditional supporters, Israel has come under harsh criticism over the death of Abu Akleh. While some have slammed her killing as an “affront to media freedom everywhere,” others have condemned Israel’s continuous mistreatment of the Palestinians.
Abu Akleh’s death has dealt a massive blow to Israel’s public image as tension with the Palestinians continues to rise and potential conflict grows amid Israel’s constant rejection of peace efforts and its insistence on keeping to the status quo.
Significantly, the tragic death of Abu Akleh has also badly impacted the normalisation of relations between some Arab countries and Israel, which had quickened recently with diplomatic and trade exchanges.
Israel’s repeated encroachment at Al-Aqsa Mosque and its continuous policy of annexation and harsh measure against the Palestinians such as house demolition and indiscriminate punishment have dealt serious setback for better relations with the Arab world.
The waves of revulsion that followed the killings of Abu Akleh and mounting anger over Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians on social media are adversely affecting attitudes among the Arab general public towards normalisation.
For the first time in more than a decade, Egyptian activists and political figures gathered last week at a meeting in Cairo to condemn Israel. Participants at the gathering at the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate demanded international organisations probe Abu Akleh’s murder and Israel’s “other crimes” against the Palestinians.
The long-term consequences of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians are coming into focus after Abu Akleh’s murder. The Palestinians have humiliated Israel by remaining steadfast, and Israel’s aggression continues to lessen the advantages of normalisation, especially with Arab public opinion.
As the myth of Israeli democracy started to crumble with its dismal treatment of the Palestinians under its occupation and its normalisation agreements were revealed as doing nothing to serve democracy in the region, Israel is increasingly being exposed as simply another enemy of democracy and human rights in the Middle East.
One glaring example of Israel’s efforts to undermine regional democracy has been its sale of Pegasus spyware to governments tracking smartphones belonging to journalists and human rights activists in countries that have recently normalised relations with Israel.
Today, Israel is seen as a force of colonialisation that while it continues to impose capitulation on the Palestinians, is playing an expansive role in rolling back movements for democratisation in the Arab world, all the while serving its occupation and domination strategies.
Despite its military might and enormous political and diplomatic influence worldwide, Israel is gradually emerging as the loser, however, with its attempts to break its isolation and impose hegemony on the region risking a dim future.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.